Colorado Rocky Mountain Bonanza

Bagging passes in Southwestern Colorado

Passes are a coded language as well as a form of cultural currency in Colorado. It's a phenomena created mostly by simple geography. When you're in the mountains, passes are often your sole route through them. Those who spend their time exploring Colorado, then, become intimate with the passes.

"Let's do Mosquito," for example, is a coded term expressed to those who understand the conditions. For a group of mountain bikers, the phrase evokes a six-hour odyssey of pain followed by a 45-minute adrenaline rush on the way down. For hikers, the same term designates a three-day excursion. For motorcyclists, crossing Mosquito is a half-day adventure on a GS, or an easy two-hour blast on a KTM 450EXC.

The currency comes in what you've done and how you've done it. Status in the Colorado circles I'm fond of is often a function of outdoor experience. If you want to talk the talk, you had to have bagged some peaks, passes or perhaps critters. The tougher the experience, the higher your cred.

The Plan
The BMW Motorcycle Club of Colorado has created an ad hoc contest called the Pass Bagger 50. Once you cross 50 mountain passes in the Centennial state, your name gets added to the Pass Bagger Hall of Fame. Since 2004, a few folks have made the list each year. The poster child for the event is Randy Bishop, who has extensively documented his crossings of 131 passes. He also has ridden the Iron Butt on a KLR.

The concept fascinated me, and I recruited my friend Peter Peil to join me. Pete lives in Leadville, and has been a nurse forever, which means he can set his own schedule. He and his KLR are always ready for a ride. Well, Pete's always ready, but the KLR is-more often than not-in need of some duct tape and baling wire to finish the day.

I had recently begun working with Warren Egger, whom I met after I moved to Austin with my Cagiva Lucky Explorer (trailered through 1,000 miles of snow). Warren was the sales manager at the local Ducati dealership, and came out to check out my lumpy Italian adventure rig. We've been working and riding together ever since.

He invited me to join him on a weekly ride he led in nearby Hill Country. Warren showed me the nastiest, snakiest, beat-up pieces of tarmac in the county, and judging from how he rode them, he knew every single pothole. Warren also leads just the way I like to ride. Fast in the corners, moderate in the straights, with a wheelie thrown in for good measure.

So when the Colorado passes idea was hatched, I invited Warren. He had recently done some pass-bagging with his buddies, and was free. Like Pete, Warren is single and unencumbered. When the road calls, he answers.

We lined up some bikes with Vail Off-Road Tours, which had a couple of KLRs with bags available. The gig was on.

Cool Beginnings
After landing at the Denver airport, we stepped out onto the curb to meet Pete. Warren took a deep breath, and beamed.

"Do you feel that?" he said to me.

"Oh yeah," I responded. "Cool air."

Austin in the summer is hot. May gets warm, June is a bit toasty, and July can be steamy. By August, it's just plain melt-your-shoes hot. In central Texas in August, cool air is cultural currency.

Pete rolled up in his white Ford van, a 12-passenger beast known as "The Whale." The van is equipped with a homemade bed and every piece of outdoor equipment imaginable. Pete pointed the Whale west on I-70 and Warren and I savored the air all the way to Vail, where we met Joe Drew.

Drew owns Vail Off Road Rental, and had the KLRs waiting for us. One was a minty fresh 2009, and the other was a 2005 model tarted up with the usual KLR engine and suspension mods.

The cool air was turning mountain-cold, so we put on a few layers of fleece and headed to Pete's place in Leadville. We rode Highway 24 along the Arkansas River, and I was reminded of the magic of Colorado riding. Highway 24 was a transport section, just a way to get from A to B. Not a scenic byway or anything you'll find in a guidebook. Just another road in Colorado.

It was drop-dead gorgeous. The road, snaking along a deep canyon, is a sinuous piece of pavement, with some wonderful 10 and 15-mph curves. I was on a bone-stock 2009 KLR, which has wonderful ergonomics and deathly soft front suspension. No matter-the road was so good I could play apex-strafer for a few miles.

That night, we sat in Pete's kitchen and laid out a GPS and a Colorado atlas. Warren had several rides in his Garmin that he'd done in the past, and they gave us a nice starting point. We then began stringing out routes that ran from pass to pass, avoiding pavement if possible. We also avoided the roughest pass trails. Our KLRs would be loaded with gear, so singletrack and boulder-climbing was not in the program.

The next morning, the thermometer at Pete's house read 33 degrees. Leadville is the highest town in America at 10,200 feet, which means even summer temperatures can be cool. The air still felt sweet, as the sun was surprisingly warm.

I put on a couple of extra layers under my Darien, and headed out. I wired up my electric vest, but as usual, didn't need it. I love electric vests, but the only time I really used one heavily was in Alaska-in the pouring rain, in dirt bike gear. When you have a solid jacket and good clothing, I just don't think electric vests are necessary.

I moved over to the 2005 KLR, which worked well, thanks to some judicious engine and suspension upgrades-plus it had electric grips. Those, on the other hand, are tremendously useful. Just a touch of warmth to your fingers makes a huge difference on a cool day.

We wound our way out of Leadville, through Buena Vista, and up toward Cottonwood Pass. According to the wonderfully informative book, The Passes of Colorado by Ed and Gloria Helmuth, Cottonwood Pass was the mid-1800s route of choice to access the Taylor Park area and Aspen. The pass was kept open all winter long with a snow tunnel at the top, and the natural hot springs on the east side provided a wonderful rest stop.

