A loop over Cottonwood and Monarch Passes

Cottonwood Pass - Buena Vista to Gunnison CO 70 miles with about 4500 feet of climbing

I left Buena Vista after a good breakfast at 8 AM, heading due west for Cottonwood Pass. I hoped to arrive at the pass before noon and then get down to Taylor reservoir by 1 PM. The weather forecast was not great and I hoped to avoid getting caught by rain at high altitude. I made the pass on time, but I didn't avoid the rain.

The first ten miles of this ride involved about 1500 feet of climbing, some of it pretty steep, but most of it on 2 % or 3 % grades. There are no shoulders, but the traffic is light and the canyon, surrounded by big mountains, is gorgeous. I was initially cool because air temps were in the 50s, then hot in the sun and then cool again as the clouds blocked the sun.

At mile 11 you pass through gates (road not maintained from Nov though June 15, rough narrow road on other side, big RVs don't try it..) And begin a half mile or so of 10% grade. This was the only place in I road where I needed my 16 inch (19x32) gear. With a bike weight of about 75 lbs and at an altitude approaching 10000 feet, my 20 inch gear wasn't low enough. I stopped midway up this stretch to take a break and have a snack. This region has a mix of aspen and fir trees and is a very nice place for a picnic!

After the steep section which is fairly straight, the road climbs through a series of switchbacks. The grade is a more reasonable 5 % to 6% for almost all of the rest of the climb. With about 2500 feet of climbing from the gate to the top, which are separated by 10 miles, the average grade is 5 %. Not bad climbing after you get past the initial steep section.

When I was about five miles from the top it started to rain lightly. Sigh. I put on my wind jacket. When I was maybe four miles from the top the rain became heavy enough that I needed my rain cape. It was cool enough (50 F?) that I was comfortable climbing in the cape. Near the top I could see blue sky beyond the pass and the rain almost stopped. I made it to the top at 11:30 AM.

At the top I could see lots of dark clouds over Taylor Park, but at least it wasn't raining much at the time. I stopped for another snack and to take some pictures. Cottonwood Pass has one of the best views in Colorado. Taylor Lake several thousand feet below surrounded by Taylor Park with a range of 13000 feet or better mountains behind it. Nice.

When I headed down the other side on the dirt road that leads to the reservoir, my right front pannier fell off, WOOMP! onto the dirt road at about 15 mph. That pannier contained my fancy new laptop (PII, etc.) and that fall may have been rather expensive. I won't know how expensive until I get it repaired, but my fancy computer is now not functional and (writing this on another system six days later) I was off the net for six days as a result. Maybe I won't carry such an expensive (and heavy) laptop on future tours. Note: the pannier came off because I hadn't secured it properly, not because of bad design. I've ridden rougher roads without losing a pannier in the past.

The remainder of the ride down was not fun. The road down is 13 miles of braking and concentrating on the bumps and patches of soft sand that covered the dirt road for the first ten miles. My hands were numb - I stopped once to clap 'em together to restore some feeling - and I was tired from the constant tension by the time I reached the reservoir. From where the road from the pass reaches the reservoir to Gunnison is 37 miles of paved road. Ahhhh.

I stopped at the Nugget Cafe (the only café) in Taylor Park (essentially a resort area for off road stuff) and had a nice lunch at about 1:30 PM. Then I rode on towards Gunnison. The sky was threatening, but it wasn't raining. The big problem was the headwind blowing up Taylor canyon at 10 to 15 mph. I get tired of having to pedal downhill, but that seems to be the norm in this state. The other thing that is the norm is rain in the mountains in the afternoon. I'd been lucky on my earlier rides , but now the 'monsoon season' had returned. I got throughly wet on this ride.

I thought riding down along the Taylor River would be fun, and it was, but the headwind kept my speed down to 10 to 15 mph. After about an hour, I ran into light rain. In another half an half and hour I was riding in a downpour from a thunderstorm. I wore my rain cape and, except for wet shoes and socks, I was not uncomfortable. That rain lasted most of the way to Almont, about 25 miles from Taylor Park. The road was narrow with no shoulders but the traffic was light and speed limits were low - 25 mph at the top, 40 mph at the bottom. I had no problems with drivers.

At Almont the route switches to SR 135, which is initially a four lane divided highway with no shoulder and moderate traffic. It soon changes to two lanes with a rideable shoulder and, for the last few miles into Gunnison, it has great shoulders. I enjoyed riding this road, in part because it was slightly downhill and I was cruising along at17 or 18 mph. It was also nice to dry out. I arrived in Gunnison about 3:30 PM. When I checked into the motel, the clerk told me that three couples on tandems had stayed there the previous night. I saw that group of tourists heading north from Buena Vista two days later.

