Western Colorado: Mesas, Mountains, and Mines

Text: Robert Smith • Photography: Robert Smith

The road from Silverton to Ouray is one of only three I've wanted instantly to go back and ride again (Wyoming's Bear Tooth Pass and British Columbia's Duffey Lake Road are the others). Colorado 550 turns into a snake slithering down, around, and across the Uncompahgre River's plummeting canyon. Bound to topple in the next rockslide or avalanche, abandoned mine buildings hang like aeries on the cliffs. And wooden shacks down in the depths of the gorge hover perilously close to the crashing torrent.

I arrive in Glenwood Springs, Colorado, early on Saturday evening. It's been a long haul: two days from Vancouver, all on interstate except for the last jog east from Heber City, Utah. I pause in tiny Rangely, Colorado, for gas - well named because it's surrounded by...range. This is dinosaur fossil country. Even the gas company has a brontosaurus as its logo. Of course, oil deposits aren't solely derived from the liquefaction of dinosaurs but from the compressed decay of their habitats of dense forests and vegetation, too - a far cry or bellow from the scene I wander today. Along the pleasantly winding Piceance Creek Road, south toward I-70, oil derricks sprout like weeds, tank farms dot the grassy valley floor, and now and then there's a small refinery, its pipes and tanks resembling the brass section of a greasy orchestra.

Day 1: Snow Joke
I wake at 3:00 am in Glenwood Springs to the splashing of heavy rain. The Silver Spruce Motel parking lot is awash, and the baker's dozen of tiny MG cars, here for an owners' rally, look to be in danger of floating away. By six, the rain has stopped, but as I load the FZ1, the skies open again. I hate starting a ride in raingear, but there's little choice.

I steer the FZ1 out of town among more MGs, obviously abandoning the rally. I'm heading for Carbondale, then to 133 for the McClure Pass and on to Hotchkiss. Sadly, the Elk Mountains are lost to sight as clouds swirl around them and the delightfully winding road is much too slick to really enjoy. I turn north on 65 and ride through a succession of small towns with the looming bulk of Grand Mesa ahead. The rain has eased, but a leaden sky hangs above the rambling rangeland. I realize 65 climbs right over the mesa and start to zigzag up its face in a succession of switchbacks. I pause to take in the cloud-draped view south across the Black Canyon of the Gunnison.

The climb continues and fresh snow appears in the trees, then at the roadside, and finally on the road itself. I'm riding through a winterscape in June! For once, I'm grateful that cars have been through ahead of me, creating slushy tracks. Even so, it's treacherous in places where the tracks fade out, and I'm figuratively tiptoeing along the road, my buttocks clenched. Motorcycles and snow don't go together, and it seems to take me forever to slide across the summit, but finally the road starts to descend in a spectacular series of dry, sweeping bends. I'm glad to get my traction back and to feel the warmth of the afternoon sun on my frozen hands. I later read that Grand Mesa, rising to 11,000 feet, is the world's largest flat-topped mountain. Perhaps my map should have noted that?

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For the complete touring article, including facts & information, map(s), and GPS files, please purchase the November/December 2005 back issue.