Weekend Wheeling: Dennis's Pick for Denver, Colorado
Begin slowly (especially if you've parked nearby). Your dirt path starts at 8,588 feet and, over the next nine miles, climbs to a pass more than two miles high, at 11,796 feet. The air is thin, there's plenty to see, and memories will prove indelible if you slow down sufficiently to identify and understand the sights in view. Pick up one of the Old Fall River Road brochures (usually available at Endovalley for two bits), for this identifies each of the 24 numbered markers along the road with at least a paragraph of explanation.
One-third of the way up, you'll move into the subalpine world of spruce, lodgepole pine, and fir. I've seen martens, marmots, deer, and elk while making this climb, and listened to the chirps and cries of nutcrackers, kinglets, gray jays, and chickadees. Farther up, on the far-canyon wall, you'll see obvious avalanche damage where trees, like pickup sticks, were stripped from the mountainside and now rest near the canyon bottom. On near-side hills is a comparatively luxuriant fernlike groundcover between the trees. It can be warm in the sun (with far more light and ultraviolet radiation at this elevation), so you'll appreciate it every time you pass into the shade of this boreal (subalpine, coniferous) forest. The air is thin and cool, an absolutely delicious feeling if it's August and you're from somewhere hot, humid, and horrible.
A few more miles and the world changes once again. The trees are gone; the alpine world of snow and rock, of ice blue skies and tundra has been reached. You'll have steeper roads from here until the final climb around the cirque (a huge basin left after the head of a glacier pulls away the rock). Deer often feed here to the delight of tourists at the Alpine Visitor Center plainly visible from this point on your path. You are almost at the top. Congrats.
After your well-earned rest and refreshment, you'll be on pavement and going downhill almost all the way back to Endovalley. I stress almost since your return ride begins with a final climb of some 400 feet, to the high point on Trail Ridge Road of 12,183 feet. But this magnificent, nationally renowned road is well worth the effort. Named Trail Ridge in memory of the Ute and Arapahoe who pioneered this route across the mountains, it runs above 11,000 feet for 11 miles, above 12,000 feet for four. Squalls can engulf one quickly up here; strong winds can meet you around any corner, racing across the 60 square miles of tundra visible from the road.
Unbelievable views of distant mountains flash by during the descent. Tallest is Longs Peak (14,255 feet), named for Major Stephen Long during his 1820 expedition. Gnarled, twisted, windblown whitebark pine will pull you from your bike for yet more photographs, as will mushroom rocks, pikas (guinea-pig-like mammals), and alpine forget-me-nots. Pull off the road to enjoy these treats, and watch your speed on the curves. It is a long, long way down.
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication