Thursday, February 22, 2007

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When you look at maps of the Rocky Mountain States, you can find a multitude of incredible two-lane bike touring roads throughout each state. It can make it very difficult to choose tour routes with only a seven day timetable without feeling that if you're not careful, you just might miss something special. That's why my riding buddy Leslie Smith and I spent months, starting this past winter, e-mailing and phoning suggestions to each other on the routes we planned to ride this summer. We finally settled on a trip that would take us through the deep canyons, high prairies and mountain passes of Wyoming and Colorado.

We packed our bikes at my place and took off on the first leg of our trip riding north out of Denver on I-25 to Casper Wyoming. (Leslie is with the Duce and I'm with the Deluxe) It was one of those "git-there" interstate rides that turned into a pretty nice leg once we were north of Fort Collins, Colorado. The traffic thinned out and we could enjoy the rolling prairies to the east and the Front Range of the Rockies to the west. We were riding the Interstate to Casper because this was the jumping off point on the first touring route we decided to take on our way to Jackson Wyoming. We blasted through some rain just south of Casper and pulled into our hotel late in the afternoon. We got some dinner, a few brews, and hit the sack in anticipation of our ride across Wyoming the next day.

The next morning we headed west out of Casper on Route 220. Once the road rounded Casper Mountain, the land opened up into a beautiful vista of rolling hills and red tinted cliffs accented by the North Platt river flowing along the highway. In less than 20 miles from Casper the road flattened out into the Sweetwater Valley, and seemed to point straight at the Granite Mountains rising above the horizon many miles away. The highway on this leg of our tour was flat with few bends in the road, and traffic so light that it allowed Leslie and I to enjoy the beauty of central Wyoming. Both sides of the road offered views of open grasslands and huge ranches that had frontages on the highway that went on for ten to fifteen miles.

In what seemed like no time at all, we arrived at Independence Rock. A massive blob of domed red granite rock that had been pushed up from deep within the earth eons ago. The rock itself covers 27 acres and is 700 feet wide and 1,900 feet long. It stands 136 feet tall from the flat prairie below and it became a famous landmark on the Oregon Trail that Indians, and Americans, heading west would etch their names into for all time. It was given the name Independence Rock in 1830 when a wagon train of ten wagons camped at the rock during July 4th and christened this landmark with it's name.

Another point along on the Oregon Trail in the same area along route 220 is Devil's Gate. A massive 1,500 foot fissure in a rocky ridge that is 370 feet high and less than five miles from Independence Rock. It was another landmark along the Oregon Trail that kept the wagons on a path through the Sweetwater Valley on their western migration.

It is near Devil's Gate that the Farris Mountains, that were no more than a silhouette on the horizon just 60 miles ago, came into full view on the western side of the highway. A typical western landscape with a mountain range sandwiched between blue sky and brown sagebrush that goes on for miles.

The semi-arid plains of sagebrush and sandy soil through the Sweetwater Valley on route 220 contiued when Leslie and I turned to the northwest on route 287, at Muddy Gap (don't you just love that name?) taking us towards the Wind River Canyon. The ride changed from a mostly flat straight road to one that flowed up and down hills and through shallow valleys with the boulder stacked Granite Mountains off to our right. We knew we were getting close to the canyon when we could begin to see the Wind River Mountain Range to the northwest. Route 287 takes you right through Lander, Wyoming, and just west of Lander, the road enters the Wind River Indain Reservation, home to the Eastern Shoshone Indians. Leslie and I could see small farms and ranches dotting the reservation, which encompasses over two million acres, and the highway goes through the small town of Fort Washakie, the main town on the reservation. Once we made it to the western side of the reservation, the road entered the Wind River Canyon. Carved out of central Wyoming by the clear waters of the Wind River, it has iron rich red cliff sides, with lush green trees and plants following both sides of the river bed. As route 287 curves through the canyon, you can't help but be awed by the contrast of the green plants thriving off the river water, and the starkness of the rock and sand throughout the rest of the canyon beyond the river.
As the road moved us out of the canyon, the landscape went from dry rocky cliffs to lush forest of pine and spruce. Almost without warning the town of Dubois sprung up, and it's like just having been transported back to the late 1800's! Every building along the main street through town had exteriors built out of logs with old western facade fronts running the entire length of the street. It wasn't hard to imagine horses tied up to the hitching rails that completed the old west look of the town. If you were shooting a western in Dubois, you wouldn't have to change a thing to get the "cowboy look".

