In my career with the Town of Estes Park I have lots of opportunities to talk with our guests. I typically steer our conversations on what activity brings them to town and I’ve started to notice a pattern. The answers are almost always hiking, snowshoeing, backcountry skiing, climbing and a myriad of other outdoor adventures that each have the potential to be the highlight of a guest’s experience.
Today I am going to let the secret out and tell you know that Estes Park has enough trails and rides to satisfy the most demanding rider. I have ridden nearly every state in the union and I think most cyclists will say the best road riding is anywhere with a lack of distracted drivers, a hearty shoulder, something worth climbing and beautiful scenery. The best mountain biking is anywhere challenging and beautiful. I am going to share 5 rides that all originate in Estes Park that will tick every box on the wish list of the most demanding cyclist.
Route 1: The Glen Haven Switchbacks
Any bike acceptable - Road Bike preferred
This ride starts and ends at our Via Bicycle Cafe. The benefits of parking at Via is they have plenty of parking available, a mechanic with skills learned from the pro tour, and all the food and coffee you could need post ride.
The route starts by taking you on a tour of the Highway 34 canyon on a 2,000ft descent. The epic turns at 35+ miles per hour are made even better with the generous lane size and amazing views of rock formations as you descend into Drake.
After 11 miles you turn left onto County Road 43. This road was totally destroyed in the recent flood and with construction ending late 2016 this road has become the smoothest stretch in Colorado. Over the next 8 miles you will gain back all 2,000 feet as you approach Glen Haven. Don’t be surprised when you don’t see a single car on this climb.
As you leave the last part of the canyon you enter the Town of Glen Haven where you should strongly consider a short rest at the general store for a famous cinnamon roll. Once the sugar and carbs are safely in your stomach it’s time to climb the Switchbacks. If you have the legs you can try and take the KOM from the locals. This short and punchy segment averages a 10% grade and climbs 700ft in less than a mile. When you finally reach the top, if you have any air in your lungs it will all be taken away with the views of Long’s peak and all of the Estes Valley. At this point you have 4 miles of descent and flats to work out all that lactic acid build up as you head back to Via Bicycle Cafe.
Why I recommend this ride:
Even on the busiest days the roads this ride follows will experience minimal traffic. The early descent into gradual climbing and ending with breathtaking views make this a great ride that cyclists of all abilities can enjoy.
Route 2 - Alpine Visitor’s Center
Road bike necessary
Ok, I’ll admit this ride is not a secret but it is so beautiful and challenging that I can’t leave it out. You start at the Estes Park Visitor’s Center and head up Wonderview and into Rocky Mountain National Park (there is a fee to ride into the park). Once you hit Fall River Road you start your 6,000 ft climb to the highest visitor’s center in the country. Once the ride turns onto Trail Ridge Road I recommend extra caution. Consider a different route if the weather is not ideal. If you are not comfortable riding in traffic then I would also skip this ride. In the event I haven’t scared you off this ride yet then you are in for the most beautiful ride of your life. 25% of this ride will take place above 10,000ft and over 1,000ft of climbing is above treeline. You will be gasping for air and loving every second of it. If you defeat this mountain you will remember it forever.
Why I recommend this ride:
This ride is a national treasure for cycling; a true bucket list ride.
Mountain biking in Estes Park.
In my never ending quest to find a new route, trail or adventure I have been able to find some amazing trails here in Estes. If you are a Strava user, follow our two most active clubs as we are always posting new routes.The Estes Park Cycling Coalition and Via Bicycle Cafe
The next three routes I will share all require at least tires with some tread and one of these rides will take full suspension and all the handling skills you have.
Route 3 - The Estes Epic Route/ Pierson Park
Mountain Bike required (recommend full suspension)
This ride starts at the Estes Park Events Complex which has the largest parking lot in Estes and is a great place to stash your vehicle while you hit the trails. You begin your ride on the pavement of Fish Creek Rrd before turning up Little Valley. When the road turns to gravel 4 miles into this ride you get a real taste of what it’s like to climb a mountain. You climb 1,500 ft to the top of this charming and hidden neighborhood that holds the best views of any homes in Estes Park before turning onto The National Forest Fire service roads. These service roads are challenging enough, but always be looking and you will find nearly 15 miles of singletrack hidden just off the main trail. If you manage to make it far enough, you will come to the washout that remains from the most recent flood. If you choose to cross the washout I recommend doing so on foot and stay on the marked trails. Once you cross the washout you can remount and continue to ride some of the steepest trails imaginable. The South side of the ride can lead you into an additional 20 miles of service roads and single track trails by following the road to Johnny Park rd. This ride is the real deal of mountain biking and will test the best among us. With thousands of miles of dirt under this ride will still test your handling and endurance skills in ways you couldn’t imagine.
*Disclaimer: You're free to ride around the gates in the National Forest but be sure not to block them with your vehicle.
