As I sat in the grassy courtyard of the Retro Motel in Cortez, Colorado, the quaint motel’s name struck a chord. It dawned on me that “retro” may be the theme of this western Colorado motorcycle ride. Merriam-Webster defines “retro” as something “fashionably nostalgic.” That seemed fitting as I contemplated a loop ride that would take me deep into the Rocky Mountains and through some of western Colorado’s iconic towns. The most famous of these towns are deeply rooted in frontier history but have since taken on the upscale air of ski-chic and Western high fashion.
After a slug of coffee and a nibble of the motel’s grab-n-go breakfast, I headed north out of Cortez on State Route 145. In no time, I was rolling through the tiny town of Dolores. From there, I began a beautiful ride that follows the Dolores River for a long stretch and gains elevation. The route is a pleasant mix of short straights and sweeping corners.
As I parted ways with the clear waters of the Dolores, the corners tightened and the air cooled. After a spirited ride, I motored into the historic silver mining town of Rico, which was settled in 1879 and still boasts impressive historic structures for such a tiny place. I dropped a kickstand at the town hall and the community church, both of which were constructed in the early 1890s and are remarkably well-preserved.
I had gained almost 3,000 feet in elevation in the 50-mile ride from Cortez, and the mid-September leaves were changing on the winding road out of Rico. The road coiled even more as I rolled through the vibrant greens of the western Rockies.
Rockin’ in the Rockies
This isn’t the first time I’ve been in this area, and memories occupied my thoughts as I made the short jaunt into Telluride. The Victorian silver mining town, which sits in an impressive box canyon, was founded around the same time as Rico. The area’s economy has shifted from mining to skiing and tourism. Telluride is now distinctively upscale while retaining its Victorian charm. I rode past high-end boutiques peddling their pricey wares from within historic brick facades.
My reminiscing hit full tilt as I made it to Telluride Town Park, where my wife and I attended the Ride Music Festival a couple of years back. The setting is amazing, with a precipitous tree-covered mountain face as a backdrop behind the permanent concert stage. All the town’s festivals are held in this must-attend venue for music lovers. One of my favorite festival memories was listening to Pearl Jam fill the box canyon with their soaring melodic riffs. On my most recent visit, Frisbees and softballs filled the air, but I could almost hear Eddie Vedder still echoing in the evergreens.
I climbed out of Telluride to the northwest. It was good to be out of the congestion and back on the curvaceous tarmac of western Colorado. The traffic picked back up as I approached the city of Delta. After making it though the slow-and-go, I headed northeast toward Aspen.
This stretch is mountain motorcycling at its best. Tight curves and relaxed sweepers are the rule here, and the Rockies, which were snow-laced at the time, make the perfect backdrop. The road’s condition was remarkably good considering the weather extremes in this area. I had to slalom around the occasional pothole, but that is about it.
It was on this leg that I happened upon one of those “happy surprises” on a motorcycle tour. From a distance, I saw what looked like rows of mud nests made by cliff swallows – except much bigger. As I got closer, it was clear the structures were man-made and much more uniform. It turns out I was riding alongside the historic Redstone coke ovens. These brick-lined ovens were built in 1899 and were used to burn the impurities out of coal to produce “coke” for use in steel production. Fascinating stuff.
Western Colorado Motorcycle Ride? Or High Plains Drifting?
I gassed up in Carbondale, which is the northernmost point on this loop ride, and then headed southeast on State Route 82. The road here was not what I had expected. Most of this stretch heading to Aspen opens up into what you might expect on the high plains of Wyoming. There are amazing views, as much of the area is wide open or lined with only intermittent lower vegetation. It was a relaxed and entertaining stretch on this last portion of the day’s riding.
As I rolled into Aspen, I couldn’t help but think of that ridiculous scene from the movie Dumb and Dumber when Jim Carrey and Jeff Daniels are nearly frozen solid when they ride into town. Thankfully, I was not on a minibike, and my gear was much more appropriate.
