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Cycling Berthoud Pass 30 August 2010

Posted by magicdufflepud in Colorado Passes, Cycling, Uncategorized.
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You know Berthoud Pass–probably as the inconvenient stretch of road that stands between you and a much shorter trip to Winter Park. And since the Ski Train stopped toot-tooting its way up to the resort last year–thanks, Amtrak–it is no longer simply slow, but mandatory as well. Not the winning combination. Bike rides, however, are optional, and while you might complain about the 24.3 miles between Empire and Winter Park come winter, spin easy for now in the knowledge that Berthoud Pass provides a pleasant diversion within an hour of Denver.

A 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, is appropriately large. The route ascends a vertical half mile, topping at out at more than two miles above sea level. That is, 2730′ up, reaching 11,330′ over the course of a little more than 13 miles. Check out the profile:

11,300' can be chilly at any time of year. Plan accordingly. (Click for larger image.)

You can see, then, that it’s not nearly so difficult as it sounds at first. Large? Yes. Daunting? No. Provided you’re not arriving from sea level anyway. Those seeking real challenge can head elsewhere, but if you’re in the mood for a fairly benign climb with alpine panoramas nearly the whole way, you’ll want to check out Berthoud Pass.

First, a word of warning: if you’re not into dealing with traffic, Berthoud’s not for you. As the only sensible route north in this neck of the woods, US 40 carries a consistent if almost constant stream of cars, trucks, SUVs and 18-wheelers. Thankfully, the shoulder offers a road unto itself, well more than a lane wide. And all that traffic has driven commensurate investment: new, smooth pavement and grades never that never exceed the dreaded 6% threshold. So it’s a double-edged sword. As much traffic on any other road, and you’d take your toys and go home, but Berthoud makes it bearable, if something short of ideal.

Lotta cars

There, you’ve been warned. So what’s in store?

Your starting point depends on how much you’re willing to endure, but Empire makes the most sense if only because bike rides should always begin or end at a place with greasy food readily available. Dairy King serves fried mushrooms, malts, burgers and anything else that makes cardiologists cringe. Bring cash, though. No plastic here. Anyway, Empire’s more or less like any other small mountain town where everything involves antiques and buildings that look on the verge of collapse. The petunias help, at least. I’m all for urban renewal.

As you ride away, you’ll get a couple miles to warm up and wonder why exactly Empire is called Empire. But before it really starts eating at you, you’ll arrive at the more aptly-named Berthoud Falls, which in reality comprises little more than a general store and, I think, a campground. You’ve been traveling up a reasonably scenic valley so far, and mile seven offers the first point of real interest, a distinct avy track to your left, much better than the one that ran down the drainage at mile four. Crashing downhill for at least a couple thousand feet, the wall of snow laid flat every tree in its path–a remind of the terrible things that will happen to you if ski backcountry without the proper knowledge. (/teachable moment)

From here on out, you can thank every engineer who slacked in college and chose to design highways instead. I’d give you the number of switchbacks involved but I’ve never been very good at counting, so how does “lots” sound? Good, right? The first and longest rises perpendicular to the valley you’ve just completed and offers frequent and unobstructed views of the highway below. The majority of the more difficult grades occur from miles seven to ten, yet between the smooth roads and soaring peaks, the climb itself never commands much attention. Be on the look for waterfalls as well. They continue to flow late into the summer. You’ll catch a lot of gravel, sand and rocks heading this direction, as well, all of which can be easily avoided. Unless you’re looking up at a mountain of course–a distinct possibility.

You’ll also notice a fair number of concrete troughs lining your side of the road. The shoulder and curb feed into them, and if you peer in, you’ll see what looks like a sluice gate facing down the mountain. Curious? It’s all part of an effort to control runoff from snow melt and heavy storms. Because the road itself won’t allow the water to seep into the ground as it might normally, it concentrates runoff that scours streams and erodes the hillside. By allowing the water to run into the troughs and pour out through the relatively small gate, the highway engineers have constrained the flow at any one time. Total volume’s the same, but it no longer occurs as one stream-destroying spike. Same idea goes for the retention pond behind the local strip mall. Now you know.

The final switchbacks offer views into the western extension valley you initially climbed and more peaks above treeline. Engelmann Peak with its magnificent cirque dominates the landscape across the way. If you remember nothing else on this ride you’ll remember Engelmann.

It’s also right around here that the money seems to have dried up. Just before mile 12, the expansive shoulder disappears and the asphalt cracks like the sun-parched bed of a vanished lake. It doesn’t last long–only the final mile–and at its end, you find yourself at a parking area on top of this little part of the world. Up to right lies the what’s left of Berthoud Pass Ski Area, reputed to be the first public ski hill in Colorado, its first rope tow installed in 1937. Over the years, the mountain never really got going like its next-door neighbor Winter Park. The final owner pulled up the stakes in 2002, but the area remains popular with backcountry enthusiasts attracted by easy accessibility and several hundred inches of pristine powder each winter. Looking due north you’ll see the summit station of Winter Park’s Panoramic Express and US 40’s switchbacks into the valley below. Farther away, but still visible on a clear day, are the Indian Peaks north-northeast of the overlook.

From here you can continue into Winter Park, a slightly shorter ride, or return to Empire. The descent never really allows for the speeds you’d like to achieve because of the traffic, and that first mile must be taken with care, but overall, it’s smooth sailing. Take care and enjoy the ride.



1. Mere - 31 August 2010

Beautiful pictures. Looked like fun (for someone your age).

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