Monthly Archives: May 2015

Cycling in Summit County

The Appropriately named Summit County (Colorado) sits right in the heart of the Central Rocky Mountains.   With multiple mountain ranges extending into the County on all sides, anywhere you will travel within the County, you will be pretty much surrounded by mountains in all directions.  In fact, Summit County is one of only six counties in the entire nation with a mean elevation of over 10,000 feet.

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All six of these Counties are within the State of Colorado.  Outside of Colorado, not only are there no counties with mean elevations greater than 9,000 feet (Colorado has a total of 15), but only three counties outside of Colorado have mean elevations exceeding 8,000 feet (Colorado has 24).  Those looking to “go to the Mountains”, would be hard pressed to find a more suitable place than this one.

Summit County is probably best known as a skiing destination, with five popular ski resorts, including the incredibly popular Breckenridge and Copper Mountain.  However, it may also be one of the best places in the world for high-altitude cycling, which is important for those who train at high altitude to increase lung capacity.

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Due in part to a series of rail lines that were created during gold and silver rushes and later abandoned in subsequent bust years, the county has an extensive network of recreational pathways.    The re-purposing of abandoned railways as recreational trails is actually the source of some of the nation’s best bicycling trails.  For those interested in seeing these rails-to-trails well maintained, and seeing more created, there is an advocacy group called the rails-to-trails conservancy leading this effort.

These recreational paths connect almost all destinations within the county.  Within this network of trails, one can find relatively flat rides, as well as intense climbing, all with a variety of amazing scenery.  The network is largely centered around the town of Frisco, a town of roughly 2700 people at an elevation just under 9,100 feet.  Located just off of Interstate 70, it is a relatively easy place to get to (when there aren’t traffic delays), and as good of a place as any to use as a home base for a weekend of high altitude cycling.

My first ride of the weekend was also the toughest one, from Frisco west to Vail Pass.  This ride involves two trails, the Tenmile Canyon trail and the Vail Pass trail.  Heading Southwest from Frisco, the first few miles on the Tenmile Canyon trail includes a fairly significant amount of climbing.

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Indicative of how recreation-centric this part of the country is, the entire trail network is well marked, with signage indicating which trails lead to which towns, and a significant number of signs like this one, indicating mileage.

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This sign denotes the halfway point between Frisco and Copper Mountain.  And while the total mileage to Copper is 7.4, a cyclist that has reached this point has already done most of the climbing from Frisco’s 9,100′ elevation to Copper’s 9,800′.

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In fact, the final couple of miles of this trail, headed into Copper is pretty much flat.  But, even during this flat segment, I knew where I would be headed, which would bring me farther up into the mountains.

IMG_3474 IMG_3475With it not being ski season, and there not being an actual town there, there was not much going on in Copper Village.  Many places were closed.  The most notable thing I encountered while at Copper was a junction with both the Colorado Trail and the Continental Divide National Scenic Trail, which share the same path here.  Just the thought that anyone I encounter cycling or hiking could be headed as far as Durango, or the Mexican border, is just incredible!  At the West end of Copper Village is the Vail Pass trailhead.  Despite what is indicated in the signage, the trek from Copper to Vail Pass is actually only four miles.  Not only did I clock this myself, but a cyclist with over twenty years of experience cycling here told me that this sign has been “wrong for over 20 years”.

IMG_3476 IMG_3479The Vail Pass trail is kind of a mixed bag.  Over four miles, the trail climbs somewhere between 800 and 900 feet.  However, it is a mix of some fairly flat segments, and some fairly intense areas with switchbacks and such.  I would say there are three sections of this trail that are intense climbing.  One fairly shortly after beginning the climb from copper, one right in the middle, or about two miles from Copper (pictured here), and one close to the top.

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Strangely, most of this trail is actually in the middle of I-70, between the Eastbound and Westbound lanes, which are farther apart for much of the segment between Copper Mountain (exit 195) and the Vail Pass summit (exit 190).  The top of the trail is a rest area that cyclists share with motorists.  Here, a connection could be made with the Eagle County tail network, and cyclists could continue West towards Vail Villiage.

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However, my plans take my back towards Frisco, where, I not only encountered another sign indicating that the trail is six miles long rather than four, but a speed limit sign.  I am not sure if and how this speed limit of 25 is enforced.  But, it does provide those concerned with safety with a guideline.

