A fairly odd set of circumstances ended me up in Colorado Springs with a Victory Cross Roads and a little time to kill. Kill is perhaps a good term for it, or ironic, I’m never quite sure. I was on an assignment to report on advanced motorcycle training for Army Special Forces troops. Since more of our elite commandos had fallen to the perils of two-wheeled transportation (and likely four-wheeled idiots on cell phones) than enemy fire since 9/11, the Army set out to do something about it.
Puget Sound Safety was contracted to teach a series of mentoring classes to Special Forces troopers so they could pass along their knowledge to other troops, the way the military conducts most of it’s training. Since Victory supplies the instructor bikes, and they had a spare, they invited me along to take part, and to do a little exploring in what’s arguably the best motorcycle state. If you want to read more about the class, pick up the February 2012 issue of our sister publication Motorcycle Cruiser.
Helen Hunt Falls
The Collegiate Peaks
“Hurry Up and Wait” is a term coined by the military, and it’s no joke, so there was plenty of time not teaching the fine art of motorcycling to get out and live a little. Colorado Springs is nestled right up against the Front Range of the Rockies, and as such, there is no lack of twisting roads and breathtaking scenery. Some of it is basically right in town. Helen Hunt Falls (named after the writer, not the actress) in Cheyenne Canyon Park and Garden of the Gods are both nice rides and sights, but also basically just outside the city itself.
US 50 by the Arkansas.
Discounting the ski resort towns up in the rockies, there’s few better jumping off spots than The Springs. Most day trips will either start with a run up US 24 to the West or perhaps south toward Cañon City and the mountains beyond. You could also go east is flat farmland is your thing, or north if you like big cities (Denver).
Luckily for me, the instructors from Puget Sound were still eager to explore the area after spending all day talking motorcycles in the classroom, and all afternoon teaching motorcycles on the range or out on the road. Our first trek was out to local riding spot Cripple Creek. An old mining town near the tree line, the Creek is where the locals who like the twisties go to give their bikes a workout. Besides the mining town itself, there are a slew of secondary roads in the area that wind through the gorgeous forested mountains. While all the signs to Cripple Creek point to the main State Road (SR) 67, County Road (CR) 1 is far more entertaining. We strung CR-1 into CR-11, then on to SR-9, as mountainous blind twists turned to rolling hills (and more than a few cops).
To make a loop of it, we took US-50 into Cañon City. It would have been a quick hour ride back to the Springs, but with the long supper days, we decided to be tourists. Our first stop, a couple miles off of Interstate 50, was Royal Gorge. The Gorge is a full-on family friendly tourist trap, complete with admission fees, an aerial tram, and a zoo full of bison and bighorn sheep. For us, the main attraction is the gigantic suspension bridge that you’re allowed to ride across.
Most of Colorado is not for the acrophobic, but the Royal Gorge Bridge merits special mention. With nothing but heaving, swaying wood slats between you and a near 1000 foot drop into the Arkansas River, it’s not a ride many will take on two wheels. Back on 50, we made a point of taking a detour to ride Cañon City’s famous Skyline Drive.
Just before Cañon, the PSS boys pointed out a couple buildings in a parking lot with an arch at the back of it that lead to what looked like a paved goat path up a hill. This is Skyline Drive. Maybe it’s the time of year, or my jaded LA eyes, but a run up a narrow ridge that overlooks a small city, in the evening with lights just coming on, was nice, but nothing to write about… oh wait, maybe it was. The one-way road was a fun little diversion, but no reason to visit Cañon City.
Long Range Deployment
Get on down to South Park…and prepare to get cold, and dirty. It’s amazing to me how much more ground you can cover solo. Is it as safe or soul satisfying as riding in a group? No. But the sheer numbers you can put up are pretty awesome when you make all of the decisions and only stop for you. I went for a big loop my second trip through the area. At this stage of the training course, there was a night ride, so I had all day to explore on my own. Remembering a slice of Colorado I explored during an ATV trip years ago (the Banana Belt), I headed back there.
As I stated before, US-24 is the prime route out of Colorado Springs, and if I just kept on truckin, I’d have gotten to Buena Vista (the center of Bananaville) in a hurry. But what is a bike trip in Colorado without traversing a high mountain pass? After crossing the Front Range immediately outside of the Springs, I dropped into the South Park area. Yes, that South Park. But there is no South Park City, it’s more of a region, with the fictional city based on the town of Fairplay, the county seat. Descending into South Park gives the sense of dropping into a deserty plain, but the whole area is above 9000 feet, and covered in a thick blanket of snow most of the winter. The vista is contrasted by another row of snowcapped mountains far to the west (even in July), the Collegiate Peaks.
Turning off of 24 onto SR-9 the flattish pastureland continues. Fairplay is a sparse collection of houses and gas stations, with that blue blue sky of high elevation. I lied, there is a South Park City, but it’s just a tourist trap; a rebuilt mining town from the Colorado Gold Rush era, set up as a museum for school children.
Just up the road form Fairplay is Alma, the highest city in the US. But it’s beyond Alma that things get interesting. The SR-9 rises relentlessly up the east wall of a long valley, with a series of small settlements along the banks of the South Platte River. Soon enough, I was approaching the tree line, with the snow-capped mountains of the Mosquito Range closing in. Seeing the headwaters of any major river gets more for some reason, and this ascent was no different.
I probably don’t need to tell you that while crossing mountain passes, you need to dress warm. If you bring your tank top and bare head, you’ll probably not have a good time. Heck, if you only bring chaps and a halfie, you’re still probably a little miserable.