Taylor Canyon

Monarch Pass: Gunnison to Buena Vista - 90 miles with 4000 feet of climbing

I left Gunnison heading east on US 50. Great shoulders, rolling hills, and nice views make this section of US 50 really nice riding. I started off riding in my Shimano sandals, but changed to my Answer Chuggers after a few miles. The sandals, with new cleats and no way to mount the cleat at an angle, don't let my left foot rotate out enough and lead, rather quickly, to a sore knee. I need to put old cleats (or maybe the multi-release cleats?) on the sandal before I can do any long ride with them.

The weather was cloudy when I left Gunnison, then it cleared up before I stopped for my first break about 22 miles east on US 50. This was just before the great shoulders go away at the Saguache county line. I had been worried about this part of the ride, but it actually wasn't bad till the last few miles before Sargents. Then the shoulder became soft sand and I was run off the road by an RV driver. I didn't crash, but it was tricky to keep the bike from digging in that sand. It wasn't dangerous, just annoying. That was the only jerk driver I encountered on this bad stretch. The other drivers were polite and made it to Sargents without further problems.

After Sargents there is a store and cafe, so I figured I'd stop for a meal before climbing the pass. I had mixed feelings about this because the weather was looking a bit ominous and I wasn't sure I wanted to delay my arrival at the top. I stopped at the cafe and, when the lady that runs it told me I couldn't park my loaded bike in front of her cafe, I left and headed up the pass. She said "Sir, would you please move your bike around to the side of the building." I said "But if I do that I won't be able to keep an eye on it." She said "So?" and I left. I don't think she was discriminating against bikes - she didn't allow car parking in front of her cafe either - but I didn't have the time or energy to deal with her.

It is 15 miles from Sargents to the top of the pass and more like 10 miles from the store. I rode through the gates and climbed to the sign that says seven miles to the top. Then I pulled off the road into a primitive camping area and ate some apple sauce and a power bar. It was hot and the mosquitoes were a bit of a problem, but it was also a lovely aspen grove. After my break, I ground on up to the top. This seemed to take a very long time. I figured an hour and a half for those seven miles but it actually took a little longer. That climb was about 2000 feet in seven miles - about the standard 5% to 6% grade - but it felt harder. I had ridden about 48 miles when I reached the top and I needed food. I had also ridden the last few miles in the rain, but I think that helped, rather than hurt, my climbing. I was in a funny mood: this was hard climb and I can't say it was much fun, but I was also thinking that it was my last ride up a Colorado pass so I really didn't want it to end.

At the top of Monarch Pass there is an elaborate store complex that contains, among other things, a Subway. I put on my wind jacket and had lunch. I visited with some folks who had just backpacked 50 miles and with a 73 year old bicyclist who had tried to do a southern route Cross- Country ride a few years ago and had been stymied by the heat. We discussed routes. It is pretty cool in that building and I had been a bit wet when I got there. By the time I was ready to leave I was shivering. I put my P-I AMFIB parka on over my wind coat and I put on the hood. That helped a lot. By the time I left, the weather had deteriorated from light rain to heavy rain and fog. It didn't look like it was going to clear up anytime soon, so I headed on down the east side of the pass.

The first five miles were hell: I was braking to keep my speed down to 30 to 35 mph because I could barely see in the heavy rain. Lots of traffic passed me, but I always seemed to have vehicle on my tail and, therefore, the threat that, if I hit something I couldn't see in the heavy rain and went down, I would be run over. Not fun, but the parka worked well.

After five miles of 6% grade I rode out of the heavy rain. I stopped to adjust my glasses and hood for better vision and then headed down another five miles of 6% grade. This time I was able to see and the road was mostly dry so I didn't use my brakes much. I hit 46 mph on this stretch. Finally I was able to pull over at 30 mph and let the traffic that had backed up behind me pass. I had been almost keeping up with the traffic ahead of me and I had a good vehicle behind me (an ambulance) so I had a nice ride. After that I was able to manage 25 mph or so till I reached the junction of US 50 and US 285. Traffic was moderate and there was no rideable shoulder at 25 mph, but I had no problems with the traffic. I stopped at a gas station near the intersection to use the bathroom and drink a 20 oz coke, then I rode north on 285.

Riding 285 to Buena Vista was nice. It has a good shoulder, good views, and moderate traffic. A tailwind most of the way helped too. The 24 miles to Buena Vista took less than two hours. I had rain in front of me and a thunderstorm to my east, but only the last two miles into Buena Vista had light rain. A nice ending to my last ride in Colorado.