Road: Paved; Twisty in quite a few spots
Round-trip from Denver: 560 miles
Length of Byway: 115 miles
Vehicle types: car, motorcycle, 4×4 and OHV trails in designated areas
Elevation change: 7861 to 12,096 feet above sea level
Location: South Central Colorado
Time to break out the Zed!
My 750cc, naked standard 2006 Kawasaki Z750 street-fighting machine…grunt!
Ok, ok…so I’m not Tim the Toolman Taylor, but this particular byway deserved to be ridden in the right kind of style…motorcycle style, that is.
And this particular byway deserved to be enjoyed over the span of two days, as well. Why? Well, because I was on a two-pronged mission: the first part was to complete the byway without rushing through and the second part was to capture the summer version of a scene in which I already had three other season shots. Yeah, that’s kind of cryptic, but this area is just outside of Aspen and is not the Maroon Bells, but just as beautiful. It is at the western end of the Top of the Rockies Byway and is at the end of Castle Creek Road.
I met my riding buddy and friend, Jen, early on Saturday, July 6th. I wanted to get to the start of the byway at Copper Mountain as quickly as possible, but not along the main highway (I-70), so we took a different route that took us over Kenosha and Hoosier Passes. I was happy to be riding with Jen, since I hadn’t seen her for several years. Turns out, she had traded in her Honda 600 for a Kawasaki Z1000 (my bike’s big brother).
After getting over both Kenosha and Hoosier Passes, we realized that the mountain pass temperatures were a bit cooler than we had expected, so instead of heading over the next few passes with my teeth chattering, I made a b-line for the closest/cheapest store in Frisco (Walmart). I found a long-sleeved shirt that would fit nicely over my t-shirt and we were off again, heading west toward Copper Mountain.
The northeastern start of the Top of the Rockies Scenic Byway is at Copper Mountain and yes, this is a ski resort, but there are still tons of things to do here in the summer. Jen happened to mention one of the summer activities when she noticed a golf course where she normally sees what she calls a ‘snow meadow’ in the winter.
One thing I like about this leg of the journey as far as being on a motorcycle is concerned is the fact that when you come to a tough hill climb after passing Copper Mountain, the road widens out with a passing lane. This is especially good for people who ride a motorcycle with a tad bit more get-up-n-go than the typical 4-wheeled vehicle.
At one point along this byway, you come across an area that had at one time been flooded but is now a huge open meadow area. This area used to be a valley, but the Climax mining operations had sent its tailings into the area closing up the valley floor. Now, with EPA enforcements, the area is slowly being turned into a wide open meadow area and you can see plants returning.
After topping off at Fremont Pass, you head down into a high mountain valley before going uphill again and enter into Leadville. Here is where Jen and I dismounted our trusty steeds and took a short walk up and down this high country small town’s main street looking for a nice place to feed our growling tummies. After being turned around at Leadville’s Legendary Saloon, we found a nice little place across the street to have a bite to eat. Oh and yes, that Great Dane in the saloon picture really is sitting in his owner’s lap.
It still amazes me how much history Colorado holds even though this state was established in 1876, well after the pilgrims began to journey here from across the pond. Our next stop was along the 10th Mountain Division Memorial Highway at the memorial wall. There, you can find out how soldiers trained to do battle in the mountainous regions of Europe. There’s also a huge granite memorial wall listing the lives that were lost during World War II.
Further down the road is the base camp for this division, Camp Hale, which was located in the Pando Valley. All that remains though, are barely visible lines cutting length and width wise along the valley floor. There are only a few concrete structures left standing now and most of this valley is used for recreation and ATV trails.
I would be remiss to not mention Redcliffe, or actually the bridge at Redcliffe which is one of my favorite spots in Colorado. During any time of the year, when the lighting is just right, you can capture some amazing images and not just from down below the bridge which is where I tend to end up with the Zed and my camera more often than not.
Time to move along
After Redcliffe, you wind your way up the side of the mountain and then down again and into the town of Minturn. This town is the last stop along the northern edge of the byway, which takes you out to the main highway, I-70. At this point, we were about 40 some odd miles and one canyon away from our destination. For you 2-wheeled enthusiasts, this canyon is definitely interesting as you can glide through the canyon without having to touch your breaks, as many auto and truck drivers are cautioned to do at many of the tight curves. If you don’t know what I’m talking about, then take a look at The Pace. It’s a really good read and explains how any motorcyclist can enjoy all types of curves from wide sweeping, to very tight without the need to rush along the straight only to hit your breaks hard before a corner.
