America. Where the cars are big, the dinners are bigger and the mountains are bigger yet. It’s a country that I’ve had a long-held fascination with, and one that I had only visited twice in my life. Once to visit family in North Carolina, and again to ski in Colorado.
Ever since I’d been taught about the American West in high school I’d spent days on end fantasising about life in the times of Butch Cassidy, Billy the Kid and Buffalo Bill, often convincing myself that I was probably born in the wrong century and would have had a far better quality of life if I’d been allowed to explore the undiscovered and wildly beautiful landscapes over the pond before they were settled by the white man.
The history that we know of the place is so recent, and it’s crazy to think that a little over 150 years ago there were still wars being fought with the natives, cowboys roaming the plains, trappers making a wage in the great wildernesses and a highly determined civilisation trying to make a success of their country.
Of course, it’s a country full of ungrateful colonials and traitors (I jest), but say what you want about the Americans, I’ve always found them to be incredibly friendly, welcoming and their enthusiasm is contagious.
So, when I was invited to Colorado by John Hax of 106 West Adventures I felt like a little kid at Christmas once again. In the weeks leading up to my trip I shot around the office telling everyone about where I was going, partly to vent some pent-up excitement and partly to make them jealous. Everyone’s jealous if you tell them you’re going to the USA.
The time finally arrived and I found myself on a flight to Denver via LA. I was ready to ride some incredible roads, eat some greasy food and experience the land of the free, but first I spent a few days in the town of Golden as I’d arrived a day earlier than I had meant too…
John accommodated me by granting me the use of his car, and so I took a ride out to Buffalo Bill’s Grave and the fascinating museum which sits next to it, and anticipation for the ride ahead started to reach boiling point. I couldn’t wait to get out on the bikes, and with John’s brief of the eight-day route leaving me unable to sleep with excitement, I was beyond relieved to finally swing a leg over my BMW F700GS and get out of Golden.
Slumgullion Pass, dropping into Lake City
The next few days saw me being gently introduced to adventure riding in Colorado, tackling some of the easy off-road trails and learning the fact that you can pretty much set your watch by the storms that form every day, without fail, along the Continental Divide in the afternoon. We spent the first night in Salida, where we were joined by Paul, a friend of John’s who was tagging along for a few days while he got away from work.
Day two saw us tackling Black Sage Pass before ending the night in Crested Butte, and the following morning we dropped into Lake City via the magnificent Slumgullion Pass. At lunch we discussed the day ahead, where John revealed that we would be taking on Cinnamon Pass, an epic off-road trail that rises to an altitude in excess of 3,500m.
Water splashes on Cinnamon Pass
A few hours later, after I had managed to navigate a long stretch of trail strewn with large, football-sized rocks, and flanked on one side by a sheer drop of a few hundred metres, I felt like a true adventurer. I pulled off the track a bit to admire the view and took my helmet off, wiping the sweat from my brow as I did so. This was real adventure riding, or at least that’s what it felt like to me, and I was conquering the Cinnamon Pass.
As my thoughts wondered and I started comparing myself to the famed British Polar explorer, Earnest Shackleton, an ATV rounded the corner driven by an old fella with his wife smiling in the passenger seat. My delusion of grandeur came crashing down as they pootled past me and a tiny, furry, pampered, rat dog winked at me from a cage strapped to the back of the vehicle as if to say, ‘get over yourself you pansy’.
Exposed cliff-top roads on Cinnamon Pass
John and Paul caught up with me and we continued our ascent of the pass. Topping out at a lofty 3,849m, Cinnamon Pass is over a thousand metres higher than the tallest pass in the Alps, and when you reach the top, boy do you feel it. I had been at altitudes in excess of 3,800m before, when I summited the Eiger in 2006, and Mont Blanc the following year, but on those occasions my ascents were gradual – this time I’d ridden from Lake City, at an altitude of 2,640m, to 3,849m in the space of about an hour.
Fortunately, the effects of the high altitude weren’t as instantly crushing as they could have been. You see, when you touch down in Denver on your first night with 106 West, you’re already at 1,609m. For the next eight days, after leaving Golden, you’ll rarely drop below the 2,000m mark, and so you start to acclimatise. Those first few days were a struggle, though. Jet lag coupled with adjusting to a high altitude left me feeling whacked.
That’s one cheeky marmot!
Anyway, back to Cinnamon Pass, and I found myself having a staring contest with a marmot. The little critters are all over the place up here, and if I was a bit of a bastard I could have run quite a few over rather than performed evasive manoeuvres. The marmot started to bore me, it wasn’t doing anything interesting, and I had won the staring contest, so we began the long descent down the south western slopes of the pass.
