Cycling Guide: Rolling through RFV? Take your cycling to brand new Heights
Special to Cycling Guide 2020
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.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.