Riding The Rocky Mountain Rocks On Honda’s CRF250L

The little Honda CRF250L dual sport helps discover why they call them “Rocky.”

It was billed as a three-day, turnkey Colorado visit: Fly into Aspen on Monday, fly home Friday, and in between ride as many high-altitude Rocky Mountain passes as possible.

By early Tuesday, we were off, heading out of our Carbondale base up the Fryingpan River. The air was crisp and cool, with a promise of midday heat.

Sheer rock on both sides decorate some sections of the climb to Hagerman Pass.
Sheer rock on both sides decorate some sections of the climb to Hagerman Pass.Charles Fleming

The bikes were running beautifully. My friends Mike Brown, Billy Boff and I were all riding low-mileage Honda CRF250Ls. They were a long way from stock, wearing aftermarket handlebars, footpegs, bash plates, mufflers, luggage racks, and, most importantly, Öhlins suspension front and rear.

Mike also said that Billy might have tinkered with the EFI mapping in his “skunk works” garage.

The climb to Hagerman Pass gets more scenic, but rockier, the higher it goes.
The climb to Hagerman Pass gets more scenic, but rockier, the higher it goes.Charles Fleming

Our first target was Hagerman Pass, which we’d achieved by late morning. At 11,925 feet, on the ridgeline of the Continental Divide, it hadn’t been too hard a climb. We rode mostly jeep roads, under fine blue skies dotted with puffy white clouds, here and there running through bedrock sections where the road had been carved out of the hillside.

Mike and Billy seemed pleased to have made the first pass of the day, and climbed to 11,925 feet on the Continental Divide. And, yes, that’s leftover spring snow, in September.
Mike and Billy seemed pleased to have made the first pass of the day, and climbed to 11,925 feet on the Continental Divide. And, yes, that’s leftover spring snow, in September.Charles Fleming

The thin air challenged the Honda I was riding, just a bit, giving the bike a slightly asthmatic feel. I could relate. Stopping at Hagerman for the obligatory selfies, I found myself breathing hard, my sea-level lungs not accustomed to the altitude.

We dropped from Hagerman past Turquoise Lake down into Leadville for gas and lunch, stopping on the main drag to admire the vintage Golden Burro Café and Manhattan Bar but taking our nutrition at Cookies With Altitude. I didn’t find the coffee and pastry made me breathe any better, but they were tasty just the same.

Mosquito Pass, at more than 13,000 feet, felt like an accomplishment. Not much air up there.
Mosquito Pass, at more than 13,000 feet, felt like an accomplishment. Not much air up there.Charles Fleming

Next stop, Mosquito Pass, and some harder riding. The afternoon had clouded over, with a threat of thunderstorms, so we hustled higher as the road went from paved to unpaved to rock—lots of rock, in lots of sizes, and some of it quite loose.

The little Hondas—thank you, Öhlins—performed well. On the faster roads they ran comfortably at 65 mph, and at midday we agreed that the stock seats were surprisingly comfortable. When we left the pavement, the little dual sports were more than adequate on fast gravel roads. When we hit the rougher stuff, they skipped over the rocky sections; the stock tires seemed to have no trouble holding a straight line.

But as the climb got steeper I was getting fatigued. I was grateful it was Mike—fit, 40, and accustomed to life in the diminished oxygen—who kept stopping to catch his breath. “Thank you, Mike,” I said over and over, inside my helmet.

The high passes in Colorado are dotted with the ruins of abandoned mines, like this section of London Mine near Mosquito Pass.
The high passes in Colorado are dotted with the ruins of abandoned mines, like this section of London Mine near Mosquito Pass.Charles Fleming

Mosquito—well above the tree line—tops out at 13,185 feet. The air was thin and the weather was turning. Billy, Mike, and I got blown around comically as we took pictures and scanned the horizon for approaching weather. It was coming. We didn’t tarry long, instead heading downhill over the rocks toward Fairplay.

Billy’s sharp eyes caught sight of three mountain goats—which I mistook for bighorn sheep—so I stopped to take pictures of the rare creatures as they climbed the rocks away from us.

There are several places on Mosquito Pass that really demonstrate why these are called the Rocky Mountains.
There are several places on Mosquito Pass that really demonstrate why these are called the Rocky Mountains.Charles Fleming

Mosquito Pass Road dropped us into Alma and Fairplay—the towns where the fictional TV show South Park is set. Grabbing gas and snacks, we learned the road toward Buena Vista, and our bed for the night, was closed due to construction.

Fast thinking and a few map consultations later, we had left Highway 285 for a series of high-speed dirt roads around the closure. It was the easiest, lowest-altitude riding of the day, so we turned up the gas a little. Mike may have turned it up a little too far. He went down hard on the back side of a rolling knoll, knocking some ribs around, shredding some Honda bodywork, and assassinating the rearview mirror.

The St. Elmo General Store is a good place to grab snacks, souvenirs, and the sunflower seeds beloved by the squads of chipmunks who wait across the street.
The St. Elmo General Store is a good place to grab snacks, souvenirs, and the sunflower seeds beloved by the squads of chipmunks who wait across the street.Charles Fleming

We dusted off and finished the ride into Buena Vista, where we got excellent grub at House Rock Kitchen before the rainstorm we’d been running from all day caught us. An hour later, we were checked into the Cottonwood Pass Hot Springs and soaking in the mineral water pools.

Wednesday was my day to fall. We grabbed a hot breakfast at Jan’s and headed for Chalk Creek Road and the beautifully preserved ghost town of St. Elmo. Selfie spot? Sit across from the St. Elmo General Store, at “Chipmunk Crossing,” and let the rodents crawl up your leg, into your lap, and onto your shoulders looking for handouts.

Then, some hard riding. The “road” to Hancock Pass began to deteriorate not far from St. Elmo. By that time we were getting some real altitude, it was nothing more than a wide streambed without water in it. The baseball-to-basketball size rocks were mostly fixed in place, which made the riding a little easier, but in spots they were loose and liable to shift under the motorcycle.

Hancock Pass isn’t the toughest climb in Colorado, but Mike and Billy were pleased to be beginning the descent.
Hancock Pass isn’t the toughest climb in Colorado, but Mike and Billy were pleased to be beginning the descent.Charles Fleming

The Öhlins helped, but the EFI-altered Honda started coughing and balking as I crept higher. At one point my urgent throttle request got no response. The bike and I pitched over hard, and I caught a stone on my hip in a spot that resented it immediately. I waited and wheezed a while before getting back in the saddle and resuming the rocky ride.

Soon we were atop Hancock, which at 12,140 feet straddles the Continental Divide on the border between Gunnison National Park and San Isabel National Forest.

The rest of the day was less challenging. From Hancock we dropped down into the town of Pitkin, for strong coffee and frozen burritos at the Silver Plume General Store. Still hoping to stay ahead of the late-afternoon thunderstorms, we hurried on, climbing to the 12,015 Cumberland Pass, making good time on good graded road to the top and back down the other side to Tincup.

The weather was beginning to darken. Late-afternoon thunderstorms are a common occurrence in the Colorado summers, and can drop the temperature 30 degrees or more in 10 minutes or less.
The weather was beginning to darken. Late-afternoon thunderstorms are a common occurrence in the Colorado summers, and can drop the temperature 30 degrees or more in 10 minutes or less.Charles Fleming

There was nothing special about the riding or the destination, but the once-grand mining town boasts one of the world’s most beautiful cemeteries. We stopped to walk among the anonymous wooden crosses on Boot Hill and the marble mementoes in the segregated Protestant, Catholic, and Jewish sections.

We made the last dash to Taylor Park, where the Nugget Café would make our dinner and a very rustic cabin with three beds would be our home for the night.

Morning broke crisp and clear and very cold—33 degrees at dawn and 37 degrees as we made our way from cabin to coffee and breakfast. We layered up and headed out.

Italian Creek wasn’t such a tough ride, but the rocky sections seemed to last forever. One especially stubborn rock brought me to a sudden stop.
Italian Creek wasn’t such a tough ride, but the rocky sections seemed to last forever. One especially stubborn rock brought me to a sudden stop.Charles Fleming

Out past Taylor Reservoir, Italian Creek Road was our first climb, presenting the same dry riverbed challenge we’d faced on Hancock. The night had brought a fresh dusting of snow, which made picking a line up the rocks a little extra interesting, but we made it to the top without incident, and then climbed up the scree-slippery shale slopes to American Flag Mountain. My device set the altitude at 12,734 feet, and my lungs agreed.

But an easy road followed. We took a well-maintained two-track up to Reno Divide, then dropped down Cement Creek Road toward Crested Butte, where we stopped for gas and café food at the well-monikered Gas Café.