Why I recommend this ride:
This ride is mountain biking at its finest. It has tough climbs, epic descents, demanding handling, beautiful views, and always new areas to explore.
Route 4 - Pole Hill Rd
Mountain Bike or Cross (cross not fit for all areas)
Pole Hill Rd is fairly well known to the residents of Estes Park but is mostly known as an off road trail for 4x4’s. The thing that makes Pole Hill so great for cyclist is the sheer number of offshoots and random paths you can find on this beautiful piece of National Forest property. I’ve been on this trail so many times and keep finding new single track routes I never knew existed. This trail has plenty of fingers that break off from the main trail but always circle back to the main road making it a great place to learn and refine your handling skills. This is the number one place I recommend to someone who has never taken their mountain bike on a real mountain but wants to test their skills. This ride will always hold a special bit of love from me as it was my first real crash as an Estes resident, breaking two ribs. Despite that I always come back to Pole Hill for a quick and hard workout and to improve my handling skills.
Why I recommend this ride:
Ride can be as long or challenging as you like and the views of Estes Park cannot be beat.
Route 5 - Old Fall River
Cross/Mountain - Road bike with strong handling skills
Old Fall River Road is the original road that took you over the Continental Divide before Trail Ridge was built. It’s a one lane dirt road that climbs 5,000 ft up the side of a mountain. As cyclists we can ride this road anytime that cars are allowed, but with the condition that the road is a one way when cars are allowed. This simply means that for a majority of the year you can ride up Old Fall River and then come back to civilization on Trail Ridge.
However, I’m not here to talk about that. I’m here to talk about that wonderful period where the road is plowed and open to cyclists and not yet open to vehicle traffic. This period exists for 2-4 weeks in the Spring and 2-4 weeks in the Fall. This little known secret is my favorite ride in the world, and I’m going to try and describe a ride so perfect and so serene.
Starting at the Estes Park Visitor’s Center you head up Wonderview and connect with Fall River Rd. This will take you all the way into Rocky Mountain National Park (there is a fee to get in the park).Once you enter the park you follow the pavement to the turn off for the Lawn Lake Trailhead and signs for Old Fall River Rd. It’s a beautiful approach and the perfect warmup for the challenge ahead. During the times of year that the trail is available to cyclists you will find ample parking along the Lawn Lake Trailhead area should you wish to have a shorter ride. I find myself doing this during the week when I don’t have the daylight to do the whole ride.
When you round the last corner on the pavement the ominous presence of what lies ahead greets you as the first half mile of the dirt road that is Old Fall River shows you its 10% beginning grade. At this point you have 9 miles and 4,000ft of climbing between you and the summit of 12,000 ft. From the moment your tire hits the dirt until you reach the 20 ft high snow breaks left from the plows you will be constantly presented with a postcard come to life. Every corner brings a new photo opportunity whether it is unspoiled views of Flattop Mountain, waterfalls, a mother and calf moose, elk grazing along the road, or snow mounds larger than most buildings. The only sounds you can expect to hear are your labored breathing broken only by the occasional sound of male bighorn sheep smashing their antlers together.
When you finally reach the summit, after spending over a mile above treeline, you are greeted by a bustling visitors center. Grab a quick snack, refill your bottles and snap a quick picture at the elevation sign; it’s time to prepare for the descent of your life.
As you remount your bike take a minute to contemplate the 6,000 ft you just climbed and how you earned what is about to happen. This 9 mile descent is whatever you want it to be and more. While you enjoyed the views, wildlife and scenery on the way up, the way down is all business. The next 20-40 minutes of your life are going to be white knuckle skids into perfectly rounded switchbacks peppered with the occasional quick dodge of an elk standing in the middle of the road. The raw speed you get on this dirt is only the sweeter from the pain you experienced earning every foot on the climb to the summit.
Like an addict, you will spend the rest of your life on a bike chasing the feeling of your first time on Old Fall River. In my rides up this, my favorite of rides, I have experienced and seen: A moose and her calf feeding in a field, a bull elk standing in the road I had to dodge, a bear drinking from a stream, backcountry skiers bomb down a nearby mountain, double rainbows over a waterfall, and so many more once in a lifetime moments.
Why I recommend this ride:
This is the ride that has it all. There is a shortcut by parking at Lawn Lake to make the day easier/shorter or you can go for broke and start in town.
There are so many great rides, trails and roads in Estes Park that it was hard selecting just 5. I hope that through this blog post and the efforts of all the cyclists in Estes Park that we can change the perception that our town lacks what it takes to be a premier cycling destination. If you are coming to Estes and need other suggestions feel free to drop me a line or stop into Via Bicycle Cafe and talk to Stefano. Between the two of us we will make sure you find rides that will fit your skill level and leave you wanting more of what Estes Park has to offer.