Eastern Rocky Mountain National Park

Over the past ten years, I have taken several one- to two-week bike vacations around the U.S. and Europe. However, after retiring in April 2012 and being inspired by the articles on BikeOvernights.org, I decided to take some short tours in and around the beautiful state of Colorado. This article is about my third such trip, which took me up to the eastern side of Rocky Mountain National Park. For this three-day ride, I biked with panniers on days one and three, and did an unloaded ride to the top of Trail Ridge Road on day two. The two nights out I spent in a hotel in Estes Park. 

One issue I had to address, starting with my first trip, was where to leave my car for several days and nights when my tour starts from somewhere other than my home. For this trip I contacted the very friendly and helpful folks at the Lyons, Colorado, Chamber of Commerce to ask about overnight parking in their town. The Chamber checked with local authorities and later informed me of a public parking lot across from the fire station where I could leave my car for the three days. They even suggested placing a note on my dashboard stating that if anyone had an issue with me parking there, to contact the Chamber. Now, that’s hometown friendliness!

On Monday morning, I drove from Littleton to Lyons, parked the car, loaded up my bike, and rode around town looking for a lunch that I could carry with me for later in the day. I found the Barking Dog Café, where the young men prepared an excellent sandwich to my specifications, much like at Subway only better.

Lyons’ first residents were the Cheyenne, Pawnee, Ute, Arapahoe, and Crow Indian tribes. In the early 1800s, miners and trappers began to explore these parts of the Rocky Mountains. Then, around 1861, the first white settlers arrived and began to establish a town. Today, the leading industry around Lyons is represented by the numerous red sandstone (flagstone) quarries and dealers.

My first day’s ride took me from Lyons, north along the rolling foothills past small farms and ranches and sandstone quarries. The roads were very quiet and the scenery was pleasant. After about 25 miles, I intersected US 34, which would take me the last 20 miles, steadily uphill, to Estes Park. This road did have traffic, but it also had a shoulder most of the way. US 34 follows the Big Thompson River, which slowly carved out a beautiful canyon eons ago. However, in 1976 the river displayed its ability to become instantly destructive. On July 31st, the upper canyon received 12 inches of rain in only four hours, resulting in a wall of water 20 feet high rushing down the canyon at 14 mph. Within hours, some 400 cars, 418 houses, and 52 businesses were washed away.

A few miles into my climb of the Big Thompson, the skies let loose with a major downpour, bringing back the memory of this tragic event. Luckily for me, just ahead was the Colorado Cherry Company store, which provided shelter from the storm. After enjoying one of their excellent cookies and discussing weather and scenery with other tourists, the skies cleared and I continued up toward Estes, suspecting that more rain would be in my future. And it was. This time, though, I donned my raingear and pedaled the final 10 miles to town.

Estes Park was first inhabited in 1859 by a miner named Joel Estes and his family. Today, it is a typical national park gateway town, with plenty of hotels, restaurants, shops, bars, galleries, and visitors. Being there both Monday and Tuesday nights, I did notice that there were many more people in town on Monday night compared to Tuesday. For dinner Monday, I went to Nepal's Café, located in the heart of town on an attractive plaza overlooking the river. It's deservedly rated as one of the best restaurants in Estes Park by Trip Advisor. I stayed at Murphy’s River Lodge, which I would highly recommend as well. It's located just a few blocks away from downtown, making the walk to dinner quick and convenient.

Rocky Mountain National Park.

After breakfast on Tuesday, I rode to the top of Trail Ridge Road and back. Some helpful advice I picked up on the Internet suggested taking US 34 out of Estes rather than the more popular US 36. US 34 is a few miles longer, but until the two routes join together partway up Trail Ridge Road, US 34 is much quieter. Estes Park sits at approximately 7,600 feet above sea level, and the top of Trail Ridge is approximately 12,200 feet. This 4,600-foot climb is accomplished in about 21 miles of riding amidst absolutely breathtaking scenery. Peaks soaring to the sky, snowfields, enormous cliff faces, deep valleys, high mountain lakes and streams, and stands of pine trees obviously struggling against the invasion of the pine beetle. Can there be a better way to enjoy scenery like this than from the saddle of a bicycle? It is not surprising why this part of Colorado was designated as a national park by President Woodrow Wilson in 1915. I spotted many deer, elk, and smaller animals, but unfortunately none of my favorite Colorado animal, the mountain goat.

There was a fair amount of traffic on Trail Ridge Road; interestingly, the drivers who gave me the least amount of room when passing were those operating shuttle and tour buses. 

I had an unexpected treat Tuesday night walking to dinner, when I spotted two huge elk, with full racks on display, lounging in the grass just a few feet off the roadway between my hotel and downtown. As you might expect, they attracted many tourists with cameras at the ready.

Wednesday was my day to ride from Estes Park back to my car in Lyons. In order to complete a loop ride, I left Estes heading south along US 7, also known as the Peak to Peak Highway, following it for about 18 miles. The nickname is apt: As you ride along, one peak after another rises to the west, culminating in Longs Peak at over 14,000 feet.


Mountains along the Peak to Peak Highway.

Equally spectacular compared to Rocky Mountain National Park are the 13,000-foot summits of Indian Peaks Wilderness Area immediately to the south. Near the town of Raymond, US 7 turns eastward, spilling down for 14 miles through the South Saint Vrain River canyon. This descent will be part of the route for the 2013 USA Pro Cycling Challenge on the next-to-last day of racing. I have bicycled up and down just about all of the canyons between Colorado Springs and Fort Collins, and I would say South Saint Vrain might be the most scenic. The rock walls on both sides of the road are tall and steep, and every bend in the road offers another great view. For my ride, the traffic was nearly non-existent, which made it even easier to enjoy the vistas.

St. Vrain River Canyon.

Once back in Lyons, I changed clothes, grabbed lunch at a local Mexican restaurant, and started my drive back home. I found myself thinking about the excellent three days of bicycling that I'd just completed -- and planning my next trip, from Frisco to Leadville to Vail and back to Frisco, that I would take in a couple of weeks. It’s great to have a plan!

Get more information about bike overnights.

Tip for this adventure: Nepal's Cafe in Estes Park is a very good restaurant. It's located on a nice plaza and has outdoor seating for those warm summer evenings.

Favorite local bike shop: Performance Bike.

2 responses so far ↓

Kirsten Armbruster - Mar 27, 2013 at 1:29 PM

Thanks for sharing your trip! I like the idea of 'bike-packing' and staying in hotels. How much gear did you end up carrying on your bike? And how did you carry it?

Thanks so much!

Mark Kline - Jul 28, 2014 at 5:54 PM

Thank you for sharing your trip and your detailed notes. Estes Park & RMNP are one of our favorite places and my wife & I get there typically at least a few times a year. Hope you don't mind if I copy your itinerary as it sounds like a great way to combine a great ride with a great place. Thanks again.

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