Day 1 of spring break meant waking up in the fair city of Grand Junction, affectionately located along the Western Slope. For outdoor enthusiasts, Grand Junction offers easy access to snowboarding, hiking, snowshoeing, cross-country skiing, hiking, and road and mountain biking. I find myself stopping in Grand Junction whenever I’m on my way to a mountain bike tryst in Moab or Fruita, when I’m road biking at Colorado National Monument, or when I’m riding the locals’ favorite, Lunch Loop Trails.
Because of the timing of my trip (the last week of March) and because of the lackluster snow season this winter, I pared down my available sports to four instead of the usual six or eight. This trip would be centered around mountain biking first, hiking second, golf third, and I brought along the snowshoes, just in case. I thoroughly researched the trails along the 50 most western miles in Colorado, which quite closely resemble Utah. I had planned for rides from the most southwesterly town in Colorado, Cortez, which also has some killer mountain biking, especially east of town at a little shooting range called Phil’s World.
As before all solo road trips, I studied my maps carefully, and this time I was including some serious BLM time on my trip. BLM stands for Bureau of Land Management, and BLM land is characterized by primitive camping that is usually free. BLM land would be less populated by bipeds this time of year, I surmised, and I was right. The tricky part would be finding appropriate and accessible camping sites for a low clearance 4WD vehicle.
The BLM office in Grand Junction is staffed by friendly folks who know their land and can talk to hunters, mountain bikers, and miners with equal ease. This BLM office has realized the need to educate folks on the proper ways to enjoy the natural beauty contained within its boundaries that it has produced quality maps for each of its areas, including highlighted hiking and biking trails. It was at the BLM office that I discovered the Uncompaghre Plateau was still snow-covered and/or muddy, and that recreating or even camping there at this time of year was not going to be fun. So I picked up a few brochures, one on camping sites in BLM land, and a much-coveted map of the Y-11 Fiasco trail, a mere 45 miles to the south of Grand Junction in a tiny little town called Gateway.
The road from Grand Junction to Gateway takes about an hour and a half. I had been on this road only once or twice before, but I remember the scenery quite well. In fact, when I have pleasant dreams I imaging myself driving alongside topography that looks just like that which abuts the Unaweep-Tabaguache Byway. Tabaguache is pronounced TAB-uh-watch.
Gateway is a town with no services save for the Gateway Canyons Resort, a new spa-gold course-hideaway whose scenery is incomparable. The following day I would ride the aptly named Y-11 Fiasco Trail. But I first had a date with the stars and scenery and solitude of John Brown Canyon.
After a decade and a half of strictly mountain biking, I’ve made the transition over to the dark side. A friend of mine lent me her neon yellow Trek from the 1980s, and I’ve been commuting and playing around the urban trails of Denver for a few months now, excited at how light and fast it is. I’ve been a spectating fan of road biking since the early days of Lance, marveling at how anyone can pedal for six hours up and over mountains for well over 100 miles. I’m now starting to get it.
These bikes are light, and the pedaling is continuous uphill and you’re coasting downhill. In fact, on the downhill all you’re really worried about is running over a frightened rodent who will then send you flying through the air like the Greatest American Hero(ine).
When I started riding 30+ miles on the road bike, (akin to riding 10+ intermediate miles on the mountain bike), I was looking for pain. I wanted to experience what Phil Liggett and Bob Roll and Paul Sherwen are always yapping about: the pain that comes with long hours in the saddle.
Finally! After a summer of commuting 15+ miles a day and a once-a-week 30+ ride, I finally got my pain at the Colorado National Monument.
The Colorado National Monument is located just south of the not-so-secret anymore mountain biking mecca of Fruita. Because Moab is being overrun by beer bellies inside monster trucks, the riding is getting less awesome there and those in the know are flocking to the pristine singletrack of Fruita.
This is my third trip to the national monument, whose entrance fees ($10 for 7 days) and camping fees ($20 night) have doubled in the past few years. These are your tax dollars not at work. (In other words, this is what happens when National Park budgets get cut.)
A little more than we wanted to spend, of course, but the promise of road biking up 1,500 feet in 4 miles and cycling along spectacular instances of erosion–well, the promise of that–along with 80-degree weather in late September–was too good to pass up. So we went for it.
And we ended up camping here–overlooking Fruita canyon and the west entrance of Rim Rock Drive. After a night of star watching and using Google Sky Map to locate Mars, Jupiter, Uranus, and Neptune (so cool!), we headed to bed against all odds and the beer-noise that was coming from our scooter-riding neighbors across the street. I guess riding two wheels along Rim Rock Drive is cool, but I’d rather work for it and pedal any day. As with most things, the rewards are that much greater when you work toward something.
And although the views are spectacular from our camping niche, it’s just as stunning to see where we were sleeping from across the canyon.
Camping here was like having our very own juniper and red rock estate, with little red ants for peasants (who honestly, did not seem to be contributing to the fiefdom at all. But we let them be.)
On day 1 we changed a flat tire, fiddled with the brakes a little, and thought about nicknames for our bikes. I decided upon Old Yeller. After a short hike to Window Rock and some excellent scenery, coffee in hand, we headed to the Visitor Center for some advice and Gatorade–well worth the $2 for its electrolytes.
The speed limit along Rim Rock Drive hovers around 35 mph, although along some of the switchback it gets down to 10 mph.
We headed east from the Visitor’s Center, about four miles into the 23-mile long Rim Rock Drive. We joked about racing an older couple, who took off and whom we never saw again. They showed us I guess. Along the way we were wowed by the sandstone monoliths and laughing at the bright blue sky and perfect array of reds, browns, blacks, and awesomeness that surrounded us.
The temps crept perhaps into the mid 80s, and we were exposed the entire time, but it’s nothing that liberally applied sunblock can’t protect you from.
We rode and rode and rode mostly uphill until we reached the highest point of the ride, at which point we were feeling pretty frisky. An elevation of 6640 feet is not a problem for a couple of Denverites, who on a regular basis are frolicking above 7000 feet. But I’ve been on enough jaunts to know that when you’re only halfway there you’d better have a gas tank that is more than half full. Because even if the second half of the ride is mostly downhill (which it was), there’s always a chance that a little uphill will turn your legs into lead and break your spirit. So we played it safe after about 12 miles of riding, and turned around.
The ride back was picture-taking time! MC had the camera and we proceeded capturing awesome moments from the ride.
We finished up Day 1 with just over 25 miles, our vitamin D fix, a feeling one only gets when communing with nature while working your butt off. We headed into Fruita for supplies, and came across the little ranching town’s fall festival. We pondered a shower but knew that our visit to the Glenwood Hot Springs the following day would feel that much more baptismal if we let the sweat salts accumulate. So we ditched the shower and headed to bed.
The next morning we had thought about hiking, but realized we did not do the most fun and exhilarating and scary of all the ribbons of road along Rim Rock Drive–the first four miles. So we ate a delicious breakfast of scrambled eggs and spinach with fresh tomatoes and peppers from my garden, and suited up again for another epic day.
We were going to ride the somewhat steep but completely rideable intro section of Rim Rock Road. I underpedaled, saving my energy for who knows what. MC beat me to the top by about 15 minutes. It was a pretty easy 45-50 minute pedal upward, and I found myself gearing up in the last mile. But during the last quarter mile, I felt that pain that the three sages of the Tour de France are always talking about–the cramping pain, the sore pain (egad, saddle, why you gotta hate so much?), and the pleading for the ride to be over. We reconvened at the Visitor Center and decided we had at least another ten miles in us before we screamed back down the drive. So we cruised along some of the same route we took yesterday, but the scenery never got old.