Once we rode out of this great little town, 287 started to climb towards Togwotee Pass (9,658 ft.) taking us over the Rocky Mountains and the Continental Divide, down to the Snake River and Grand Teton National Park. The road flattened out near the Snake River, and we turned south on route 191 at Moran Junction and marveled at the Teton Mountain Range to the west on our ride into Jackson Wyoming.

Leslie and I spent two days in Jackson so we could ride Grand Teton National Park and Yellowstone National Park. We had a blast riding along the Snake River, Jackson Lake, and Yellowstone Lake.

We saw plenty of critters the days we spent riding the area including Buffalo, Ospreys, Elk and Moose, in vistas that make you stop and gaze at the incredible beauty.

When the day gives way to night, it doesn't matter if you are on the plains or the mountains, the night sky in the West is a show all by itself. If it is a moonless night, the constellations are bright and well defined, and the stars blink and twinkle in their full glory. The two nights and days in Jackson went very fast, and once again we were on the bikes, heading south out of Jackson.

Route 191 takes you south out of Jackson into the Hoback Canyon. The canyon has the kind of curves, flowing river, and canyon walls that makes Harley touring so much fun. There are places along the Hoback River where the canyon narrows, making it seem as if the canyon is getting deeper and deeper. It isn't a very long canyon and when you ride out, you enter a wide green valley with Mesas and Buttes bording both sides of the valley. The further south we rode, the wider and the flatter the landscape became. There are a number of very small towns along the way, including a town called Eden! The sign said it has a population of 220, and in case you're curious; we didn't see any apples on the trees at all!

One of the bigger towns further south on 191 is the town of Farson on the banks of the Big Sandy River. Directly across from the Farson Post Office we stopped in a little pull-off and found three marble markers indicating that this was the spot where the Big Sandy Pony Express Station once stood. Although the Pony Express only lasted for about eighteen months from April 1860 to November 1861, it is one of the pillars of western lore that lasts to the very day. Leslie and I got a kick out of checking out this spot in Western history. It was a short ride from Farson to Rock Springs Wyoming, and a short hop on westbound I-80 for three exits to pick up route 191 again, and ride into the Flaming Gorge National Recreation Area. The Flaming Gorge National Recreation Area was created in 1968 and is shared by the states of Wyoming and Utah.

The Gorge is created by the Green River that begins back at the Wind River Mountains that we had passed three days ago. All Harley riders will understand when I say that route 191, through the canyons and hills of Flaming Gorge is like flying, even when you are only doing 40-45 miles an hour. The road flies up and down, back and forth, around red and white canyon cliffs covered in sagebrush and short cedar bushes.

At times the road allows you to see the river flowing towards the reservoir, and then the road brings you to a pull-off that gives you an expansive view of the Flaming Gorge Reservoir. The Reservoir stretches 91 miles to the north from Utah into Wyoming! Within 10 miles or so of the pull-off, you get to ride over the 502 foot tall Flaming Gorge Dam where the visitor center is located. As soon as we rode over the dam, and a bridge that spans one of the watery canyons, the road starts to climb out of the Gorge and enters the Ashley National Forest of Utah.

As we followed 191 south to Vernal Utah, within a few miles of Vernal the road drops down off a high plateau with 10-12 switchbacks. Leslie and I were enjoying the ride too much at this point to remember exactly how many, but it was another part of our tour where the road was made for "bike flying". We spent the night in Vernal recounting the magnificent ride from Jackson to Vernal, and looking forward to getting into the Colorado Rockies.

The next morning we headed west into Colorado on route 40 and as soon as we crossed the state line, the road took us past the southern portion of Dinosaur National Monument. Many millions of years ago, this area looked like a tropical landscape with tropical plants, dinosaurs, and an inland sea. In Dinosaur National Monument you can go on small bus tours and view huge dinosaur fossils. At this point we took route 64 through the oil and gas fields of northwest Colorado into the town of Meeker, where we dropped south on route 13 to Rifle Colorado.

In Rifle we caught I-70 and headed west into Glenwood Canyon on our way to Avon and route 24 that would take us to Leadville, Colorado. Glenwood Canyon is sixteen miles of wonder carved by the mighty Colorado River on it's way to the Grand Canyon, and was on of the last spots to be completed on the interstate highway system in 1992. After years of study a plan was developed that would create a four-lane highway that would not detract from the majesty of this canyon created in the middle of the Rockies. It has many pull-offs to view the canyon, the river, and the highway. In some places along the canyon, the east and west bound lanes are stacked on top of one another, and move through three tunnels in a creative design that keeps the interstate from destroying the beautiful floor of the canyon.

