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Cycling Guide: Rolling through RFV? Take your cycling to brand new Heights

Mountain-biking trails in the Roaring Fork Valley rightfully earned international acclaim last fall with Gold Level status (see pages 6-8), but if road riding is more your style the valley has you covered as well.

Perhaps one of Colorado’s best-kept secrets, the county roads that weave through Missouri Heights in the midvalley have become some of my favorite places to put together a solid mix of rides.

Key ingredients for a great road cycling area include: loops (as opposed to out and backs), a variety of distances and choices, great views, climbs and fast descents, safe access, and low auto traffic. 

Missouri Heights, which stretches from Glenwood Springs to El Jebel on the northeast side of Highway 82, checks all these boxes.

There are five access roads, with the Upper Cattle Creek (Wendy’s Hill) as southern-most (closest to Aspen) access road and Red Canyon Road as the northern-most (closest to Glenwood Springs). 

Missouri Heights has more variety for great loops than perhaps any riding area I’ve ever been to. The outer loop from Cattle Creek to Red Canyon and back on the Rio Grande trail is about 40 miles with 2,700 feet of climbing. You can double up the climbing by cutting 

back up Lower Cattle Creek Road and still not have to touch the same road twice. 

Looking for a huge loop? You can ride up Cottonwood Canyon and over to Gypsum and then ride back along the bike path through Glenwood Canyon and up the Rio Grande Trail. This loop is about 80 miles with about 5,000 feet of climbing and you’ll have about 15 miles of dirt. You’ll want to make sure you have plenty of spare tubes and a raincoat for any unexpected weather. (That’s true of almost any Colorado ride over 20 miles.)

If you don’t have much time and want a shorter loop, there are great options from any of the access points. 

The next requirement for a great riding area is the view; and it’s hard to beat the views from Missouri Heights. They are spectacular year-round. Riding up Cattle Creek in the fall when the scrub oaks are changing colors is wonderful. And the top of every climb, you’re greeted with the majesty of the 12,966-foot Mount Sopris, which towers over Carbondale. The scarred landscape of Basalt Mountain from the 2018 Lake Christine Fire is eerie, but an intriguing view as well. 

Climbs and descents are a must for any great road ride. Nothing gets as monotonous as pounding out mile after mile on the flats with little change in cadence. Regardless of which access point you choose, you’ll be climbing to get up to Missouri Heights. 

The area lacks a really long climb, but there are plenty of 2-mile to 5-mile climbs of varying steepness. Upper Cattle Creek (Wendy’s Hill) is a perfect climb for 20-minute hill repeats. It’s a 6% average pitch at almost exactly 3 miles, with 1,000 vertical feet of climbing. And what goes up must come down, so you’ll have plenty of descents to get the adrenaline going. All of the Missouri Heights descents are fast and fun.

Safe access is another requirement for a great road riding area. And the Rio Grande Trail — threading more than 40 miles through the valley from Glenwood Springs all the way to Aspen — provides a great corridor and access to the roads up Missouri Heights.

Crystal Springs Road is actually one of my favorite access points to Missouri Heights, and is the only access point without a direct connection from the bike path. Getting to Crystal Springs Road requires you to ride on Highway 82 downvalley from the Catherine Store Road, but the shoulder is wide and it is only 2 miles. The climb is relatively short and steep, and just as I’m getting tired of climbing, it’s over and I get a great descent. 

Finally, lightly trafficked roads are perhaps the most important characteristic for an enjoyable ride. There is very little traffic anywhere on Missouri Heights. The busiest sections of road are Upper Cattle Creek until about Fender Lane and Spring Valley Road up to Colorado Mountain College. And when I say heavily trafficked, I mean that during rush hour two or three cars will pass you every minute. Other than that, you may only see a half-dozen cars on the rest of the ride. 

Missouri Heights is probably one of the best-kept secrets for road riding in Colorado. It has something for everyone and has so many unexpected options to explore.

Good riding!