The descent back to Frisco, just over 12 miles in total when one includes getting from the tailhead back to home base (in my case Hotel Frisco on Main St.) went rather rapidly, at a speed that must have averaged fairly close to that assigned speed limit.

After stopping for lunch, in the afternoon, I took on another ride to explore more of the Summit County trail system.  This one, a loop around the Dillon Reservoir.

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The ride starts out “flat”, as the trail stays at roughly the elevation of the lake.  However, “flat” here is a relative term.  Even the rides described as flat and easier, here in Summit County, can contain some rolling hills.  And, while significantly easier than a “climb”, these trails are nowhere near as flat as a trail one would find in a place like Illinois where there is pretty much no terrain change.  There are small rolling hills, as nowhere in Summit County is really flat.

After a fairly “flat” ride on the Dillon Dam recpath and the Snake River recpath, in order to traverse the entire loop around the reservoir, one must climb Swan Mountain, which is actually a 1200′ climb.

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After two significant climbs, and nearly 50 miles of exploring this amazing system of trails, I was ready to call it a day.

I did a little more exploring on Sunday, mostly on the easier trails.

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I came to really appreciate the portions of these trails that wind through the trees, often with small rolling hills.  While getting up to the top of a major climb provided me with a sense of accomplishment, these trail segments were just pleasant and enjoyable to ride through.  The smell of the pine trees reminded me of cabins, and camping, and all the things we do in life to get away from our day to day responsibilities.  The twists and turns just made me feel like I was on a ride of sorts, almost like a roller coaster in some places.  And, there were some other interesting areas, like these bogs.  In the end, I am glad I did both the big challenging climbs, and the gentler trail sections.

And, I was also glad to have experienced the town of Frisco a little bit more.

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Frisco is somewhat of an interesting place.  It has that Western feel that many of these towns have, with a Main Street lined with stores, and mountains in the backdrop.  It is somewhat touristy, but not overwhelmingly so.  It seems to occupy some kind of middle ground.  With bus service to Breckenridge, Copper Mountain, and Keystone ski resorts, they get their fair share of ski related tourism.  But, not as much as there is in Breckenridge, or any other town that is actually adjacent to the ski resort.  This appears to have created demand for a variety of different hotels and restaurants, but without some of the major crowds, or the dozens of souvenir shops that line the streets of many other tourist destinations.

Over the course of the weekend, I tried five different restaurants in Frisco; Boatyard American Grill, Begalis, Prost, Butterhorn Bakery and Cafe, and Lost Cajun.  All were within a block of Hotel Frisco, and each one provided a different experience.  Boatyard is a great place to get a burger, or bar type food.  Begalis provides a nice moderately upscale Italian dining experience.  The sausages at Prost were amazing.  Butterhorn is a very popular place for breakfast/ brunch.  And, I am particularly impressed by the free samples provided to customers at Lost Cajun prior to ordering.  And, I enjoyed the casual Louisiana style experience.

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Overall, it is hard for me to imagine a better place for high altitude bicycle training.  Right in the middle of the Rocky Mountains, there is a place with an extensive network of recreational paths that connect nearly every community in the area.

A Bizarre Memorial Day Weekend in Wyoming

IMG_3445It is hard for me to really describe a place like Glendo Reservoir in East Central Wyoming.  It feels like this place is a complete contradiction of itself.    It is in Wyoming, a mountainous State with the second highest mean elevation in the country, at 6700 feet.  Yet, this reservoir sits at a paltry 4635 feet, lower than many of the larger cities of the Rocky Mountain region.  Unlike many of the other popular destinations in Wyoming, no mountains can be seen from here.

In fact, like many lakes here in the West, this particular lake is a Reservoir, meaning it is manmade and does not naturally exist.  Glendo’s average annual precipitation is roughly 14 inches per year, which is about what one can expect anywhere on the high plains just East of the Rocky Mountains.  Lakes like this one, and the even higher profile Lake McConaughy in Western Nebraska, exist only because of hydrological dams created in the 20th Century.  To anyone not thinking about the creation of these dams and the reason for them, lakes like these appear completely out of place for a section of the country that is quite dry.  The pioneers who followed the famed Oregon Trail during the westward expansion period of the 19th Century followed this very river westward through what is now Nebraska and Eastern Wyoming.  They would have seen none of these manmade lakes that now serve as popular weekend destinations for boating and fishing enthusiasts with few other places in the region to go.

