Gonna have to wrap up this story soon: the 2019 riding season has started and time for new adventures!
We were in the middle of the Colorado Rockies, having just ridden west over Tincup Pass. Before us lay the highest peaks of our trip, and with excellent weather, bikes working perfectly, and skills mostly dialed, we were all pretty stoked with anticipation about finally crossing over the Rockies and down into the Utah desert.
The ghost town of Animas Forks offers a couple of exits past its remarkable mining ruins, one being the technical and nerve-wracking Engineers Pass (12,800') and the other being California Pass, which at 12,930' was the highest point of our journey. At this elevation, there's about a third less air to breathe. The loss of horsepower in both body and bike was tremendous for us sea-level dwellers: simple actions required planning and concentrated effort to avoid getting winded at a critical time.
With storms casting lightning onto Engineers, we opted to stick with our plan to cross California Pass. Even at these elevations, countless signs of mining activity dotted the mountainsides.
Working our way up the side slope, Jeff somehow stalled in a ditch after he stopped for a picture. At this point the combination of steepness and low power required me to noodle my way up in first and sometimes second gear. So with Jeff stuck well behind Pete and me, I didn't want to risk ditching my own bike by riding back down, so I walked the hundred metres or so to rescue Jeff. In my riding gear, it took all I had to muscle him and his bike into a stable upright position so he could get his foot off the brake and gun it up out of the ditch. Any less fit and we'd've left him there as eagle bait.
The top of the pass was a narrow saddle with a short hike up to a lookout. I'm gonna say the lookout rounded up the elevation to an even 13,000'.
The road down from the pass included an impressive switchback that hit about a 45 degree angle on the inside corner.
Right away we climbed up again to the appropriately-named Corkscrew Pass, another superb ride with a short and steep uphill followed by a long, rollercoaster downhill into forest.
This descent revealed some important limitations of our loaded 250's. I'd ridden on ahead, using the engine and both brakes to keep my speed under control on the loose, steep grade which probably sustained 25% in places. Noticing the guys weren't close behind, I pulled over to wait only to find that my rear brake pedal suddenly did nothing, plunging down with no resistance. I should've paid more attention to this; I thought maybe I'd just missed the pedal with my boot. After waiting a bit, still no guys, so I turned around and rode back up the climb. Turns out Pete and Jeff had pulled over because Pete had no brakes whatsoever. Fortunately he hadn't had a runaway--there was no safe way to stop except by crashing into the uphill side. A liter of water poured on his rotors blasted off in steam, but cooled things enough that we could resume our descent, this time focusing on using more engine braking than before. That descent was so much fun: technical, flowy, blind corners. On an unloaded bike it would've been a complete blast.
The trail intersected the Million Dollar Highway, a staggering engineering achievement from the days before heavy road equipment. Here we debated our options for camping in the trailhead parking area, not too impressed by the gloomy and wet conditions. Instead, we opted to head down to Ouray, where there was a campground. Unfortunately--and after winding our way halfway back up the mountain to the campground (which was well above the actual town)--we discovered it was completely booked up. Would've been nice if they'd posted that at the entrance road on the valley bottom.
At least we got to enjoy the spectacular views heading back up the Million Dollar Highway to where we'd come from. This road and should be on any riding bucket list for North America. Hard to imagine the narrow track it used to be, hacked into the cliffside with no guard rails.
Today the road still requires your full attention to avoid running off the edge into the gorge.
If you look closely at the historic sign, you can see a picture of the old toll bridge over the falls, now replaced by a modern bridge at the same location.
Not far from here intersects the road down from Engineers Pass, carved into the side of the cliff at a ridiculous angle. It's probably only viable in one direction (down?) and I wouldn't recommend attempting it on even an unloaded bike unless you're a highly skilled off-road rider. It's not just the terrain you need to worry about; there are endless processions of Jeeps and UTVs to work around. Space is really tight, single file is often the only safe option, and reversing is either not possible or recommended.
Heading back to the Corkscrew Pass trailhead, we found a dismal "campground" which was really just the remains of Ironton, an old mining town.
Serenaded by semis grinding down the highway beside us, we barely managed to set up camp in a parking area before the skies opened up.
The water in this area is bright red from the tailings piles and we didn't use it for anything. There are no facilities at this location: no drinking water or toilets. Not a great campsite, but it got the job done.
The next day, with all our gear soaking wet, we headed back to Ouray for breakfast in the sun, although we didn't stick around. It was early in the morning and we were concerned about making time that day, since we had to cross Ophir Pass (11,114') and make a detour to Telluride to pick up replacement back tires we'd ordered and had shipped ahead.