Scott Mercier writes a cycling column for The Aspen Times, and it can be found at aspentimes.com/sports. Scott represented Team USA at the 1992 Olympic Games and had a five-year professional career with Saturn Cycling and The U.S. Postal Services teams. He currently works as a senior financial advisor in Aspen and can be reached at scottmercier24@gmail.com.

Cycling Guide 2020

Check out more maps and features from our 2020 edition of the Cycling Guide, which has trail maps and tips for mountain bike and road rides in Pitkin, Garfield and Mesa counties.

The e-edition of the 2020 Cycling guide can be found here and at aspentimes.com/magazines.

Cycling Guide 2019

Check out more maps and features from our 2019 edition of the Cycling Guide, which has maps from Pitkin, Garfield and Mesa counties.

The guide can be found here and at aspentimes.com/magazines.

Cycling Guide: Breaking down our favorite routes in western Colorado

Road biking is one of the most popular summer activities in Colorado for both visitors and locals alike, and the central Rockies are home to some of the best biking routes you’ll find.

From scenic canyons to high river valleys, and from thickly forested roads to rocky top vistas, you’ll encounter world-class scenery wherever you go.

But before you head out into the unknown, you might want to consider both the amount of time you have to ride and the level of riding you’re looking for.

Lucky for you, there are many great choices — from short rides in the range of 25 miles, (1–2 hours) to medium rides of around 50 miles, (2–4 hours) to century rides (4–8 hours), you’ll find them all here.

You’ll also find everything from routes that can be ridden with ease, to some that are much more challenging.

Routes out of Aspen

Short rides

Maroon Creek Road – 22 miles round trip. This is one of the most popular short rides out of Aspen. Its popularity is due not only to its serene ascent through the heavily forested Maroon Creek Valley, but also for its destination — Maroon Lake, the popular viewing spot for the Maroon Bells.

Castle Creek Road – 24 miles round trip. Like Maroon Creek Road, Castle Creek Road winds its way through a gorgeous mountain valley and ends up at a classic Colorado destination – the ghost town of Ashcroft.

Medium rides

Cyclists head over Independence Pass on the longest and steepest elevation gain of the Ride the Rockies route in 2016.
Jordan Curet/Aspen Times file

Independence Pass – 40 mile round trip. This classic Colorado road ride winds its way through thick forests and clings to the side of mountains high above the headwaters of the Roaring Fork River before the final (steep!) push up to the 12,095-foot summit on the Continental Divide.

Rio Grande Trail to Carbondale – 60 miles round trip. This trail is built on the old Rio Grande Railroad route from Aspen to Glenwood Springs, and is relatively flat and well maintained. Head for Carbondale’s downtown to grab a bite before cruising back up the trail.

Century rides

Chapman Lake – 95 miles round trip. For the first 19 miles of this ride, you’ll follow the Rio Grande Trail through Snowmass Canyon. Turn right at Basalt and head up the beautiful Fryingpan Valley where you’ll ascend to Ruedi Reservoir before leveling out around Meredith. 

Hanging Lake – 100 miles round trip. Take the Rio Grande Trail to Glenwood Springs, and then connect to the Glenwood Canyon Trail for the final 10 miles to the Hanging Lake parking lot. If you’re up for it, add the 1-mile hike up to the lake – one of Colorado’s premiere destinations. (A permit is required for the hike.)

Routes out of Carbondale and Glenwood Springs

Short to medium rides

4 Mile Road – 20 miles round trip. The road starts where Glenwood’s Midland Avenue leaves off, and follows Fourmile Creek up a scenic winding valley to Sunlight Mountain Resort. 

Crystal Valley Trail/Prince Creek Road – 20 miles round trip from Carbondale. With a wide-open view of majestic Mount Sopris, this trail is popular both for its scenery and easy riding. Pair it with a 6 mile detour up Prince Creek Road if you want a little bit longer ride.

Missouri Heights loops – 20 to 50 miles. Missouri Heights, just north of Carbondale, includes several scenic, low traffic roads that you can loop in any combination. Head up Catherine Store Road, Cattle Creek Road, Spring Valley Road, or Red Canyon Road, loop back down and use the Rio Grande Trail as a connector. 