When we reached Avon we left I-70 behind and rode route 24 up and over Tennessee Pass (10,424 ft.) into Leadville. At 10,200 feet, Leadville is the highest incorporated town in America with a rich mining history that made many now famous people famous. One of those famous people was the wife of J. J. Brown, who we all know as the Unsinkable Molly Brown.

Also famous are the two highest mountains in Colorado just outside Leadville named Mount Elbert, (14,433 ft.) the highest mountain in Colorado.
Right next to Mount Elbert to the north, is Mount Massive, (14,321 ft.) the second highest mountain in Colorado. Both mountains are part of the Sawatch Range and can be seen from any corner in town.

Leadville was another two-day stop on our tour to experience riding the Rockies in this area. The next morning we jumped on the bikes and rode south of town on route 24 and hooked up with route 82 heading west past Twin Lakes Reservoir, and up the highest mountain pass on our Ride The West Tour. The creste of Independence Pass rises to 12,095 feet above sea level, and because of the heavy snows, it is always closed during the winter.

The bikes didn't complain at all during the climb, but once we arrived at the summit of the pass and pulled off into the main viewing area, my riding buddy Leslie started to do just that!

In all fairness, Leslie lives in Fairhope, Alabama, a town that doesn't rise any more than sixty feet above sea level. So when we stopped at the top of the pass, I must confess that my evil twin brother found it kind of funny to watch a big man concentrate on sucking in air while muttering, "I cain't breathe! I cain't breathe!". It didn't take to long before he found his breath and realized that he wasn't going to turn blue! We spent considerable time enjoying the view of the Sawatch Mountain Range with all of the snow glaciers in the area, and taking pictures from what seemed like the top of the world.

The next day when we left Leadville, we followed route 24 and the Arkansas River downhill through the northern tip of the Arkansas Valley in to the small town of Buena Vista. All along this ride south, we passsed at the foot of the Ivy League Peaks of Harvard, Columbia and Yale, each one over 14,000 feet! Just south of Buena Vista we turned northeast on route 285, the last route change on our tour, and a road that would take us back to Denver. We climbed over Turkey Creek Pass (9,346 ft.) on our way through the town of Fairplay, situated in a wide valley bordered by lush green mountain pastures to the east, and the mountains of Pike National Forest to the west. Just north of town we started to climb once again towards a high valley ridge called Red Hill Pass.

As we crested Red Hill Pass (9,993 ft.) and started down the eastern side of the ridge, a beautiful little valley spread out between Red Hill and Reinecker Ridge. Between the two are huge open grasslands to the south and two 12,000 foot plus mountains to the north named Palmer Peak and Little Baldy Mountain. There are a few working ranches along this stretch of route 285, and when you take in the whole scene it reminds you of a old western movie set. Once we cleared Reinecker Ridge a much larger valley lay in front of us with rolling hills and vast pastures dotted with cattle and horses enjoying a cool summer's day in a high mountain valley. As we passed through the cross roads town of Jefferson, we could see the road start to climb ahead, taking us up to the last pass on our ride.

Kenosha Pass (10,001 ft.) is surrounded by high alpine meadows filled with wild flowers and Aspen groves, framed by the Platt River Mounatins with peaks well over 12,000 feet. Once you are over Kenosha Pass the road starts to sink down into the Platte River Canyon, and from here, it's down hill all the way to Denver.

As we entered Platte River Canyon, the walls of the canyon started to grow on both sides, cradling the North Fork of the South Platte River, meandering along the side of the highway. Every so often one of the peaks of the Platte River Mountains would rise behind the walls of the canyon, making the canyon seem deeper than it truly is. Down the canyon we passed through small towns named Grant, Santa Maria, and Shawnee with populations counted only in the tens, or no more than in the few hundreds. Each town adding a quaintness and solitude to the beauty of an open road winding it's way through one of the last canyons on our ride.

Once we were pass Shawnee the land opens up into rolling hills taking our ride through small towns, ranches and forests, until the road drops once again into the canyon that will empty us out into the Denver Metro area. Turkey Creek Canyon had all the signs that we were getting near the end or our ride with more homes, stores and a big increase in the traffic heading down to Denver. With only a few more miles left to ride, the bitter sweet emotion of what a great ride this was, and how could it be over so soon, swept over both of us. When the canyon fell away, we were still high enough in the Front Range hills to see the Denver skyline pop up in front of us. With the sight of the skyscrapers I found myself wishing we had more deep canyons, high praires and mountain passes still to ride!