Wednesday, July 5, 2017

Hayden Pass Mountain Bike Hill Climb

On June 8th, I was scheduled for surgery.  I had a spot on my knee that turned out to be melanoma.  I needed an area of tissue remove at the site of the melanoma.  To make sure there was no spread of the melanoma, the surgeon was removing a lymph node in my groin area as well.  My outdoor activities would be put on hold for at least a few weeks to recover.

The day before my surgery, I wanted to do one last outing before the down time for recovery.  I'm not sure why, but I was looking to push myself with something a little extra challenging.  I was in the mood for mountain biking.  There's no better mountain biking challenge than the hill climb.

There are many different mountain biking disciplines and styles.  Cross Country, singletrack, downhill, and free ride are the more popular disciplines.  The one area that doesn't get much love is the hill climb.

When I first started mountain biking about 25 years ago, I lived near Hamburg, Pennsylvania.  I didn't have a driver's license.  I would ride my 45 lbs Huffy "mountain bike" to the local hiking hot spot at the Hamburg Reservoir.  There was dirt service road that lead to a 1582'  rock outcropping atop Blue Mountain called Pulpit Rock.  I would ride my clunker bike the roughly 1.5 miles from the parking lot to Pulpit Rock.  That climb gained 900 feet and I thought I was a bad ass.

As I got into mountain biking more seriously, I rode more areas, many of which climbed Blue Mountain in different areas.  Eventually I got into road cycling as well and PA had no shortage of long hills.  I actually became a pretty strong hill climber and enjoyed the torturous challenge of a grueling climb.

Now I live in Colorado.  Nearly every mountain bike ride in the high country features at least 3000' feet of climbing.  A couple years ago I rode a pair of rides back to back in the Crested Butte area that covered 43 miles and around 6800 vertical feet of climbing (see Mountain Biking Crested Butte for the First Time).  The vertical was broken up over numerous segments however.

I was looking for my longest continuous hill climb by mountain bike for this ride, and I knew just the place.  Just a few miles from my house is Hayden Pass.  Hayden Pass is a low point along the northern Sangre de Cristos.  A Forest Service road crosses the range here.  At 10,709', Hayden Pass isn't exceptionally high by Colorado standards.  There are plenty of places to park along the Hayden Pass Road.  I was looking for elevation gain however.  My plan was to begin my climb at the Arkansas River at Vallie Bridge.  Vallie Bridge sits at an elevation of 6522'.

The low point of the ride at Vallie Bridge along the Arkansas River

Vallie Bridge to Hayden Pass is about 11 miles.  Although there are a few short dips, the climbing is pretty much continuous.  The total route ends up climbing 4222 vertical feet in those 11 miles.  This would be my longest continuous mountain bike climb.

I actually started my ride upriver a few miles at the next bridge crossing in Howard. This gave me a little warm up before heading right into the climbing.  County Road 45 is a nice dirt road along the river that I occasionally ride for a quick outing that crosses the river at Vallie Bridge.

View from the river, Hayden Pass is to the left
just out of frame

From Vallie Bridge, the climbing starts gradually.  A short stretch on CR 45 comes to an end at CR 6.  County Road 6 ultimately turns into Forest Service Road 6 when it enters the National Forest, and continues to the top of Hayden Pass.  A short stretch of CR 6 is paved at its northern end before changing back to dirt.  The dirt is well maintained until it reaches the Hayden Creek Campground.

Mule deer along the road

Closeup of the deer

Nice scenery heading up the road

From the Hayden Creek Campground, the climbing changes from a steady spin to a grind.  I have been up this road several times.  I have cross country skied up this road in winter a few times.  I also hiked up the road to the pass.  The road was rough, but not terrible.

The start of the rough section

Last year however, the Hayden Pass Fire started near the pass and ended up burning more than 16,000 acres.  I'm only speculating, but it think fire crews must have used the road for access since it was generally the northern flank of the fire.  The road appeared to be in much worse shape than I remember.

The view of the Hayden Pass Fire from my house
on the day it really blew up

Typical rough section


The road gets steep at times.  The steepness, combined with large sections of loose rock, make the climbing difficult.  It was a challenge pedaling uphill without the rear tire slipping.  A few places are just to steep and loose to clear without getting off the bike.

Despite the difficulty, there are numerous good viewpoints along the road.  The road is climbing into the Sangre de Cristos after all.  There are several good vantage points that look into the peaks north of the pass.  This includes a stretch of alpine summits ending at Fremont County high point, 13,110' Bushnell Peak.  At times, there is a nice view into the valley below near Coaldale, CO.  In the distance, Pikes Peak is seen to the northeast.

Galena Mountain

View across the higher peaks

Remnants of the fire can be seen to the south of the road much of the way.  As the road winds higher up, it passes through sections that burned in the fire.  Even with the ground charred and bare, a few hardy plants are starting to emerge from the blackened earth.

Riding through the burn

Above 10,000', the road hit a few patches of snow.  This was on June 7th.  I could get by them without issues on my bike.  Jeep traffic would not have been able to pass through however.  The last 1/2 mile or so featured more consistent snow drifts.

Early snow patches

 The road blocked by the lingering snow

After 2 hours and 40 minutes and 15 miles since the start of the ride, I finally passed the last swithcback and reached the pass.  The climb was more grueling than I anticipated.  My thought was once I made it to the pass, I would at least have a long downhill.  From here, I now had 11 miles and a 4000' drop to the river.

The end of the climbing

The downhill wasn't as fun as I anticipated.  The 5 or so mile descent from the pass to Hayden Creek Campground is rough.  In that 5 miles, the road drops more than 2800'.  The road is bumpy enough that it was pretty brutal on my hardtail.  There is a lot of braking and my forearms and hands were burning by the time I reached the campground.

After reaching the campground I could finally enjoy the descent.  The road is a maintained dirt road at this point.  There is still nearly 1300 feet or so of downhill at this point and the braking is minimal.  The nice downhill cruise continues for nearly 7 miles before reaching the low point of the ride back at Vallie Bridge.  From Vallie Bridge it's another 4 miles back to my starting point.  After 2 hours and 40 minutes of climbing, the descent took less than an hour to return to my car.  The last mile or two, I ended up getting caught in a light rain.

I was looking for a challenge, and I got it.  My ride wrapped up at just over 30 miles and climbed more than 4200 vertical feet.  The long ride up Hayden Pass was over 4200 feet of continuous in 11 miles just by itself.  The steepest part of the downhill was a rough ride that would have been better suited to a full suspension mountain bike.  I'm glad that I rode this, but I probably won't repeat it any time soon.

By the time I wrote this post, I got good news from my doctor that the lymph node was melanoma free and all the melanoma was removed from my knee.  Twenty-two days after my surgery, I got the all clear to resume all activities, including hiking and mountain biking.

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