We continued south on the Million Dollar Highway, again passing countless mine sites and skeletal ghost towns in every direction you looked. In the 1800's this whole valley was one of the richest mining areas in the world, and it must rung with the sounds of industry from stamp mills, steam engines, blasting, and rock slides.
The climb to Ophir was easy...
...but the descent was surprisingly challenging.
Lines of Jeeps worked their way up towards us, requiring patience to wait until they passed since there were few places to pull over. The scree clattered like broken dishes under our tires, grabbing the front wheel and causing it to slide like a toboggan in places. Two guys on big ADV bikes who were heading up towards us stopped to chat, and admitted to being quite nervous and struggling with traction on the climb. Jeff was at his limit and Pete was even more quiet than usual on the slope. At this elevation, tasks that are relatively easy at sea-level become a lot harder because you tire out faster. The steep drop-off doesn't boost confidence, either. Nevertheless, a posse of dumbass and unskilled MX riders came blasting up past us, out of control with feet bouncing off pegs and barely staying on the trail. Complete lack of judgement, and we froze with horror watching a couple of the kids nearly send it 100% off the side as they tried to avoid each other and the traffic.
Eventually the trail yielded to paved roads, and we followed the traffic to Telluride, a bustling resort town frequented by rich and clueless glitterati and their spoiled children. Again we felt like complete bums and were completely unaccustomed to the crowds. The UPS store where we'd had our tires delivered was in the middle of town where all parking was prohibited and there was no good spot to do a tire change. A short ride to an industrial park outside of town revealed a tire shop where the crew graciously gave us access to their compressed air and took our old tires.
Three new rear tires went on without a flat or hassle, helped by the heat and motivated by storm clouds gathering in the distance. We'd expected to reach Moab with our original tires and, judging by the wear to date, would have done so with acceptable life left on them. But we weren't sure what to expect for wear after completing the mountain passes and riding through extended heat, so we'd ordered these tires a couple of weeks earlier just in case. There's always extra mileage beyond the planned route, so better to swap earlier rather than risk baldies or a flat in the upcoming desert sand and heat.
Sure enough, the skies opened up minutes after finishing our change. Pete forgot to grab his Galaxy phone that he was using as a GPS on his bike. The deluge pretty much ruined it, and he lost all his photos. As a consolation prize, we met three other riders taking shelter with us. One was a Brit from the next town over from where Pete grew up in England. Small world indeed!
This was one of the few times on the trip that we rode in rain. And rain it did. But the new knobbies felt awesome, giving us one of the best dirt rides on a deserted road heading west from the Divide. Few people out here, far from the usual tourist destinations.
A mostly deserted campground at Groundhog Reservoir provided shelter to cook eat as more storms moved through. Zillions of hummingbirds squawked and buzzed all around us, landing on our tents, bikes and gear.
Now Utah was just around the corner, and with it new levels of heat, remoteness and roads surfaced with ball-bearings. Somewhere out here we left the Colorado BDR and picked up the Trans-American Trail, which we'd be following north for the leg of our trip through Utah.
Crossing the appropriately-named Dolores canyonlands south of Moab, the roads abruptly switched from the winding dirt of the Continental Divide's foothills to the arrow-straight asphalt of the lower desert plains, passing through a few dismal, poverty-struck towns and old farms dotted with abandoned homesteads. It's tough, dry country. Temperatures soared into the high 30C, with no shade and a hot wind. Eventually our route found its mojo again, winding up into the mountains overlooking Moab. With the temperature dropping back to a sane 24C at the higher elevation, and blissful shade from pines, it was a sharp contrast from the desert floor below.
Then the slickrock appeared. Nearby was Porcupine Rim, one of the all-time best mountain biking trails in North America which I've ridden twice.
Finally we reached Moab. After all the day's grime and sweat we craved a cold beer, but what we needed to do was change our oil. Unable to find our initial destination (Arrowhead Motorsports - it didn't seem to exist at the address shown on our Google Maps) and grumpy with fatigue and lack of beer, we headed to Mad Bro Sports who at least had the motorcycle stuff we needed, graciously gave us cold water, and let us change our oil in their service lot. 3500km into our trip, and now that we were heading back north, also a psychological turning point.
Moab makes a great rest stop, and that's exactly what we did for a couple of days, enjoying the AC in the fancy Apache Inn and washing clothes. But what about those beers? They proved harder to get than we ever anticipated, thanks to draconian Mormon laws that I don't recall being such an issue when I was last here eleven years earlier.