In a way, this place does not even feel like it is in Wyoming at all.  When most of us think of Wyoming, or any other Rocky Mountain State, we think of destinations that are either in the mountains, or within view of the mountains.  Most Americans understand that there is much flatter terrain in the Eastern portions of Colorado, Montana, New Mexico and Wyoming.  However, these places are dry grasslands with abundant cattle ranches and oil fields, not the kind of place one would think to bring a boat, jet skis, kayaks, and fishing poles.

IMG_3425 IMG_3427Camping at Glendo Reservoir is already a bizarre experience.  Making the experience even more bizarre was the bizarre weather.  May had already been quite wet, with rainfall totals prior to Memorial Day Weekend more than double the monthly average for nearly all of Colorado, as well as the Southern half of Wyoming.  As a result, Glendo Reservoir was roughly 94% full prior to the weekend.  All over the lake, images like these were common, with trees that typically stand on dry land temporarily underwater.  The air was far more humid, and the skies were far more cloudy than is typically the case in Eastern Wyoming.

IMG_3428 IMG_3438The cool, damp overcast weather reminded me of the Midwest as a whole, as the entire region is prone to be damp and cloudy at times.  The size of the lake, however, reminded me specifically of Wisconsin, where I would frequently spend weekends on lakes roughly this size.  Bringing boats up to the lake on summer weekends is a major part of the culture there.  And, the sand dunes and trails that surrounded the lake reminded me of some of the dunes I would typically encounter on the Lake Michigan shoreline in Indiana and Michigan.  At times, it felt impossible to even remember that I was actually in Wyoming, and not in the Midwest.

After a fairly cold night of camping, we were able to have some fun on Saturday.  After a damp, foggy start, the skies gradually cleared throughout the morning hours, and temperatures reached comfortable levels.  During this time period, we were able to do some hiking on the sandy trails around the lake, hang out at the beach (another concept that seems foreign to the state of Wyoming), and even do some kayaking.  The water was quite cold, as the Lake is fed from the North Platte River whose origins are pretty high in elevation.

The rain did not start up again until 4 P.M., which was later than some forecasts had indicated.  Unfortunately, however, once the rain started, it came down quite heavy.  In fact, it actually ended up cutting the trip short, as, well, camping in the rain can be a less than enjoyable experience at times.  However, it was not the rainfall that pounded us in the afternoon and early evening hours that made me decide to leave Glendo behind on Saturday.  It was the expectation that the rain would continue throughout most of the day on Sunday that pushed me to leave, as enduring the evening of cold, wet weather huddled inside a tent would not produce a reward.  Those who decided to press on with the trip and stay at the campground confirmed that the rain was still falling Sunday morning.

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I could be disappointed in only getting one day at the lake this weekend.  But, unfortunately, that is part of the reality of taking part in outdoor activities as a whole.  People can make all the plans they want, but, in the end, Mother Nature really does not give a shit about whatever plans have been made.  The Earth, the sun, the air, and wildlife move about in a manner that we cannot truly control.  The best thing we can do is be prepared for it, both in the sense of remaining safe in adverse conditions, and in a way that allows us to use our most precious resource of all, our time, in a more optimal manner.

Thus, I decided to head back to Denver (home), where prospects for Monday, the final day of Memorial Day weekend, appeared better.  The decision proved to be the right one, as Monday morning was pleasant, and it did not rain until after 4 P.M.  I was able to get a solid bike ride in well before the onset of rain.

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Life is full of unexpected experiences.  Nobody expects it to rain nearly every day in this part of the country, creating lakes where they typically don’t exist.  I did not expect to encounter a lake in the middle of nowhere in Eastern Wyoming or Western Nebraska.  And, people are often surprised that some of the people they meet like certain food, or genres of music that do not match their upbringing.  But, these anomalous experiences do happen, and happen quite frequently.  When we make expectations in life, we need to account for, and prepare for, uncertainty.

Mud Season

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“Mud Season” is a term used to describe a time of year when a combination of melting snow and frequent rain can cause the ground to become muddy for an extended period of time.  The term originated in Northern New England to describe the first part of Spring in Maine, New Hampshire, and Vermont, when rural dirt roads are significantly tougher to pass through.  It is now used quite extensively in the Rocky Mountains as well.  Here, “mud season” refers to the time period between ski season and the onset of summer activities; basically most of April and May.  With a drier climate, Rocky Mountain “mud season” is not nearly as muddy as its New England counterpart.  But, the lull in activity produces similar results.

“Mud season”, no matter where you are physically located, is the outdoor recreation equivalent of a matinee movie showing, a red-eye flight, or well liquor.  Those who chose to travel during this time of year are rewarded with significantly cheaper hotel rates, much less traffic to contend with, and campgrounds that are significantly emptier.  However, as is the case with any other off-peak event, there is reduced demand for a reason.  And, there are tradeoffs.  Matinee moviegoers are giving up greater opportunities than those who pay more to see a movie at night, a red-eye flight can mess up sleep schedules, and well liquor can produce significantly worse hangovers.

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The main reason camp sites are easier to come by here in the Central Rocky Mountains in late April/ early May is that, at 10,000 feet in elevation, conditions are still not optimal.  This past weekend, both Friday and Saturday nights saw temperatures drop below the freezing mark.  Camping in these conditions is far less comfortable.  It necessitates chopping more firewood, packing more layers, and sometimes even breaking camp with frost on top of your tent!

In my case, there were plenty of people around to handle campfire preparation.  This particular camping excursion was actually a multi-day birthday party.  And, at some point Saturday evening, there was around 20 people at the campfire.  It was a strange mix, being in a remote, secluded area away from civilization, but also being at a major social gathering.  We were out of cell phone range, miles from any town, and a significant distance from the nearest other campers, but also using battery powered speakers to play music at a significant volume.  It was a truly amazing experience!  I got to both be around a large group of people, but also wander into the woods and collect my thoughts in perfect silence, all in the same day!

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Social gatherings of these kinds are always somewhat of a balancing act.  At any social gathering like this, you will find people that will fit into the following three categories:

First, there are the people you are solidly friends with.  You have seen them sometime recently.  You have your shared experiences, your silly jokes and the like.  Most likely you have some kind of plan to see them again.  Maybe you coordinated rides with them, or even lost a silly bet on a basketball game several weeks ago.  That is what happened to me, and why I had to wear this silly sombrero for most of the weekend!

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In the second category are people who you know, but not terribly well yet.  These are the people you would typically describe as “friends of friends”.  You’ve definitely had some experience with them.  They showed up at the bar last weekend, or the last house party you attended.  You’ve hung out with them, conversed, danced, played games at various intoxication levels.  And, maybe someday in the future someone in this category will eventually be a good friend.  But, with people in this category, the next time you will see them will be at another event coordinated by your mutual friends.

And, finally, there are the people you are meeting for the first time ever.

A balance needs to be had.  I find it important to engage with people that would fit into all three of these categories over the course of the evening.  You need to enjoy your time with your friends, but also be open to letting more people into your life.  It’s about sharing in the activities you know, reliving the experiences you have had, and continuing the ongoing jokes you already share, but also trying new activities, exploring new ideas, and creating new jokes in your circle.

I dabbled in the old, as well as the new.  I even tried, once again, and failed, once again, at mastering the art of wood chopping.  That silly sombrero I had to wear did not help.

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Let’s be honest, my form here, it looks terrible, and look at all of those silly little chunks of wood that ended up splattered all over the place.  At least the activity kept me warm.

As is the case with any off-peak activity, there are some cases to take either side of tradeoff.  Someone who works a non traditional schedule may financially benefit from seeing a cheaper matinee movie.  A red-eye flight may be a more efficient use of time for someone capable of dozing off on an airplane.  And, well liquor could be a good cheaper alternative for someone whose plan for the following day does not necessitate being alert.  During “mud season” in the Rockies, hotels are cheaper and camp sites are far easier to come by.  It is also way easier to find both privacy and seclusion.  To get to a place that is truly peaceful, one must travel less distance, and often spend less time in traffic to get there.  Therefore, for those not looking to mountain bike, climb a tall mountain, or use muddy trails, it may be worth the trade-off to come up to the Rocky Mountains during “mud season”.  And, like the person who is capable of falling asleep on an airplane, or those who work non-traditional schedules, some are more adept at handling the cold nights of “mud season”.

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Like this Siberian Husky, who, if anything, feels at home in chillier conditions, there are off-peak opportunities out there for nearly any activity one engages in.  And, those who figure out the ones that are right for them, can save money, time and hassle.