Tag Archives: front range

Cycling from Colorado Springs to Denver

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It started with a two hour bus ride, from Denver to Colorado Springs, on something called the Bustang. Bustang is a pretty good service for cyclists in Colorado, as each bus has bike racks on the front. It would be a great service with more schedule options. For anyone thinking of making this journey, the only real option is the 7:35 A.M. departure from Denver, which arrived in downtown Colorado Springs just after 9:30.

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Colorado Springs is an interesting town. People who think about Colorado Springs often think about one of two things; its affiliation with Christian conservative causes, as it is where Focus on the Family is headquartered, and Pike’s Peak, the mountain that towers over the city to the west.

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Pike’s Peak is actually only the 20th tallest peak in the State. Yet, it is often amongst the most visited and talked about because, compared to many of Colorado’s other mountains, it is relatively isolated.

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Perhaps most importantly, Colorado Springs is among the most active and fittest cities in America.

This was apparent as I began to pedal north from downtown Colorado Springs. The Pike’s Peak Greenway, was quite crowded for much of the journey, with joggers, packs of runners, and other cyclists.

At the northern border of Colorado Springs, the Pike’s Peak Greenway connects to the New Santa Fe Trail. Both of these trails are part of a long term plan to create what is being called the Front Range Trail, a network of trails that will eventually cross the entire state from the Wyoming border to the New Mexico border, through many of Colorado’s most populated cities. Sings for the Front Range Trail have already been put in place here.

For some riders, the New Santa Fe Trail has the potential to be the roughest part of the ride. Much of it is both uphill, and unpaved. It also runs right through the property of the United States Air Force Academy.

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Many sections of it are quite rough, probably more suitable for mountain bikes than road or touring bikes. Along this stretch, there were about half a dozen instances where I had to dismount and walk my bike for a short distance.

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It was still a beautiful place to bike. The trail cuts through fields of Piñon Pines, and Monument Creek creates some picturesque mini-cliffs in front of the mountains.

However, although the journey up the hill is actually quite subtle, with no switchbacks or steep climbs, it did take more time and energy than anticipated to get to Palmer Lake, the high point of the trip, at an elevation of about 7,300 feet (2225 m).

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The next part of the ride was my favorite, north along Perry Park Road. This section is mostly downhill, but with some rolling hills. It was a wonderful 25 mile per hour ride on a smooth road, with bright blue skies, wide open spaces, rock formations popping out on both sides around every turn, and a light cooling breeze.

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There are a few route options at this point, and following Perry Park Road as long as I did, a little over 10 miles to Tomah Road, does bypass the town of Larkspur. I found it worthwhile, as I was enjoying the ride, but it does mean a total of about 20 miles between towns.

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Turning East, Tomah Road was actually the most challenging climb on the entire ride. The total climb is pretty small, from about 6200 feet to just over 6800. However, that climb occurred in less than two miles, and can be unexpected, as Castle Rock is at 6200 feet and this climb came from one of the subtle terrain features east of the Rocky Mountains.

After climbing and descending Tomah Road, the route was follows the Frontage Road along I-25 for about four miles into Castle Rock. Despite it being right next to the interstate, the road was quite crowded, and with no shoulder. It was probably the least enjoyable part of the ride.

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This was also where I struggled the most. It was the hottest part of the day, and after the unanticipated challenges, I began to doubt whether or not I could complete the ride. In these situations, it is usually good to stop and take a rest. The additional time it took on the unpaved trail up Monument Hill had set me back at least half an hour, but I definitely needed a rest, a snack, and, most importantly, I had a coke.

Maybe it was the caffeine, maybe it was the sugar, but the coke re-energized me, and I was back on my way.

Crawfoot Valley Road, the road that connects Castle Rock and Parker was surprisingly crowded. It is a good thing there is a wide enough shoulder for bikes. This area is growing quite rapidly, and seems to get busier every time I ride this segment.

My next burst of energy was actually mental, which is usually the battle we are actually facing when we decide to undertake physical challenges like this. In Parker, the route connects to the Cherry Creek Trail, an amazing trail that is fun, well kept, and mostly flat.

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From here, it is 30 miles to downtown Denver. This sign (the Cherry Creek Trail has one every 1/2 a mile, but this is the first one I saw when I joined the trail) felt like a welcoming of sorts, to the home stretch. The final 30 miles of the trip would feel like a victory lap.

I knew there was only one real climb remaining, the part where the trail goes around the Cherry Creek Reservoir.

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It reminded me of this weird place we often find ourselves in life, where we know some sort of “victory” is coming. We can sense it on the horizon. We are anticipating it. However, it is not there yet. There is still some amount of work that needs to be done, and there is still some things that can go wrong.

Is it too soon to start feeling good about ourselves? Can we start celebrating something that is “about” to happen? Or, do we remain cautious and diligent, understanding that although we feel we deserve this victory, it has not yet happened, and it is still not yet time to celebrate?

That was how the final 30 miles felt for me. The first half went by fast. However, as I got closer and closer, anticipation increased, and this “homestretch” seemed to drag on.

