jump to navigation

Cycling Tennessee Pass 26 July 2010

Posted by magicdufflepud in Colorado Passes, Cycling, Uncategorized.
Tags: , , , , , , ,

Three posts constitutes a theme, I think, and if that theme is that cycling is becoming my summer complement to skiing… well, I’m okay with that. I can now legitimately say I ski and ride. That thanks to Colorado’s near-limitless and beautiful road riding opportunities. Really, as someone who enjoys writing, I ought to know more and better words for describing  the scenery in this state, but it defies a thesaurus. It’s jaw-dropping, heart-stopping, arresting, gorgeous, Edenic, paradisiacal. It’s just super duper if you ask me. Thankfully, writing is about nouns and verbs, not adjectives.

But cycling is about places to see and hills to climb and beers to be had afterward. For all that, you need to check out Tennessee Pass–ideally, from Minturn to Leadville. And back. The 60 miles involved may sound like more than enough, but after the first thirty, it no longer matters. It is very nearly all downhill, which of course means that half the ride went uphill. But no matter.

Check out the elevation profile:

Click to view full size. Battle Mountain is that first bump. It's more of a workout than it seems here.

Expect to burn in the neighborhood of 3100 calories. If you’re like me and measure workouts in fast food menu items, that’s a lot of McFlurries–or about three Chipotle burritos. And you thought they were healthy…

The ride begins in Minturn, a town of unclear purpose between Vail and Avon, and about a two hour drive from Denver. Claire and I departed on Saturday afternoon through a festival of some sort, one of those catch-all mountain town-type festivals that feature “local wares,” dream catchers, and bears carved out of stumps. As a rule, everyone who owns a ski condo shops at these festivals. I hate bears carved out of stumps.

Soon enough, because Minturn is about 100 feet long, US 24 heads out of town and turns up the valley following the Eagle River and a now-defunct rail line. Bumps and breaks in the road make this section less pleasant than it could be, but its two miles offer an acceptable warm-up for the climb that follows.

At almost two miles on the dot, the rails and road split way. The former continues its riparian journey and the latter clings to the valley walls, climbing from 8000 to 9200 feet in about four miles at somewhere between 6 and 7.5% grades the whole way. To a skier’s mind, that sounds like barely enough to start moving, but on wheels, gradients in that neighborhood exact a brutal toll on the lungs. The views at least remain a bright spot: the river that continues to fall farther below, 13,237′ Notch Moutain, and a several hundred foot cascade that falls into the Eagle River on the right.

Nearing the summit brings Gilman into view. Improbably perched on the cliffs overlooking the river, the town no longer serves any purpose. The EPA signed residents’ eviction notices in 1984 and declared the properties and the adjacent mine a Superfund site–uninhabitable. It’s not a ghost town in the romantic sense of the term, but in every other way, right down to the cars left in the carports, Gilman lays bare the forces that have shaped the west. If the funding comes through, the whole area will become a ski resort, replete with chalets and overpriced Bud Light. You may wonder how this squares with the area’s toxic status. The government, however, seems less curious.

The highways falls for a mile and a half after Gilman, a welcome and cooling relief that ends with the steel arch bridge at Red Cliff. If you have a camera, you will take a photo here not because anyone will want to see it, but because the bridge is that cool.

The next seven or so miles continue the upward trend, albeit at a less severe angle, leveling off as the road runs alongside the remains of Camp Hale, training ground for the 10th Mountain Division during and for sometime after World War II. Wikipedia also places it as a CIA training ground for Tibetan dissidents, drawing parallels with the Bay of Pigs invasion. For what it’s worth, this seems like one of the more, well, imaginative ideas I’ve discovered Wikipedia in a while. But who knows. It could be true. I could do more research, but rumors inspire more interest than fact.

What is true, is that the 10th Mountain Division spent most of its time skiing and shooting guns, occasionally at Italians, which is what its soldiers were trained to do in the first place. Another leg-burning six miles uphill (Be sure to stop at the “Standard Service” shack on the right for free water.) leaves you at Tennessee Pass’s 10,424′ summit,  Ski Cooper and a memorial for the men who died during that campaign. It also displays the 10th Mountain’s emblem: a fully-armed panda on skis. This Rambo Panda. Rambo Panda on skis.  I make a promise of payment in PBR or the bad beer of your choice if you can find a piece of ski gear that features it.

Descending from Tennessee Pass feels like entering another world. Gone are the cliffs and pines and bordered the road for the last 25 miles. Now, the highway stretches straight as a string across the valley toward Leadville. Fourteen thousand foot peaks loom on either side, and cows mill in bucolic bliss. If this isn’t the valley where every beef manufacturer makes its commercials, I don’t know what is. Feed lots have to suck after tenure at this, the Upper East Side of grazing addresses.

One last push and you roll into Leadville. I’ll save the description for another day, but suffice it to say the town warrants a stop when you’re in the neighborhood–if only because it offers the best happy hour on earth: from 3-7 two PBRs for $1. Drop in after a stop at High Mountain Pies. It’s a just reward for the 30 miles you put in, and the thirty breezy miles you’ll have ahead. But you really don’t need all that fuel. The return home takes half the effort and is twice the fun. Everyone likes going downhill.

Props to Claire for the majority of these photos.



1. Mom - 26 July 2010

It looks lke it was a spectacular ride. What beautiful country you have chosen for your home.

2. laura griffin - 26 July 2010

It is a tough ride. I always think some are crazy the corners through Red Cliff, falling rocks, cars that can’t see you. The views – amazing!!

Great photos. Leadville Lifestyle would love to run your article when you talk about Leadville. We receive large traffic and have high Google and Alexa rankings. Link to your blog of course.

3. Cycling Fremont Pass « Colorado: Wandered - 2 July 2012

[…] that’s it. Cross Fremont off the list. Then come back next weekend to give Tennessee Pass a […]

4. OkieJim - 23 August 2012

Nice writing and nice photos. Kudos! Was my winter route from ‘Bonedale to BV and John’s Disco Cabin, Park Co. (southern half). Keep up the good work!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: