Paul Andersen: Cycling the Pass amid nature and history

Paul Andersen
Fair Game

Last Sunday was the final day of the Independence Pass closure, a perfect spring morning for a car-free bike ride. There was potent uphill energy as hundreds of riders tested their aerobic thresholds on the 4,000-foot climb to the top of the highest paved pass in Colorado, 12,095 feet.

In the valley floor, you could feel the heat of a summer sun, but it was tempered up high by cool breezes wafting from lingering snowbanks. Here was the perfect opportunity to view nature and history during a long and arduous climb.

The Pass is a rite of passage for Aspen, especially for those who ride it on conventional bikes and share significant and willful suffering for the reward of standing atop the world, having gotten there by their own fortitude.

The Pass was first crisscrossed by game trails, then by Ute hunters, then by prospectors in the early 1880s who dragged sledges over the summit. These stalwart men harnessed themselves to sledges weighted down with 200 pounds of food and gear. They dragged them over at night when the spring snowpack had set up with a crust for easier sledging.

The Pass opened in 1882, and there are stories of harrowing, bone-shaking, dust-choked stage coach travel. One account describes how dalmatians were set in the lead to aggressively harry anyone or anything off the road before the careening coaches and horse teams.

There is a long history of people crossing Independence Pass, which was the birth canal of Aspen over a century ago. Coaches, wagons and even sleighs took miners, businessmen and ladies of the night to Aspen from the silver mining metropolis of Leadville.

I had time to think about every inch of that 20 miles, from Aspen to the top, as I crawled up the Pass, sometimes feeling like a 200-pound sledge was dragging behind me. It all came back from “The High Road to Aspen,” a book I researched and wrote in 2014.

Geographically, the Pass marks the Continental Divide. It climbs through three life zones and seven ecosystems, all visible from the narrow strip of pavement that cuts between two wilderness areas — Hunter-Frying Pan and Collegiate Peaks.

Back in the ’50s and ’60s, students of natural history were guided up the Pass by the late Bob Lewis, a 10th Mountain Division veteran who later taught biology at Aspen High. Bob led field trips that showed students the many species and habitats along the way.

As a conservationist, Bob formed the Independence Pass Foundation, a nonprofit whose mission is stabilizing and revegetating the many road cuts that were causing erosion, which was choking the fragile and essential riparian ecosystem with sediment. IPF puts on the annual “Ride for the Pass,” canceled this year because of COVID-19.

Leaving Aspen, fresh and energized, I passed North Star Nature Preserve where boaters launch flotillas on the Stillwater section of the Roaring Fork. North Star was long ago a stage stop, then was owned by a bootlegger, and later by Jimmy Smith, undersecretary of the Navy under Dwight Eisenhower. North Star inspired the naming of a missile defense system — Polaris — Latin for North Star.

Beyond Difficult Campground, the Pass is aligned differently than its original route, which contoured up the south side of the Roaring Fork past Kevin Costner’s place at Tagert Lake and back across near Weller Lake, the site of a former stage stop and hotel.

Glazed over from oxygen deprivation, I took only vague notice of the Devil’s Punchbowl, the Grottos, the Braille and Discovery Trails, and Independence Ghost Town — all popular attractions. The final switchback above Upper Lost Man took me from the subalpine to the alpine, where my legs and lungs protested in the thin air.

At the top of the Pass was a cluster of ebullient cyclists cheering their friends on in a community celebration of athletic prowess matched against a challenging and stunningly beautiful landscape of snow-clad mountain peaks stretching in every direction.

A pass is symbolic as a crossing, a crucible, an achievement, a barrier, a passageway. Independence Pass is Aspen’s true front door and an invitation to all that lies beyond.

Paul Andersen’s column appears on Mondays. He may be reached at