Steep inclines and loose gravel made this a bum clencher, but fortunately we were riding when the Texan’s and their holiday ATVs had packed up for the day, so we were able to use as much of the trail as we wanted.
Before long we had reached Animas Forks, an old mining ghost town where we took some time to explore the eerily deserted log cabins. The US has done a fantastic job of informing passers-by about most attractions in Colorado, as pretty much everything I saw that had me wondering ‘what’s that then?’ was accompanied by an in-depth information board.
Abandoned mining buildings in Animas Forks
The scenery around here is a phenomenal. You’re constantly surrounded by huge mountains, and while they say you can get too much of a good thing, I was begging to differ. Each turn revealed more big mountains and creeks that had been carved by the artistic hands of the rivers that flowed through them. We continued south, aiming to be in the town of Ouray before sun down – I was determined to have ribs for dinner that evening, and John was eager to make it so.
Cinnamon Pass joins the 550 at the cool-looking town of Silverton, and while I wanted to hunker down here and explore the bars along the main street, John insisted that we press on. Little did I know, the 550 is actually the Million Dollar Highway, a spectacular road that I had read loads about and that continually pops up on ‘top 10 roads’ lists. It doesn’t take long for you to see why.
Million Dollar Highway
Within a few miles the road changes from enjoyable, fast tarmac to a serpentine that writhes and wriggles its way through, over and across a dramatic mountainscape. Why the road is called ‘Million Dollar Highway’ is up for dispute, with some claiming that it cost a million dollars a mile to build, while others claim that the road’s fill dirt contains a million dollars in gold ore.
My take is that each view that is presented as you round a new bend or crest a new pass is worth a million dollars apiece, and if you could sell each one of them, you’d be a very rich man indeed.
A fantastic bend on the Million Dollar Highway
We were transported from Silverton to Ouray via a series of switchbacks, sweeping bends and exposed sections which had been cut out from cliffsides without the luxury of guard rails to prevent you from taking a mighty tumble into the valley below, and upon reaching Ouray I was convinced that that day was one of the finest days of riding I’d ever had the pleasure of experiencing. Cinnamon Pass quenched my thirst for adventure, while Million Dollar Highway allowed me to blow out any cobwebs with its thrilling route.
We reached Ouray just as the restaurants were shutting, and although I had a hankering for ribs and couldn’t get any, I shook John’s hand and congratulated him on putting together such an incredible route. It’s a day I won’t be forgetting in a hurry.
The next day saw us take on a more relaxed pace. Up until now we’d been out early and in late, covering a lot of miles and seeing a lot of things, but the route from Ouray to Telluride would only take a few hours to ride, allowing us to have half a day’s rest.
To get to Telluride we doubled back on ourselves, which meant we had the pleasure of riding Million Dollar Highway once more, before turning off to ride Ophir Pass, a high off-road trail which would deposit us a few miles down the road from Telluride.
The summit of Ophir Pass
Ophir Pass was almost as epic as Cinnamon Pass. Once you’re above the tree line you begin riding through a scree slope until you reach the summit and drop down the other side towards the historic mining town of Ophir, with huge vistas and a rather unnerving slope sitting just a few metres to your left.
Big, loose rocks and more dastardly marmots make it tricky to navigate and while I never felt out of my comfort zone, I found myself wondering what it’d be like to slide down a scree slope for a couple of hundred metres, and whether my motorcycle gear would protect me. I also got thinking about why on earth there was a road here, so I asked John. It turns out that most of the passes that we had been riding were old mining routes, and while I was struggling along on my GS, a hundred-or-so years ago, men would have been up and down these in a shot looking to make their fortune.
The drop is a lot steeper than it looks!
We pushed on to Telluride where we then spent the afternoon relaxing – a boozey lunch which somehow saw John and myself in a Mexican bar downing margaritas and long island ice teas while doing our best not to scare the locals. Alcohol affects you a lot more at altitude, so I found out.
Day five was Paul’s last with us. And that sounds a lot more ominous than it was. He had to shoot over to Denver to get back to work, so he’d be leaving us after we rode Owl Creek Pass, a gentle off-road trail through spectacular mountain scenery which takes you into an area of wilderness.
Epic views just out of Telluride
I couldn’t help but feel jealous of Paul. The USA is a country where you can ride for a few hours and all of a sudden be immersed in world-class scenery that’s the envy of motorcyclists around the globe. This meant that he was able to blast over to Salida from his home in Denver on his day off, spend a few days enjoying the mountain trails with us, and then shoot off home and be back at work in no time at all.