Many of the trails and roads are well-marked. This one, near Cement Creek, communicated very clearly.
Many of the trails and roads are well-marked. This one, near Cement Creek, communicated very clearly.Charles Fleming

My guides had saved the best for last—and the toughest.

From Gas Café we rode due north, through Gothic, home of the Rocky Mountain Biological Laboratory and the adjacent Coffee Lab. Straight on, County Road 317 lost its asphalt, turned to gravel, then to dirt, and took us to Schofield Pass and the abandoned ghost town of Schofield.

The ride up was mellow enough. The way down, headed toward Crystal, began to get hairy, and began to show us why this part of Schofield Pass has the reputation of being the most dangerous road and deadliest pass in Colorado.

American Flag Mountain, with its lone tattered banner, sits high above the grasslands below. There is some interesting shale to conquer on the way up.
American Flag Mountain, with its lone tattered banner, sits high above the grasslands below. There is some interesting shale to conquer on the way up.Charles Fleming

Billy had said at lunch that he needed to be back in Carbondale by 5 pm. Were we riding a little fast? Maybe. Billy, out in front of me and Mike, lost his footing on a wide sweeper and wound up in a ditch.

“Damn,” he was cursing when we came even with him. “I thought I was going to do this whole ride without crashing. Damn!”

There was worse ahead. Soon we were on the steep part of the pass, descending a nasty and increasingly narrow goat trail carved out of solid rock into the side of the mountain. On the map, it stops being a road and becomes nothing more than a trail.

Mike had ridden this pass, coming uphill. He said, “There’s one technical section called the Devil’s Punchbowl. It’s not too hard but the penalty for messing it up is pretty bad—60 feet straight down. There’s usually a jeep at the bottom of the hill. A lot of people have died there.”

The middle section of Schofield Pass, with its green grass and gently flowing stream, is misleadingly benign.
The middle section of Schofield Pass, with its green grass and gently flowing stream, is misleadingly benign.Charles Fleming

We decided we might walk that part of the trail, depending on its condition—and ours—when we got there.

But Billy, in the lead, hardly paused at the top. Scampering down, he headed downhill. The trail was bad—stony, with sharp edges on the stones, and not a flat spot for tens of yards at a time.

Billy rode it well, until he didn’t. Something went wrong. He lost his footing just as he was passing the narrowest part of the trail, above the punchbowl. Luckily, very luckily, he pitched left instead of right. The bike went down flat, and Billy went down hard.

Schofield Pass presents enough difficulty, on the section between the ghost town and Marble, that it’s worth issuing the warning twice.
Schofield Pass presents enough difficulty, on the section between the ghost town and Marble, that it’s worth issuing the warning twice.Charles Fleming

Mike and I hurried down to help, and I understood at once what a nightmare the fall could have been. The drop is indeed 60 feet or more, but it drops into a waterfall. The fall would probably kill you, like Butch and Sundance. If not, you’d likely drown.

It appeared nothing was broken, except perhaps my spirit. (I wouldn't see, until I got back, the now-famous video of one motorcyclist's plummet to the bottom. The real action starts at the 5:00 mark.)

Once it was determined that Billy was uninjured and his bike would run, Mike took his chances on the same section, and got through all right. Me, I walked the bike through. It was the end of the last day. I didn’t want to spoil what was left of the trip by dying.

That’s a lucky fall. Going down to the right delivers a 60-foot sheer fall into a rocky waterfall.
That’s a lucky fall. Going down to the right delivers a 60-foot sheer fall into a rocky waterfall.Charles Fleming

Soon we were in Crystal, and rolling past Beaver Lake, and into the marble-producing town of Marble. Some of the product from the nearby Yule quarry is said to have made its way into the Lincoln Monument in Washington, DC. Many less august examples of the yield are on public display in the town—a massive rock here, a massive sculpture there.

We rolled on. Billy hit the paved road and headed for home fast. Mike and I tarried a bit, stopping for a snack and a restroom break, enjoying the last of the trip, down the Crystal River, through Redstone and its famous coke ovens, and into Carbondale.

The bikes sat that night, three in a row, dusty, still running strong. It broke my heart to head for Aspen and the airport the next morning. There was still so much to see, and so many passes to climb. “Next spring,” Mike said. “Come back next spring.”

Back home in Carbondale, the 250Ls looked none the worse for wear, having held up beautifully.
Back home in Carbondale, the 250Ls looked none the worse for wear, having held up beautifully.Charles Fleming