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Cycling Lookout Mountain 11 August 2010

Posted by magicdufflepud in Cycling, Uncategorized.
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If you have ever sinned a great sin against a cyclist, you may atone for it by riding Lookout Mountain. There waits the ritual purification of climbing.

When I first drove up Lookout, I marveled at the cyclists completing the same task on two wheels and under their own power. “Intense,” I told C—, “I’d be hating life if that were me.” And at the time, that would have been the case, but several hundred miles and many thousands of feet climbed separate that time from now. My tune has changed. So will yours if you’ve never given this great little ride a try. It’s only twenty minutes from Denver, and mile-for-mile absolutely the most scenic route this close to downtown. Hands down.

Let’s start with the important part: the climb. This about sums it up.

7 sad states have high points shorter than this climb.

Rising 1300′ give or take  from the curiously-named Beverly Heights Park to Buffalo Bill’s grave—yes, that Buffalo Bill—Lookout Mountain is Real Big. Maybe not Colorado big, where passes routinely involve 3000-4000 uphill feet, but at an average grade of 6.1%, this thing’s not joking. Of course, it’s not as though anyone laughing either. They’re grimacing, mostly. And you will too at first.

The ride begins at A,  just outside Golden. It’s highway the whole way from Denver, too. Just stay on, or get off on US 6, and take a left on 19th.

And then it’s pretty simple, really: park the car, get your biking self together and point the front wheel uphill. As you can see from the elevation, however, you get about a half mile to warm up and then the pain begins. It’s a subtle thing, though, since way back in 1917 (did you notice the date on the gates when you started?) the engineers designed the road for maximum scenic value and, consequently, maximum windiness. You’ll rarely see more than a couple hundred feet ahead. If you’re a Denver-area English teacher, a ride up Lookout offers an excellent way for your students to muddle the distinction between torturous and tortuous.  Field trip!

Regardless of whether you can divine the road ahead, the view to the right continues to improve as you climb. The initial mile or so heads north, giving you the chance to peer over a miniature version of Golden, the Coors Brewery and Table Mountain. Start your ride after 5:30 in the summer and you’ll spend the entire time taking in the scenery during what photographers call the “golden hour,” those fleeting minutes of every day where the light strikes the landscape just right and everything seems to glow. And because afternoon thunderstorms roll over Denver more or less every day, you’re going to see a lot of rainbows if you make this trip enough.

I say all those nice things to make you forget that this is indeed a climb involving several stretches of 9% grades. The scenery grows no less pleasant as you turn away from Golden at mile 1.2. Clear Creek Canyon opens ahead and you’ve put the really nasty stuff behind you for a bit. At 4%, those big switchbacks feel positively flat, although on days when the wind howls down the canyon, you may wish for the steep stuff  just to be rid of the gale. With the switchbacks behind you, the road briefly swings back over Golden then turns up a gulch toward Windy Saddle–the three mile mark. If you’re not concerned about timing yourself up the mountain, the parking area here provides a view well worth a stop and a place to start your ride if you’d prefer a “Lookout-lite”: 400 vertical feet from this to the full ride’s 1300.

Although Windy Saddle sits more than two thirds of the way up the mountain, I’ve always found that road beyond this point seems the most difficult. The several steep switchbacks that follow feel much worse coming off the easier stretch, but they lead to an even better view and what will by then seem like a benign 4% grade into the summit.

There’s a gift shop and interpretive center up there, but I’ve never felt an inclination to wander into either. If you must know, though, Buffalo Bill was a crazy young, and later, old, coot who ran around American and Europe with a bunch of Indians in tow presenting a caricature of the West in his Wild West Show. You can blame him, John Wayne, and Clint Eastwood for most of the silly, romantic things people believe about this part country today. The real West sprawls before you from the viewing platform behind the gift shop. Here you can see the Denver skyline, the suburban blight, the reservoirs, the highways. Look at all that and then buy a panoramic postcard of it in the gift shop.

The ride back down defines “technical descent.” Prepare yourself and your brakes for switchbacks at high speed. Despite the rare and easily-spotted patch of sand or gravel, the descent never gives reason for concern. The last third of a mile even received new pavement this summer, and the rest is nice enough. Back at your car, take a look at your watch. Bet it took less than an hour if you didn’t dawdle. You’ll be hard pressed to find a better value for your post-work minutes, and although that means you’ll often run into other folks along the way, you can now share in their pain. And their joy.



1. Cycling Berthoud Pass « Colorado: Wandered - 30 August 2010

[…] while back, I mentioned that despite being Really Big, Golden’s Lookout Mountain fell short of truly enormous when placed alongside other climbs here in Colorado. Berthoud, on the other hand, […]

2. Cycling Fremont Pass « Colorado: Wandered - 25 August 2011

[…] climbing at better than 8 percent. And it never really seems to back off in the way sections of Lookout Mountain do. Along the way, you’ll catch glimpses of Ten Mile Creek, which cuts from the left, the […]

3. MinePE - 4 March 2012

The views from Lookout Mountain are great but you are in for some serious pain if you want to take this on a bicycle. Be careful coming down too. If your brakes fail it is a long way to the bottom after you jump the first guard rail.

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