Anyway, I decided to take the lead on Owl Creek Pass. The going was easy and massively enjoyable as I practiced getting a bit of rear wheel skid on the gravel road. We passed under some incredible rock formations that looked like they’d been imported from the Dolomites, before stopping at a stream to cool off.
It was fun to listen to John and Paul, both former marines, talk about the drills and training they had received when enlisted, and this particular conversation saw them debating how best to defend a wooded bluff on the other side of the river from approaching enemies. Their defences consisted of a couple of machine gun placements focused on the only obvious angle of approach for the enemy, and it happened to be just where I was standing. I’ve never fired a real gun, but I do have an unhealthy obsession with first person shooter games, so I listened intently to see if I could pick up any tactical advice.
John, my guide, and Paul playing in the water
Imaginary enemies defeated and we were back on the road. Thick woodland grew on both sides of the track and I started to feel like I was the only person around for miles, and it was a wonderful experience.
I knocked the bike down into second as I approached a bend and powered through, letting the back wheel slide out as I exited – everything was going perfectly. Then, as I approached the next bend in the road I saw a cow wander around it. Then another. And another, and another, until there was a large – very large – heard of cows approaching me like a hoard of undead zombies.
Unsure of what to do I stopped in my tracks, debating whether I should turn around and run (I’ve heard too many stories of people getting trampled by cows), stand my ground and wait for the hoard to move around me, or press on, undeterred through their ranks.
Head to head with the cows on Owl Creek Pass
I decided to wait for the others to catch up with me, watching intently as the four-legged army of beef got closer and closer. Paul arrived first and pulled up next to me, then John shortly after him. Clearly having experienced this before they manoeuvred their bikes to the side of the track to let the cattle past.
I followed their lead. It was then that I saw the end of the herd, and a sight that will stay with me forever, purely because of how cool it was. Three ranchers on horseback were driving the cattle – they were real life cowboys! Slight uneasiness turned to amazement as I watched the old folks and their horses move as one while their dogs kept order at the edge of the ranks, pushing any stray cows back into the group.
Amazement quickly returned to uneasiness, however, when two bulls decided that they had to prove who was the strongest right in front of our bikes. They went head to head in a clash to decide the title, and just as I thought John would be filing an insurance claim for two GSs crushed by angry beef, one of the ranchers shot forward on his horse and cracked a whip on the bull’s behind.
Paul decides it’s a good time to dismount as two bulls start fighting in front of him
It was an epic sight and the bulls, like naughty children, quickly re-joined the herd and order was restored. “You need the four-wheel drive,” the cowboy jested as he rode past us pointing at his horse. “Yeah, it’d be nice!” John replied. “You guys have a good day!”
“You bet,” the cowboy returned.
We continued on, allowing Paul to sneak off when he needed to shoot back to work, and we headed south towards Creede. The sun was setting and John had let me go on ahead, and the riding was, once again, a delight.
The ride from Creede to Westcliffe was one that I had been looking forward to as we’d be visiting Great Sand Dunes National Park as well as taking on one of the most epic off-road routes of the tour, Medano Pass.
After spending the last four days riding through the impressive Rocky Mountains on roads that relentlessly wriggled their way through the peaks, it was then strange to emerge into the San Luis Valley where you’re greeted by a billiard ball table plateau 50 miles wide. The dead-flat corridor appears to be thriving, with potato, lettuce and barley farms stretching as far as the eye can see, but the reality is that it’s one of the poorest areas of Colorado.
Into the San Luis Valley
While it may not be overflowing with cash, the San Luis Valley has a different kind of wealth. It’s surrounded on three sides by monolithic mountains, and as you emerge from the San Juan Mountains to the west, the formidable and dramatic rock faces of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains to the east lure you across the valley. Nestling conspicuously at the feet of these is Great Sand Dunes National Park – a collection of sand dunes that seemingly have no business being where they are.
Amazingly, it’s not the deserts of Nevada or California where you’ll find the USA’s tallest sand dunes, it’s here. Almost out of nowhere, these huge sand mountains rise from the ground, the tallest being Star Dune which stands at a respectable 229m.
According to researchers, these dunes began to form less than 444,000 years ago when sand and soil from the bed of a great glacial lake were blown into their corner after the water evaporated. All of this can be discovered at the visitor centre at the park, and John and I took a little hike out onto the sand.
The highest sand dunes in the USA to the left of the image
Our plan was to have lunch near the dunes and then ride Medano Pass, a challenging route that promised numerous river crossings, some technical riding and a section of sand to negotiate. It would eventually spit us out, after rising to over 3,000m, on Wolf Springs Ranch which would be just down the road from our final overnight stop of the tour in Westcliffe.
But things don’t always go to plan. A brutal storm had brought rainfall of biblical proportions to the area earlier in the week, and Medano Creek had flooded. As a result, the road had been washed away in many places and so we were forced to re-route, heading south to go around the Sangre de Cristos rather than through them.
As it turns out, we had actually viewed that violent storm from a distance a few days prior as we were crossing Black Sage Pass. Our route originally had us riding head on into the deluge, but John’s uncanny ability to navigate the maze of mountain trails without a map or compass meant that he could easily alter our path so that we stayed dry.
Storm chasing on the way to Westcliffe
Missing Medano Pass was a kick in the balls, or at least it seemed so at first. But as we rounded the southern edge of the mountain range and began heading north again, the riding was fantastic.
Storm clouds had built up over the higher ground and for the duration of our ride, into the evening, we watched as they rolled off the mountains and over the lower ground ahead. There’s nothing quite like the sheer awe you experience when watching the weather unleash its brutality – as long as it’s not unleashing it on you.
Shortly before we reached Westcliffe I put a huge tick on my #lifegoals list. As we rode up the 69 with lightening striking in the distance, John told me to keep my eyes on the meadows to the left, for there’s a good chance I’d see some buffalo.
I’d read about the magnificent beasts in high school when I learnt about the American West, and since then I’ve had a fascination with them, and Wolf Springs Ranch happened to have a few large herds of them grazing. OK, they weren’t wild buffalo, but to see them was something special for me.
The next day saw us making our way from Westcliffe back home to Golden. Beautiful tarmac was interchanged with gentle off-road trails, and as John mentioned that we were riding through bear country I managed to spot two black bears in the distance. Another tick went on my list, followed shortly by a huge one as we rode through THE South Park. It wasn’t long before we rolled into Golden, and the ride was done.
Well I’m goin’ down to South Park gonna’ have myself a time…
That evening I finally got to eat ribs, and we spent the night drinking beers (Colorado has a fantastic craft ale scene) and reflecting on a fantastic eight days of riding. I still maintain my view that you don’t have to go abroad to have an epic adventure, but my god am I glad that I did. If only it was easier to get a permanent visa…
Want to ride these routes? Here’s how you can…
Getting to Colorado from the UK
Getting to Colorado is now both easy and affordable thanks to new low-cost Trans-Atlantic flights from Norwegian Air. The route was yet to open when I travelled, so I flew via Los Angeles, but starting in September Norwegian offers direct flights from Gatwick to Denver for a measly £200 each way. Book early to avoid rising prices. Alternatively, British Airways flies direct to Denver from Heathrow, but you’ll be paying a lot more for the privilege at £2,000 return. To find the best deals it’s worth checking out the Sky Scanner website.
Ride this route
I was being guided around Colorado by John Hax from 106 West Adventures. John has an incredible knack for navigation being an ex-marine, and he’s a fantastic guide with tonnes of knowledge of the area. The tour I was on was the eight-day Southern Rockies tour ($2,895 per person (approximately £2,259)), though 106 West offers a plethora of other amazing rides around the American South West. Included in that price is use of a BMW F700 or 800 with panniers and tank bag, all accommodation, transfers too and from the airport, a hoodie and all of your fuel during the ride.
Head to the 106 West website for more information on all of the tours that the company offers, along with prices, dates, and more valuable information.
Get your own bike there
If you’d rather use your own bike on a 106 West guided tour of Colorado then you’ll need to get it shipped across the pond. Motofreight offers air freight from London to Denver, Colorado, for £1,125 (for a BMW F700GS-size bike). For more information, head to www.motofreight.com.
What gear to take
The weather in the Rockies is hugely variable. In the valleys, you can be basking in glorious summer heat but as you rise into the mountains the temperatures can drop. Couple this with the frequent afternoon storms which have the potential to bring heavy rain and spectacular lightening shows, and you’ll need to think carefully about what gear you take.
I rode in a well-ventilated laminated jacket which provided the waterproofing needed for the wet days, and enough ventilation to keep me cool when it was warm. For trousers, I was wearing a typical pair of three-layer textiles, though I left the thermal liner and waterproof liner at home, instead opting to bring a pair of waterproof over trousers, which worked very well.
Protective, waterproof adventure boots are crucial, as is an adventure helmet that provides decent ventilation while working the bike off-road along with overhead sun protection. I packed two pairs of gloves – one pair of summer gloves and a pair of waterproof winter gloves for when the weather took a turn for the worse. A neck tube is an invaluable addition to your kit options as the dry trails can kick up a lot of dust.