At the top I had a decision to make, continue into Breckenridge on the other side then back through Leadville, or just turn around and head straight back to Buena Vista. It seemed like I’d not have quite enough time to complete my very ambitious loop if I continued this way, so I turned back. The time crunch was from the uncertainty of road conditions on the pass I really wanted to try, which was the very challenging Tincup pass, 60ish miles to the South.
The bonus of going back was not only time but discovering a new road (to me anyway) in the US-285 south of Fairplay. Unlike crossing South Park, this stretch is more like mountain riding. No huge climbs and passes, but just a nice meandering twist through the mountains, not challenging at all, finally dropping into Buena Vista after reconnecting with US-24. Beautiful country, like so much is around here.
My next stop was the ghost town of St. Elmo, high in the Collegiate Range, then the Tincup Pass beyond. There are a couple ways to get there from Byunie (as the locals call Buena Vista), the easy way to explain is south on 285 to another ghost town named Nathrop, then west on CR-162, aka Chalk Creek Drive. But the other way, which I found in my ATV explorations years ago, was to take CR-321 to Chalk Creek, which is far more entertaining, but harder to find. Break out your GPS for a treat.
Actually don’t. Not if you’re averse to gravel and high grades. All of this riding was leading up to an extended trip up Chalk Creek Drive to St Elmo, mostly in the dirt. See, before, I’d stopped my hauler partway up Chalk Creek, and taken off down a dirt trail to the top of the very impressive Mt. Antero, while this time I was just continuing on. As far as gravel roads go, it’s not too bad; fairly solid footing with hard pack underneath. But a mistake will take you and your bike into Chalk Creek with a long wait for another driver to see you.
Sometimes it pays to get dirty in Colorado.
The Cross Roads handled the climb with ease, its very mellow powerband made it easy to keep the machine planted and chugging up the steep grade. If you’re expecting some sort of “wow” moment at the end of this climb, you’d be disappointed. St Elmo is just a run down old mining camp, with about half of the buildings uninhabited. There’s a store (offering ATV rentals) and a few houses. If you (like me) have your heart set of crossing the pass… well, lets just say you’ll be needing one of those ATVs. Tincup pass is not a gravel road, or even a fire road, it’s a trail, meaning small 4WD vehicles and dirtbikes, not 850 pound tourers. After a brief rest stop I had to turn back for a second time.
This was all fine, as the trip up on gravel ate up a bunch more time, and the shadows were getting long. As a person who has never seen well at night, most twisting Colorado highways are petrifying to me in the full dark, so I got a move on back. But that didn’t mean no more fun stuff.
I descended the Chalk Creek and on to Salida in plenty of time to take a blast down US-50 alongside the Arkansas River. This is one of my favorite kinds of road: Twisting and technical, but with good sightlines from corner to corner, and gorgeous scenery throughout. From there, I ended up back in Cañon City, but one last notable thing happened on CO-115 on the road into Colorado Springs, as the sky lit up as a glorious sunset and a double rainbow formed to my right. Perfect timing both for avoiding a night ride on potentially hazardous roads, as well as pure beauty.
Ca�on City’s Skyline Drive
Small Unit Tactics
The compromise between a big group of riders with differing agendas (and lots of smoke, photo, and bathroom breaks), and the pure solitude of a solo ride, is a small group ride. After going through Special Forces (motorcycle) training, I met a few of our elite soldiers that were still spoiling for a ride after a week of training. Not surprising, as a) nobody was forcing them to ride a bike, and in fact, it’s made more dificult by mandatory training and b) with a hatful of new skills to try out, who wouldn’t want to go tear it up a little.
I met up with Wes Drake, who was eager to show me some road he’d discovered with his family the previous winter while (unfortunately) riding in the family truck. The Wet Mountains are a small sub-range of the Rockies south of Cañon City. After meeting up with Drake at his homestead on CO-115, we continued south on CO-67 through rolling pastureland, climbing through the foothills of the Wets. Once linking up with CO-96, the climb starts for real. But unlike some mountain passes with huge drops and blind corners, 96 (while steep) has good sightlines and not too many scary drop-offs.
Turning south on CO-165, the Greenhorn Highway, the views and twisting road continued, until we stopped for a break at Bishop Castle. Unlike so many other privately-built monuments, this one was not encouraged by state and local authorities. We’re not sure of the reasoning, but Jim Bishop has had nothing but trouble with the authorities since starting the project in the late 60s. We’re not sure if it will ever be completed (Jim’s kids might not have his fortitude when it comes with dealing with The Man), but the 160-foot structure is an impressive monument to the ingenuity of its creator. The rock arches reminds me of Antoni Gaudi’s work in Spain, but for those of you who aren’t architecture geeks, suffice to say, it’s gorgeous and fun.
Almost all parts of the castle are accessible. The spiral staircases are cramped and twisted and the exterior wrought iron walkways are panic inducing, as are the views from the high towers. Perhaps the government objections are safety-related, as there are quite a few things that seem not all that stable, or the bell mounted in the middle of the spiral staircase to the tallest tower. But all in all, a very fun an unique attraction that is absolutely free. Local bikers apparently donate quite a bit to Bishop’s cause, which makes sense, with our predilection for good roads, fun destinations, and sticking it to The Man.
I spied Bishop himself working on an outbuilding of the castle that seemed to connect to a new underground section. Just like the rest of the castle, it seems ambitious beyond reason, but every bit as cool.
Continuing down 165, we stopped in at Lake Isabel for a bite at the diner there. Exploring a little, we continued down the road the resort is on, only to find that it simply circles the lake, but is a nice piece of tarmac nevertheless. Looking at our watches, we realized we didn’t have too much time for making a big loop out of the ride (I had a plane to catch), like so often this trip, it was time to double back. But when the roads are like this, in a state like this one, I can’t say I ever cared. B
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