In for the night
When Jen and I made it to our destination, Brettelberg Condos, I was quite pleased with the look of our studio-sized two-bed place. It not only had a full kitchen, but it had two doors, one leading out to the main hallway and the other leading out to a roof-top deck which had a very nice view of the Sunlight ski area and valley. And…we got off-season rates, so the price was below $100; split between the two of us was perfect for my pocket-book. The only thing missing was a restaurant close by. And while it looked like there was a restaurant in the ski area, we chose to head back into town about 11 miles and stopped at a Safeway to conjure up a good dinner at the deli. Back at the condo, we put our meals together and sat out on the roof-top deck to take in the peace and quiet and the fresh air.
Morning, Castle Creek, Aspen, Independence Pass and Twin Lakes
I have to share because this was awesome to wake up to…
After eating breakfast which consisted of coffee, fresh fruit and a granola bar, Jen and I hit the trail again and headed toward Aspen and the other prong of the Top of the Rockies byway. Before getting into Aspen itself though, I wanted to take my summer shot of the basin that rises above the meadow at the end of Castle Creek Road. I have to say this, but before even getting to that meadow, Jen and I had our breath taken away about two miles down the road. The road itself passes by Ashcroft, which is a ghost town maintained by the Aspen Historical Society. This town is on the edge of a small aspen forest and past that forest, the road rises slightly and crests over a wide-open hill. At this point, where the landscape opens up, the hills were covered in not only sage, but a ton of high country wildflowers. Everything from mountain sunflowers, to Indian Paintbrush were covering the hillside. Both Jen and I had the same idea…we had to stop here before riding in to Aspen. I think though, that my summer shot (in my mind) pales in comparison to that flower-covered treasure we had found.
Aspen is always a treat for many reasons. Today, Jen treated me to lunch at Mezzaluna and I treated her to desert at Rocky Mountain Chocolate Factory. I also picked up some Tiger Butter for my girls since this has always been their favorite treat from this delightful chocolate shop.
Walking around the downtown area of Aspen, Jen had a hard time keeping herself from wanting to peruse the various shops. The fun part about walking in this area is that it’s an outdoor mall with cobblestone sidewalks, a fountain, a park, an outdoor bar and the ski slopes only two blocks away. The people-watching and Victorian architecture in such a varied outdoor setting is enjoyment enough.
After our downtown Aspen jaunt, we were on our way again. At this point, the byway leads you up the road over Independence Pass. The amazing thing to me about this part of our ride was that it seemed that the whole world had come out to play. All along the road just east of Aspen, people had parked and were playing along the river with their rafts, canoes and playing in the water. There was almost no room to ride by with all the cars and trucks parked alongside the road. I know it had something to do with the fact that this was the end of the 4th of July week and tons of people were on vacation.
When we arrived at the top of Independence Pass, I noticed a huge group of motorcyclists and this group seemed to be from all around the world. Must’ve been a tour group, which is pretty cool. Jen and I posed at the sign while one of the tour members took our photo. We gazed at the scenery for a while and then headed down the other side of the pass.
Our last stop was the historic area of Twin Lakes. Back in the 1800s, people had populated the area upon rumors of gold and silver. Back then, the town was called Dayton. In 1885, it was considered a nice resort town and was mentioned in Crofutt’s Grip-sack Guide of Colorado as “…the most charming summer Resort in Colorado.” Interpretive signs around the historical Twin Lakes area tell the tales of over one hundred years ago. I still need to get across the lakes to see the famed Interlaken; the resort hotel built in 1890 which still graces the southern shore.
After leaving Twin Lakes, the byway heads eastward toward the Hwy82 and Hwy24 junction while skirting along the northern shores of the Twin Lakes area. It was good to see the lakes full of water considering how bad the drought has been in Colorado. I knew that the water would be drained quickly to meet the demands of thirsty towns, but it still felt good to see the lakes so full.
When we arrived at the junction, Jen and I decided to head southward to Buena Vista which is away from the connecting piece of the byway that goes northward along the Arkansas River headwaters and recreation area before coming to the southern edge of Leadville. Since we did not want to ride along the big highway (I-70) on the north side of Leadville (and struggle in heavy Sunday afternoon traffic), we stayed in the mountains a little longer, by taking a two-lane highway back in to the city (Hwy285). I wanted to note this because this part of the ride was the most harrowing portion of our ride with the late afternoon mountain storms that frequent the Colorado Mountains in summertime. We not only rode through one rain shower, but two rain showers, and one of them had a little bit of hail in it. I was so determined to get home that evening though, I forged ahead, leaning up against my bike’s gas tank and drifting about 100 feet behind the vehicle in front of me (keeping its tail lights in view). I pretty much placed my body on cruise control and endured the pelting. I knew Jen was probably feeling the pain, but both of us were prepared with our rain gear, so we stayed dry for the most part.
The best part of riding this byway without a doubt was sharing in the wonder of another rocky mountain newbie. While Jen has been skiing in several of the places we passed through, she had not driven along the roads that we took over all of the mountains passes on our byway ride.