Scott Mercier: Road tripping to Colorado National Monument
Special to The Aspen Times
The heavens have blessed the Colorado Rockies with early and abundant snow. Hopefully we continue to get hammered and have a great ski season. But we’re still in that awkward time when the lifts are not spinning, the trails not rideable, and the road riding is too cold.
It’s times like these when a road trip is in order. The Colorado National Monument, outside of Grand Junction, will be rideable for another month or so. The daily highs in Junction are in the low-to-mid 50s and they get tons of sunshine.
Rim Rock must have been designed with the cyclist in mind. It has all the elements required of a world-class ride: unrivaled scenery (it’s not called the Tour of the Moon for no reason), switchback climbs, exciting descents, silky smooth roads and very little traffic. The ride is a loop of roughly 33 miles and it’s spectacular from either direction. A start from the east side traces the racecourse from the old Coors Classic stage race.
There is ample parking near the Lunch Loops bike park and mountain bike trail system. After you park, take a left and head up the road toward the National Monument. The monument requires both a front and rear light to enter on a bike; and considering that a cyclist can be difficult for drivers to see, I’d recommend always riding with a blinking rear LED light. If you don’t have lights, you can borrow them from the rangers at the entrance to the park.
The climbing begins in earnest right past the gate. There are a dozen switchbacks and about 1,000 vertical feet of climbing in 3.5 miles.
At about 2.5 miles past the gate you’ll hit the first tunnel. The tunnel on the east side can be intimidating. It is about 200 meters, and is long and dark. The noise from vehicles is magnified from the tunnel walls and the gutter is usually filled with debris. Make sure your lights are on to make yourself more visible and to enhance your safety.
From the tunnel it’s only about a mile to the top, but it’s also the steepest and hardest part. A glance to your right is worthwhile because you can see all the way down to the entrance of the park, and the view offers a stark perspective of how far you have climbed.
If you’re a Strava geek, the segment to Cold Shivers Point is the marker for all cyclists in the Grand Valley. Anything under 20 minutes is respectable and under 18 minutes is quite fast.
You’ll have about 3 miles of rolling terrain before the climb to High Point begins. This climb is not that long or steep, but it is mentally hard, and your legs may groan in pain from the earlier climbing.
The High Point is at an elevation of 6,640 feet and from here the road rolls until the descent from the radio towers. The descent is a smooth and gentle decline, so you don’t need to worry too much about your speed. The real fun begins just past the visitor center when you will encounter several fast, sweeping turns.
My favorite direction, however, is to start the climb from the west side just outside of Fruita. The climbs from this side are slightly longer, but not as steep. It’s also where you have a better chance of seeing bighorn sheep and the views of the valley are breathtaking.
The first climb is 4 miles long and climbs 1,097 vertical feet. The incline is mostly steady, but it does slightly kick up just before and after the tunnels.
The road levels out for a few miles at the visitor center and this is a great time to relax and enjoy the views; Liberty Cap and the Coke Ovens loom majestically below. The climbing to the radio towers sneaks up on you. You will be easily riding along at 15 to 20 mph and then your speed will slow and the gears get harder to push. It doesn’t look like much of a climb at this point, but your legs tell you otherwise. This stretch is about 2 miles long at a nice, steady pitch.
Once you hit the top of the climb there are two great options. You can continue along Rim Rock Drive toward the High Point and Grand Junction or, if you have an extra 30 minutes or so, take a right at Black Ridge road and climb to Glade Park. This will add about 7 miles and 600 feet of climbing.
The climb is about 1.5 miles of washboarded dirt and crests at an altitude of about 7,200 feet. From here it’s a few miles to the Glade Park store where you can stop for a break and refill your water bottles. To get back home, head west towards Grand Junction. The reward for all this climbing is a straight, fast road until you get back into the CNM. Then, as you plunge down the east side back toward town, you will have one of the most enjoyable descents in Colorado.
Scott Mercier represented Team USA at the 1992 Olympic Games and had a five-year professional career with Saturn Cycling and The U.S. Postal Services Cycling team. He currently works as a financial advisor in Aspen and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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