Thompson Creek Road and Hardwick Bridge Road – 30 to 40 miles from Carbondale or Glewood Springs. Thompson Creek Road ascends 6 miles to the iconic Thompson Divide area west of Carbondale. Pair it with Hardwick Bridge Road, which traverses the west side of the Roaring Fork Valley, and use the Rio Grande Trail to make a loop.

Glenwood Canyon Trail – 32 miles round trip. This popular ride has some of the best scenery you’ll find anywhere with its vertical canyon walls and view of the Colorado River, and the ride is smooth and easy. 

Century rides

Colorado River Road to McCoy – 104 miles round trip. This ride starts in Glenwood Springs and is a popular extension of the Glenwood Canyon Trail. The Colorado River Road is a beautiful 35-mile ride that follows the Colorado River from Dotsero north to the town of McCoy. 

McClure Pass – 91 miles round trip. Take Highway 133 straight south out of Carbondale and stay on it all the way to the top of the 8,769 foot pass. Stop over at Redstone to fuel up on the way, and at Penny Hot Springs to relieve sore muscles on the return trip.

Mary Lyn Bondlow cycling on McClure Pass, which is along Highway 133 near Redstone.
Anna Stonehouse/ Aspen Times

Routes out of Grand Junction

Short rides

Palisade Wine and Fruit Tour – 23 miles. This scenic loop starts at Palisade’s downtown area and zig-zags its way through some of the agricultural community’s most beautiful rural areas.

Little Park Road/DS Road – 29 or 56 miles. Little Park Road has some spectacular views, but it’s a steep ride up — ascending over 2,500 feet in the first few miles. Return on Monument Road for the short ride, or take the out-and-back DS Road until the pavement ends for the longer ride.

Medium rides

Colorado National Monument Loop – 38 miles. Called the “crown jewel” of road biking in the Grand Valley, the loop starts on Monument Road just west of downtown Grand Junction before heading into the park, (entrance fee required) looping around Rim Rock Drive and returning on the Riverfront bike trail.

Grand Mesa Hill Climb – 63 miles round trip. This might be one of the more difficult, and beautiful, rides you’ll ever take, with over 6,000 feet of climbing. Start at the Highway 65 exit of of I-70 and follow the road along Plateau Creek for 10 miles, then its uphill all the way to the 10,839-foot summit.

Century rides

Unaweep Canyon – 88 miles round trip. This gorgeous out-and-back route through a majestic canyon starts at the Gunnison River of Highway 50 had heads southwest until the turnaround at Gateway on the Dolores River. 

Cycling Guide: Designated Gold Level riding, RFV has gained serious cred in the mountain-biking world

A steady addition of mountain biking trails in recent years paid off last winter when the Roaring Fork Valley was designated a Gold Level Ride Center by the International Mountain Biking Association.

The valley was recognized for more than 300 miles of single-track trails and dozens of miles of additional routes friendly for mountain bikers between Aspen and Glenwood Springs.

It was the first gold-level designation in Colorado and just the seventh worldwide.

The recognition will alert people traveling to the Roaring Fork Valley that there are challenging trails to seek out throughout the area, said Mike Pritchard, executive director of the Roaring Fork Mountain Bike Association.

The nonprofit organization plays a key role in designing trails and organizing volunteer labor and professional trail building. The designation may also build greater awareness about the superb system within the valley, he said.

“We want people who live here to appreciate what we’ve got and support it,” Pritchard said.

All areas of the Roaring Fork Valley — which includes Snowmass Village, Basalt and Carbondale — contribute to the outstanding network. The days are long gone when riders had to travel to Aspen exclusively for good trails.

The city of Aspen, Pitkin County Open Space and Trails program and U.S. Forest Service have expanded the Smuggler Mountain-Hunter Creek Valley-Four Corners trails into a world-class network with slow, steady additions and improvements over the last decade.

Josh Fanshel climbs the Airline Trail into Sky Mountain Park outside of Aspen.
Jeremy Wallace/Aspen Times file photo

Pitkin County’s acquisition of the property that became Sky Mountain Park allowed for intermediate flow trails — without technical challenges — that attract a wide variety of riders. Aspen Skiing Co. keeps adding trails for downhill thrill seekers at its bike park at Snowmass. Challenging cross-country trails also abound around the village.  