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At that point, there really is no choice but to pound out that final ten miles, with those mixed emotions. I knew I had persevered, ended up having to take on more than expected, and would arrive at home triumphant that I had ridden my bike from Colorado Springs to Denver. However, I would have to keep pedaling those last few miles before I could check that box off my internally kept bucket list.

The History of the Rocky Mountains

IMG_1691 (1)Many travelers are motivated to visit a variety of destinations by intellectual curiosity; Curiosity about culture, people and history. Curiosity about nature, science, and how our planet works. Unique natural features, such as Arches National Park and the Badlands, always make me wonder. How did this these distinct features come to be? Why can this be seen on this little section of our planet and seemingly not everywhere else? Is there anything similar, anywhere else?

This leads us back to history; history that pre-dates human beings. The geological processes that produced the colors, shapes and terrain we admire often occur over multiple millions of years. Some even pre-date any of our mammalian ancestors. Over the course of any one person’s lifespan, it is highly unlikely that any changes in our natural world resulting from geological processes will be noticeable. Nonetheless, geological processes can manifest themselves in some rather explosive ways, including earthquakes, volcanoes and sinkholes.

All this is true of unique natural features like Old Faithful Geyser in Yellowstone National Park, as well as the ring of volcanoes in places like Iceland and Hawaii. This is also true of the larger natural feature that in many ways defines life in Western North America; The Rocky Mountains.

As it turns out, the Rocky Mountains, as far as mountain ranges go, are quite unique.

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This past weekend, Drs. Robert Anderson and Lon Abbott of the University of Colorado-Boulder, lead a group of people up Sugarloaf Mountain to examine the geological history of the Rocky Mountains. This event was put on by the TEDxMileHigh organization as one of their adventures.

Sugarloaf Mountain is a relatively easy hike 15 minutes West of Boulder, along the Boulder Canyon. The distance from the trailhead to the top of the mountain is only about 1.4 miles, and the vertical gain is less than 600 feet. However, it is said to have one of the best views of Boulder Canyon in the area.

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This particular hike was chosen to as a backdrop for presenting Colorado’s geological history based on the specific terrain features that appear along the trail. For example, 1.7 Billion Years ago, Colorado was a shallow Ocean with tall mountains sticking up out of the ground, much the way present-day New Zealand is. Some of the mountains in the distance resemble the mountains that one would see had they been floating (or canoeing) across this area at the time.

300 Million years ago, it was a tropical seashore. The Rocky Mountains themselves formed from a period of time roughly 70 Million years ago to about 40 Million years ago. More recently (over the past 8 million years), the Great Plains, which the trail periodically overlooks, began to subside, creating the sharp contrast between the flat terrain east of the mountains and the high peaks of the Central Rockies that we see in our present day world.

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At this exact elevation threshold, roughly 8500 feet, the type of rock observed changes, also a result of some of the long-term processes that created the Rocky Mountains.

The same combination of processes and events created some of the most celebrated unique rock formations of the region, including Red Rocks and Garden of the Gods. Thanks to the University of Colorado Department of Geology, this short hike became a trip through time.

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The view at the top didn’t disappoint. It was interesting to see the high peaks of the Rocky Mountains on an October day with some sun, but also plentiful cloudiness. It felt quite different from many of my hiking days Colorado, where there is often near total sunshine. I had previously forgotten about how much I enjoy seeing mountainous terrain like this, with sections of it lit by the sun, and other sections shadowed by the clouds, creating unique color contrasts that gradually shift over time.

The geological history of the Rocky Mountains is somewhat unique, and has yet to be fully explained. Geographically speaking, looking at a present day map of the world, the Rocky Mountains are fairly unique due to how far away from any major fault line they are.

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Many mountain ranges like the Andes and the Himalayans are right on a fault line and associated with geological activity; earthquakes and volcanoes. Colorado is not a hotbed for either, making for a somewhat unique mountain experience.

Geologists are still trying to explain why the mountains formed here the way they did. The Rockies continue to puzzle the scientific community. Why the mountains are as tall as they are when other properties of the Earth’s crust would indicate otherwise? Why did the Great Plains subside and become “disconnected” from the Front Range? Nevertheless, since geological processes are so slow, the mountains, as we see them today, are unlikely to change too much within any of our lifetimes.

Regardless of whether we are intellectually curious about why they are the way they are, or simply want to ski, hike, raft and climb, there are there and will continue to be there for us. They are confusing but consistent, much like life itself.

Two Ways Up Lookout Mountain

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The first time I heard about Lookout Mountain, the first thing I thought of was teenagers making out in their cars half an hour after sunset.  It just seemed like the kind of place a crazy new high school couple, with access to a vehicle along with the freedom that comes with it for the first time in their lives, would go.  It is that perfect middle ground for high schoolers starved for both attention and alone time.  They are far enough out of the “public eye” (i.e. social circle) to not feel too awkward, but not far enough out of the “public eye” to not get the recognition they crave.

To some, the fact that I automatically defaulted to this thought process is a demonstration of a disturbing level of immaturity.  But, I am strangely comforted by the fact that my mind occasionally defaults to such ideas and pursuits.  One of my goals as I get older is to never lose that youthful sense of wonder that makes everything seem so significant and magical early on in life.  Sure, if I were still trying to take high school girls “up to Lookout” at this age, it would be quite pathetic!  However, I take significant pride in the ability to still see places like this and imagine it’s possibilities from a perspective that is quite youthful, while still approaching it with the wisdom and maturity that I have gained over the years by being an astute observer of the world, humans, and human nature.

So, although my first thought of this mountain was one of 16 year olds making out in cars and possibly allowing themselves to go further, I came to understand it’s cultural significance to Colorado and the Rocky Mountains when it became the first major mountain I climbed on my bicycle after moving here from Illinois.  In a way, Lookout Mountain welcomes people like me to the world of cycling in the Rockies the same way I imagine it welcoming those 16 year olds to “adulthood”.

As the stormy weather that plagued Colorado the week leading up to Memorial Day came to a close, I decided to pursue this mountain in another unique manner.  I decided that on Monday, I would hike up the Mountain, using the Chimney Gulch and Lookout Mountain trails.  Then, on Tuesday, I would ride my bike up Lookout Mountain Road.

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Regardless of whether one decides to pursue this mountain on foot or by bicycle, it begins at a (relatively) light to moderate level of difficulty.  The trail heads up a gentile slope that would be considered “moderate” in terms of hiking.  The bike ride is up a slope that most with little or no climbing experience would consider quite difficult, but it is a bit over a mile into the ride before the climb picks up.

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While the bike ride does offer some amazing views, and I would argue better views of the Denver skyline, about a mile into the hike, some waterfalls form at this time of year, when rains are significant, giving me a whole new perspective of Lookout Mountain.

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It is at this point cyclists will encounter their first major set of switchbacks (along with some steeper terrain).  The hiking part also picks up in intensity.

Just after the halfway point comes a somewhat easier part of the climb.  It is at this point the road somewhat flattens out for cyclists, and most can shift up a gear or two and pick up a few miles per hour in speed.

Roughly 2/3 of the way up the mountain, the hiking trail meets up with Lookout Mountain road for the second and final time, at a place called Windy Saddle Park (near Windy Saddle Peak).

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Windy Saddle Park offers a great view of the Clear Creek Valley to the West.  The photo to the left was actually taken back in April on a previous bicycle trip up Lookout Mountain, while the one on the right was taken on Memorial Day.  Colorado is typically a very dry state, with a very brown or red look (depending where you are).  However, the week preceding Memorial Day was quite wet, with daily thunderstorms, and even four consecutive days of hail.  These photos, taken from the same place, demonstrate how different Colorado can look during different seasons and weather patterns.

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After Windy Saddle Park comes the most challenging part of the trip, regardless of whether one is hiking or cycling.  Cyclists will encounter a series of switchbacks with a higher grade and frequency than the switchbacks in the earlier part of the climb.  When I continued on the hiking trail, I had anticipated the same increase in intensity.  What surprised me was the sudden change in tree density.  It felt as if we had suddenly left the wide open and entered a forest.

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There are two trail junctions in this more challenging (although still not “14er” level) part of the trail.  First, the Beaver Brook Trail, which is a longer trail that winds through the rest of Jefferson County, breaks off to the right.  Luckily, these trail junctions are clearly marked so nobody spends hours wandering around wondering when they will finally get to the top.  The second junction is with the Buffalo Bill Trail, which goes to the part of the mountain where Buffalo Bill’s grave is.

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Lookout Mountain is not a single peak.  It is more of a mound.  One one end of the mound is the tower most commonly associated with Lookout Mountain.  On this other end is Buffalo Bill’s Grave.  Buffalo Bill’s Grave is a great destination point for cyclists.  There is a gift shop at the top offers water for free, nice bathrooms, and great snacks.  Being pretty much at the same elevation as the other side of Lookout Mountain, one can stop and turn around without feeling like they cheated themselves out of part of the climb.

While (excluding driving) there are two ways up the mountain, there are three ways down.  One other thing I discovered about Lookout Mountain is that it is a popular place for hang-gliding/ para-sailing.

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Depending on the day of the week and conditions, it is not too terribly uncommon to encounter around a dozen gliders taking off and landing at different points on the east side of the mountain.

Between the awkward adolescents in their cars just past sundown, cyclists like me achieving our first significant Rocky Mountain climbs, and hang-gliders soaring through the air over town, Lookout Mountain is truly a place where dreams come true.  It is a place where people feel a sense of achievement, a sense of advancement, and a sense of welcome into what’s ahead.  For cyclists like me, it is even more challenging bike rides, higher into the mountains.  For those adolescents, it is adulthood, and all of the challenges that will come.  Either way, it is both magnificent and scary, but best appreciated by looking upon it with the same sense of wonder that we begin our lives with.