Aspen is a ski, shopping, and outdoor recreation mecca in the Rockies. Ski slopes lead from the surrounding mountains and seemingly terminate directly on the town’s main street, which is lined with stately buildings dating back to the 1800s that are impressive in both their size and architecture. After a short ride crisscrossing the roads of Aspen’s historic district, I unpacked the panniers at my lodging for the night. The Aspen Mountain Lodge was clean and comfortable, and its bubbling hot tub was just the thing to shed the day’s miles from my lower back.
My September evening walk through Aspen was an interesting mix of history, excess, and mountain charm. I strolled past families frolicking in the town’s park, women wearing outfits that likely cost more than my motorcycle, and the delightfully eclectic mix of structures throughout the town. After a couple of slices of gourmet pizza and a local brew, I settled back into my room for the night.
The Ride to Independence
I awoke the next day with a smile because I would get to ride one of the most thrilling roads in the Southwest, which culminates in the thin air and sweeping vistas of Independence Pass. With bags packed and fuel topped off, I headed southeast deeper into the Rockies.
Almost immediately after leaving Aspen’s city limits, the road coils into a narrow black ribbon of entertainment. The climb is steep, and the traffic is refreshingly sparse. At times, the road narrows to a single paved lane. The skeletal remains of the area’s mining heyday rise from the undulating grasslands. Spire-like evergreens reach stoically skyward, and snow traces the gray rock peaks like the marbled fat on a good steak.
Before I knew it, I was there. The road cresting the tundra above the tree line led me to signage indicating I had reached Independence Pass. At an elevation of 12,095 feet, the summit is the highest paved pass in Colorado (but not the highest paved road; that honor belongs to Mount Evans at 14,130 feet, located about 70 miles to the northeast). I was happy that I was on a fuel-injected BMW GS, as this elevation would be rough on a carbureted bike.
After the requisite photos and a moment to breathe in what little oxygen this elevation provided, I came down from the pass.
The other side of the summit was every bit as thrilling as the climb. Hairpins nearly as tight as those you’d find on a bathroom vanity abound. It’s a 1st-gear descent for the first few miles past Independence Pass, and the views are spectacular.
Eventually, the turns relaxed until I reached one of the few straight stretches on the loop. After that, I headed southwest on U.S. Route 160. This ultimately leads to Wolf Creek Pass. Yes, that’s the one in the 1970s song by C.W. McCall. I rode down from the nearly 11,000-foot pass amid numerous warning signs about the precipitous grade and what it can do to truck brakes. There were two runaway truck ramps on the descent that spoke to the danger.
I threw down the kickstand at the viewpoint to enjoy one of the most impressive vistas on the trip. The view serves as a topographical foreshadowing of a descent through jagged rocks and vivid conifers into a grassy valley. The few miles between here and my final stopover did not disappoint.
Soaking in the Last Stop of the Western Colorado Motorcycle Ride
I entered Pagosa Springs road-weary but satisfied. This is another town rich in history but with the added draw of the steaming waters of the Mother Spring aquifer. I made my way to The Springs Resort and Spa, an upscale and visually stunning property that boasts two dozen soaking pools fed by the aquifer.
The pools range in temperature from 88-112 degrees, and all offer amazing views of the San Juan River and surrounding mountains. After sampling several of the hot pools, I retired to my comfortable suite and drifted off with visions of the day’s amazing ride dancing in my head.
All that was left of my western Colorado loop tour was a relaxing ride due west back to my starting point in Cortez. There was, however, one more iconic town left on the docket. After about 50 miles of gently curving highway, I came upon Durango.
This southern Colorado town is situated on the banks of the Animas River and, like all the others I have visited, has a rich history and well-preserved downtown area. I picked up a to-go sandwich and sat by the whitewater park to watch kayakers navigate the rapids. I put up the kickstand for the last time on the trip on the short jaunt back to Cortez.
Obviously, this is a summer ride. The extreme elevations make for an early winter and late-arriving summer. Some stretches on this route are permanently closed in the winter. Pack with the expectation of large swings in temperature and precipitation. Plan well and enjoy!