 Some of the biggest draws in the midvalley are the various loops possible by combing the Glassier Trail, Buckhorn Traverse, Buckhorn Trail and Vasten Trail, all relatively recent additions. The Glassier-Buckhorn Loop, rideable in either direction, provides 15.5 miles of run. The addition of the 6-mile Vasten single-track trail creates a longer day in the saddle for riders.

All those routes are single-track trails and all are located on a geographic feature called the Crown, a prominent hillside between the valley floor and Mount Sopris. The trails are generally buffed out, with just a few technical spots. They provide a moderate physical challenge.

“They were designed to be pretty friendly for climbing,” Pritchard said.

The trails on the Basalt/Emma side of the Crown can be linked to the Prince Creek trail network, making for a long, challenging day.

Pritchard said the trails are getting more popular because of easy access from Willits and El Jebel, and a slightly longer journey from Basalt via the Rio Grande Trail.

He said the Emma side of the Crown is as popular with midvalley riders as Sky Mountain Park is in the upper valley.

A biker rides down a Monte Carlo trail at Prince Creek Trails in Carbondale on Wednesday, April 15, 2020. (Kelsey Brunner/The Aspen Times)

Despite the growing popularity, the trails aren’t overwhelmed yet. They are open to foot and bike traffic. The farther a rider gets from trailheads, the less likely to run into trail runners or hikers, Pritchard said. Other trails are dedicated to equestrian use.

Riders in the midvalley also have Basalt Mountain’s single-track routes available again after closures during and after the Lake Christine Fire in summer 2018.

The Mill Creek Trail as well as the longer Upper Basalt Mountain/Cattle Creek loop transformed over the course of the summer from a barren wasteland to routes lined with blooming fireweed and rapidly growing aspen tree saplings. Blackened conifer tree trunks will be part of the landscape for decades, but the fire opened up big vistas along the trails.

“Basalt Mountain is a pretty cool place to visit after the fire,” Pritchard said.

Mill Creek is a popular route when riders are pressed for time. It involves an easy climb up a Forest Service road and a quick descent via single-track trail.

The Upper Basalt Mountain trail provides a stiff climb though one that isn’t technical until the road gives way to a single-track route. After additional climbing through rock gardens, riders connect to a steep, technical descent on the Cattle Creek Trail.

“It’s just a good, physical challenge,” Pritchard said.

Both trails provide a ringside seat for fire recovery ecology.

Zach Nichols zips down the Mill Creek Trail in June 2019 on Basalt Mountain. The trail has everything from apocalyptic stretches to unsinged meadows after being in the middle of the 2018 Lake Christine Fire.
Scott Condon/The Aspen Times

In the lower valley, the Grandstaff Trail in Glenwood Springs’ backyard and the new network in South Canyon have been popular additions.

The Roaring Fork Valley received bronze-level recognition for its mountain bike trail system in 2014. The International Mountain Bike Association provided a detailed report on strengths of the system and what was lacking. That provided a guide for local cycling enthusiasts to add trail types, mileage and services. Crown Mountain Park in El Jebel will play an increasingly important role in appealing to a broad spectrum of skills, according to Pritchard.

The park in the El Jebel area currently has a BMX racetrack and a kids’ strider track. In the spring it is scheduled to add two lanes of mirrored asphalt pump track that can accommodate races and a progressive dirt jump park with features to accommodate beginners to experts, according to Nate Grinzinger, park and recreation manager at Crown Mountain Park.

By early July, the park hopes to complete a cross-country cycling skills course with a variety of features. It will be a place where individual riders can sharpen their skills and families can take a short spin.

“This park will be designed for all ages and all abilities. This will be one of the top parks in the state. A learning progression like this is very unique and will evolve our biking community significantly,” Grinzinger said. “We are creating a new generation of bikers who will go out into our gold-level biking trails.”

Scott Condon is a longtime reporter for The Aspen Times and hardcore mountain-biker.