The hot springs are still a pretty nice stop, but we had miles to go. Up the pass we went, with a mandatory stop at the top to soak in the view at 12,126 feet, on top of the Continental Divide.

The road heading down the west side of Cottonwood is a snaky little piece of gravel that twists onto itself under the shadow of the 14,000-plus-foot tips of the Collegiate Peaks, with the dark blue waters of Taylor Park Reservoir below.

The gravel begs you to hang it out a bit, a temptation I mostly avoided lest I be schooled in the art of lowsides by a heavily-loaded KLR. Not to mention highsides....

We wound past Taylor Reservoir, and then cut south to the tiny village of Tin Cup. The old mining town is a favorite of off-roaders, and has a great café and a little store with water, gifts, ice cream, and snacks.

We ran into a traveler on a Kawasaki Versys, who came over to lament the fact that he'd sold his KLR. He had the Versys tidily outfitted, but said the suspension wasn't as plush as the KLR on the rocky trail up to Tin Cup Pass.

After filling with water and talking travel with the Versys pilot, we headed south to Cumberland Pass. A road through this pass was first built in 1882 by miners hauling ore to the rail station in nearby Pitkin.

From Cumberland, we wound our way down to Lake City. Warren's realtor friend, Diane Bruce, had hooked us up with a cabin at The Texan Resort. The resort was first founded in Lake City in 1946, and now has a mix of small, older cabins with 1950s charm and larger log cabins built more recently.

The proprietor of the resort is Dan, who rolled up in a Willys Jeep to explain the lay of the land. He made some suggestions for places to photograph the sunset. That night, we sat on top of the hill above the resort and watched the sun sink into the night.

After breakfast, we were back on the pass trail. Our goal that day was Engineer Pass, which has a fairly rough and rocky approach. The trail up to Engineer is breathtaking, winding along an open mountain valley speckled with flowers and granite. On a glorious sunny day, the pine-scented mountain air was so crisp and cool I wanted to bottle it-and take that bottle home to Austin for a sip or two during the dog days of August.

The road from Engineer Pass over to Cinnamon Pass is easily one of the most dramatic in the lower 48. The high pass is well above treeline, and the mountains are coated with a calico blend of green and tan grasses and sand. The entire area is ringed with granite peaks, and the effect is otherworldly.

The pass is also open enough that the height is tangible. Riding a little piece of trail that leads up from Engineer Pass, in fact, gave me vertigo-heightening the sense that I was in a foreign land.

We wound our way past four-wheel-drive trucks and sheep over to Cinnamon Pass, so- named because of the tan color of the mountains surrounding it. The ride down from Cinnamon to Castle Lakes Campground is another stunner, and takes you to American Basin. When you drive into American Basin, the immediate reaction is to break into song.

We kept our melodies in check, instead returning back to camp to chill for a bit before heading out for a sunset shoot at a nearby ghost town. There, we were rewarded with a bit of "alpenglow," which is caused by the setting sun reflecting off the back of the mountain and onto the clouds above. The effect looks like tongues of fire licking the back of the mountain top.

Our final day was Monday, and the weather finally caught up to us. The rain never really came down too hard, and we were able to meander home, hitting a few more passes along the way while dodging the heavy stuff.

I'm now back in Austin, where it's still hot enough that I long for a long draught of cold mountain air. I do have a little bit of Colorado currency to throw around at parties, and I'm eagerly awaiting the moment I can throw down my tiny scrap of cred by saying, "Yeah, we did Engineer, Cinnamon, Cottonwood and Cumberland in a couple days."

That moment in the sun will come. Meanwhile, the boys and I have been strategizing. We did eight passes in three days of riding, that weren't even perfectly planned. With a little strategy, 50 passes in a week seems achievable.

Next year. Me

Contact Points:
Pass Bagging

Vail Off Road Rental
Dual-sport motorcycle and ATV rentals-along with maps and advice.
Avon, CO 81620

Colorado BMW Motorcycle Club
The BMW Motorcycle Club of Colorado hosts a contest in which you sign up and do 50 passes. Only a handful of folks do it each year.

Colorado Motorcycle Rides
An online guide to motorcycling in Colorado

The canyon on the way to Henson and Capital City, on the Alpine Loop just outside Lake City.
This meadow is essentially Capital City. A few houses in the meadow is the extent of the town. A nasty dirt road is the only access.
Checking the map in Henson, Colorado, a ghost town of a mining village founded in 1873.
The Texan Cabins is a resort in Lake City that features a mix of small old cottages and new log-built cabins for rent. The place has been in business since 1946.
The west side of Cottonwood Pass is a snaky dirt road that would bring out the Chris Carr in us all.
Warren Egger above Lake City, soaking in the cool air and the sunset.
The pass is also open enough that the height is tangible. Riding a little piece of trail that leads up from Engineer Pass, in fact, gave me vertigo-heightening the sense that I was in a foreign land.
American Basin-one of the jaw-dropping side trails off the Alpine Trail, a 65-mile off-road loop near Lake City, Colorado.
Alpenglow is a term for the reddish glow you see on mountains at sunset or sunrise. The term is German in origin and was made popular by outdoor photographer Galen Rowell.