On my first trip to Rocky Mountain National Park last spring, my family and I were standing on a gravel road gazing at a herd of mountain goats on a cliff above us. As we sat there with twenty or thirty other people craning our necks to catch a glimpse of the animals, I heard a sound that instinctively made me turn around and seek out the source: It was the sound of bicycle wheels on gravel.
I watched the rider as he pedaled by on a mountain bike and I thought to myself “Where does that road go?”. The road itself was closed to cars, so we couldn’t drive up and figure out. I pulled out my map and saw that it was called Old Fall River road. Immediately I knew I was going to have to ride it some day.
Cut to this year: Memorial Day was the day that all of the stars had come together and I found myself at a camp site with family and friends, suiting up to tackle Fall River Road for myself. Since the first visit I had returned to the park and driven the road in a car and I knew it was a bucket list sort of road. Many people ride the newer Trail Ridge Road that climbs a ridge above Fall River, and that road itself is utterly beautiful in itself. But the gravel, the switchbacks, and the more wild untamed nature of Fall River speak to me more as a cyclist and lover of dramatic vistas. I decided to ride up Fall River to where it connects with Trail Ridge and ride Trail Ridge back to the campsite. The route formed a tidy 40 mile loop with just over five thousand feet of climbing. Not too shabby!
As many know, this last winter was one of the worst snow years in Colorado history. The only silver lining to that sad fact is that a bad snow year means roads like Fall River, Trail Ridge, and even Mount Evans open earlier. Normally on Memorial Day the snow could still be 20-30 feet deep in some areas of the roads, but this year they were all but snow free. Just to be sure, I asked the ranger at the park entrance and she confirmed that Fall River was passable to bikes, but still closed to cars. Perfect riding conditions!
I hit this ride with my buddy Chris. Chris is a cycling enigma. He mostly sticks to MTB trails, but when he does head out on a road bike, the odds are that he can crush everyone else who is along for the ride. The fact that he rides an Scattante with a pink women’s saddle, wears cotton tee shirts, and sports a faded fanny pack add to his mystique. He refers to Boulder Roubaix as Boulder Roobidoo and doesn’t know that he has it wrong. I don’t correct him. His non-snobbishness is refreshing and is a great reminder for me to try not to be a ridiculous roadie. When out riding with Chris, we mock carbon wheels, Strava segments, and base training.
For these reasons Chris was the perfect buddy to tackle Fall River with. Sometimes you want to be a bike racer dork, but sometimes you need to strip that away and realize that the beauty of nature and a good climb are really what the sport is all about.
Fall River road didn’t disappoint at all. After a little hump up and out of Moraine Valley, we descended into another valley towards Sheep Lakes before taking a left up Fall River itself. The way the road disappears up the valley and into the heart of the mountains is simply stunning. It reminds me of the Hobbits heading for Moridor in Lord Of The Rings, but without the lava and the huge blazing eye in the sky.
After a few miles you hit a gate and the gravel starts. The road pitches dramatically upward and you start to work hard immediately. The gravel itself is very forgiving, and the road surface itself was very nice. You don’t need a mountain bike or even a CX bike to tackle this road. As the road climbs it is easy to get lost in the surrounding beauty. It takes the mind off of the pounding heart and heaving lungs. Everything becomes rhythmic. The road climbs directly up the valley and includes around 20 switchbacks, giving it a very European feel. Along the way there are Marmots galore, and you can also spot Elk along the way.
The distractions are welcome, because I usually don’t get to do climbs as long as Fall River, and my body starts to fatigue fairly quickly when going up. As we went higher the thinning air became quite noticable and slowed our upward progress proportionally. There was also a steady headwind ripping down the valley and when not sheltered by trees, it made the going all the more epic.
When nearing the final 20% of the climb, you can see the visitor center at the top perched high above on a ridge. The sight is both welcome and foreboding because you realize just how much further you have to go. My pace at this point slowed dramatically, at times dipping into 5 and 4 mph.
After one final switchback next to a particularly beautiful lake in a small alpine valley, there is one final half mile grind to the top. When I rode it there was still a canyon of snow melting, and the road surface turned to mud. The mud made momentum that much harder to attain, and I had to pick my line carefully in order to avoid getting completely bogged down.
After clearing that final pitch, we arrived at the top and enjoyed the fruit of our efforts while we tried to regain our breath. The views down what we had just climbed were terrific, and the sense of accomplishment was commensurate with the challenge. Chris took the opportunity to strike a ridiculous pose before continuing on our way.
As awesome as the ascent of Fall River was, the “descent” of Trail Ridge Road was equally horrific. While up there we experienced the strongest winds I’ve ever felt on a bike, and we were nearly tossed over the side of the mountain a few times. The headwind was brutal and made even riding down the mountain a herculean effort. Anticipating lower temperatures at the top, I had brought a vest and arm warmers to add to my base layer and long sleeve jersey, but they weren’t enough. Neither was Chris’ cotton tee shirt and wind breaker. On the way down the mountain we froze our a**es off. By the time we reached one particular overlook the shivering was so severe that it was difficult to control the bike and speaking was all but impossible. We were forced to pull over to thaw or fingers and while doing so we communicated mostly with grunts and moans. Had there been any of the typical high mountain thunderstorms or precipitation while we were up there, our situation would have gone from merely miserable to downright dangerous.
Eventually we descended into relatively warm air and made it safely down to the campsite in the valley. The added adversity of the cold and wind were a bit rough, but they added a bit of the sense of epic to the ride so in retrospect I’m glad to have the as a part of the memory.
If you head up Trail Ridge or Fall River yourself, be sure to check road conditions, check the forecast, and then pack plenty of cold weather layers regardless of what the weather report says.
Having ticked Fall River off my list, I’m now looking for another Rocky Mountain climb to tackle. Suggestions are always welcome.