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Cycling Independence Pass 14 September 2010

Posted by magicdufflepud in Colorado Passes, Cycling.
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Key Stats

– Start location: Aspen, CO

– End location: Aspen, CO

– Route type: Out and back

– Directions: Take Colorado 82 east from Aspen. No other possibilities.

– Vertical: 4000′

– Distance: 18 miles one-way (from Aspen)

– Average grade: 4.2%

– Steepest sustained grade: 7%

– Surface type/condition: Chip seal/bumpy, potholes, some sand

-Other notes: Pack cold weather gear. Descending from 12,095′ is a lot nippier than climbing it. Also, you know, Colorado weather changes without much warning.

From May through late September, you can drive Independence Pass. For some amount of time on the other side of those dates, you can probably snowmobile it. But why choose either when you can climb 4000 feet on two wheels?

Bike Independence Pass. People will think you rock.

Topping out 12,095 feet, Indepedence Pass rises higher than any other paved pass in the state. Cars gasp for oxygen at this altitude. Lesser humans turn back or faint. Someone’s always around to complain that it’s “too damn cold and windy up here.” And that same person is the one who’ll ask, “So you rode a bike all this way? Isn’t that, you know, hard?” And yes, it is hard, but well worth it since Independence Pass offers one of of the best, most scenic climbs in the state, and probably all of America. 10/10. In the fall, with the aspens ablaze, you may turn the dial to 11. It’s better, you see.

 

Your starting valley

 

The ride begins in Aspen or Twin Lakes, two cities so different you’ll wonder how they coexist in the same state. Not that Twin Lakes is straight outta’ Compton, but the down payment on any house in Aspen could probably pay for a sizable portion of the clapboard shacks on other side of the pass. In Colorado-speak, this means that while Aspen has cachet, Twin Lakes has “charm,” the last stop before obsolescence or super-stardom. See: Telluride.

Anyway, spend a night in Aspen, experience the town, marvel at both the restraint and the glitz. By constrast, Breck exploded on the scene, with developers tripping over themselves to build mid-range condo towers. Vail grew by design, the Disney World of major ski resorts. But Aspen stayed small and grew expensive. Nothing about this movie-star hangout is real, of course, but it’s classy. Aspen thrives without condos; expansive lawns take up valuable real estate. Ignoring the mountains for a moment, it could look like Upstate New York–with a median household value just south of $800,000.

Leaving town, head east on Colorado 82. It’s possible to park in Aspen itself, but the myriad parking restrictions and any lingering insecurities you may hold about stabling your Honda alongside a Bentley, make a pull-off somewhere up the road a more attractive option. You’re heading up the Roaring Fork valley at this point, a largely natural area that receives federal protection several miles up the way. For now, though, enjoy the couple rolling miles that warm up the legs for the ascent ahead. Get used the the bumpy road, as well. In all but a few places, this is a shoulderless route on crappy pavement. The views and the accomplishment make up for it.

Somewhere late into mile two or early in mile three, the road turns uphill, following the north side of the valley at grades between 4 and 7 percent. For the next few miles you wind your way through mixed pine and aspen forest. The truly enormous aspens receive their own gravel pull-offs and and from these, well-worn footpaths lead to better views. Farther along, you’ll begin passing “Road Narrows/ 15 m.p.h” signs, followed by “Do Not Pass” and then when it seems the road can grow no narrower, between miles 5 and 6 it slims to barely more than one lane, hugging a cliff face for several hundred yards. There is no good way to please drivers through this section. Don’t dawdle, but do admire the view. This is the first section to open up beyond the trees.

The views remain for the next couple miles as the road cuts a path between the creek and the valley wall. Another valley spreads to the east. At mile 8, mountain bikers and more adventurous drivers can take the dirt road back to Grizzly Reservoir and even those on more delicate frames can enjoy a dunk in the frigid Roaring Fork just beyond the parking area. Here, at 9800′ Colorado 82 turns away from the central valley, finally setting a course toward Independence pass–no detours available. It’s a relatively inauspicious beginning, however, rising steadily at grades between 2 and 4 percent for the next 5 miles.

Ever so slightly, the pines back off the road, offering bigger and better vistas until finally, several hundred yards beyond the switchback at mile 12, they give way entirely. The true tree line waits closer to the pass, but count yourself out of the woods for the remainder of the journey. The next 5.5 miles are all alpine, and true to Colorado fashion, pass a 19th century ghost town. No Colorado pass is complete without a few good abandoned structures. Independence, however, became a full scale town in 1880 when prospectors moved in looking for gold. Some 2,000 people lived and worked at 10,900′, and today, quite a few structures remain. The residents, though, disappeared when the gold became too difficult to reach and long, frostbitten winters no longer ended in riches. They packed their things and (yes, this is true. I asked teh internets) skied into Aspen on planks they’d fashioned from the wood in their homes. In the 1930s the government came back and blowed up the mines to discourage interlopers, and you, from exploring them.

Passing Independence reveals the final, brutal switchback. The steep stuff returns, ascending at 6-7% without respitefor a couple miles, but in return, the valley floor drops away and the view improves with every pedal stroke. The road tops out at a parking area few hundred yards past the end of the switchback. Prepare to leave your bike behind and wander along the paved trails to the scenic overlook toward the Twin Lakes side of the pass. As so often happens crossing these passes, you’re standing on the Continental Divide. La Plata Peak looms large to the east, all 14,334 feet of it. You may now, as necessary, begin acknowledging compliments about just how hard core you are.

One final note: careful on the descent. Bumpy roads make control difficult and sight-lines never extend far until that last few miles. Be on the lookout for potholes as well. Some look large enough to swallow even 27″ tires.

All the photos:

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