COLORADO BACKCOUNTRY DISCOVERY ROUTE
By Paul Strubell of Dirt Orcas – August 23rd, 2016
A 2700-mile motorcycle journey from Eastern Iowa to Colorado, to ride the Colorado Backcountry Discovery Route. The famous route was put together in connection with the people at Butler Maps and Touratech. The 675-mile route is designed to travel the length of Colorado mostly off-road. The GPS files are available for free at the Backcountry Discovery Route website or you can purchase the paper version of the map that will give you additional resources like fuel stops and potential campgrounds. I found this to be very helpful with planning. You can purchase the Butler map here.
Day 1 – Fairfield, IA to Lincoln, NE
The trip began as I left work early on a Friday afternoon. I finalized my packing and hit the road just after lunch. I had a goal in mind of hitting Lincoln, NE for dinner. It was 5 hours away. I planned to meet a fellow rider who was travelling by car with his family there as well. All went according to plan and we had a nice stay.
Day 2 – Lincoln, NE to Boulder, CO
Today was the Lincoln, NE to Boulder, CO leg of the journey. I made good time on the road and arrived about 4pm at my friends’ place. I had a great time hiking and catching up with them that night. I love the magic of these trips for the wilderness and scenery, but I enjoy connecting with the people on a different level just as much. There is little substitute for genuine human connection.
Day 3 – Boulder to Lake Granby
I had a nice brunch at “The Kitchen” with a childhood friend and we even managed to run into an additional childhood friend who was visiting with his father. The four of us had a great time catching up in downtown Boulder. That afternoon my friend and I purchased some groceries and headed out for Lake Granby in the Arapaho National Forest. We found a nice campsite and sat by the fire catching up and making dinner. As we sat enjoying a beer and the solace of nature, we heard the unmistakable sound of your camp neighbors “banging one out”. I was surprised at the versatility of their hammock. We were then joined by my friend Kevin who would be joining me for the ride on the Colorado Backcountry Discovery Route (COBDR). He arrived in his car with his Suzuki DR650 strapped in his trailer.
Day 4 – Lake Granby to Trough Rd. Campground
This day began early when I heard Ben starting his car to return to his office for a meeting. Kevin and I slowly rose from our tents to find it was quite a bit colder than we were anticipating. We estimated it to be in the lower 50’s. We made coffee and packed up camp. When I turned my bike on the temperature gauge was reading 42. Colder than we thought! We had a great ride on some of the state highways from Lake Granby over to Granby itself, where Kevin dropped off his car and trailer and joined me for some actual motorcycling. After a quick stop for a huge breakfast burrito and some serious attitude from the barista about the uniqueness of his Ethiopian yirgacheffe, we made our way to Steamboat Springs and dipped in to Strawberry Springs for an hour before we grabbed lunch downtown. Kevin proved to be an excellent travelling partner on many occasions but finding quality food was one of his high marks. We decided to omit the first leg of the COBDR from Laramie, WY to Steamboat Springs (Section 6) because we were on a time-sensitive mission and wanted to make sure we hit as many of the highlights as possible. Those being sections 2 and 4 of the COBDR. We would be running the route backwards from North to South. Our first day was nice, with the exception of a little overzealous riding on my part. I let the back end slide out on a loose downhill and the bike low-sided on me. It was a dusty crash but nothing more. The bike and I had only minor scratches. We stopped atop a nice vista and were able to let the constraints of everyday life start to melt away. On every bike trip the world melts away at a different pace. The country you ride through, the troubles at home, the troubles on the road, they all factor into your mind’s focus. As we pressed on, we passed this historic cabin to hammer home the insignificance of daily problems. It was built in the 1500’s. Still standing strong.
We put down about 3.5 hours until we arrived at our camp for the night. A decent open campground on the Colorado River just north of Gypsum. It was on Trough road.
We picked out our site and started to unpack the stoves and tents. Soon enough we were under heavy fire from mosquitoes. It was actually a bit disorienting. Not something I associate with a large river and Colorado. We dispatched our all-natural bug spray. The mozzies seemed to actually enjoy that. On our way to the river for a bath, we met a nice couple riding mountain bikes on the Continental Divide trail who offered us quality bug spray and a log to make a fire. Nothing quite like DEET and smoke to ward off the blood suckers. I set to work collecting wood scraps from the grounds and empty campsites. Soon enough we had a nice fire and we were making dinner. Sleep came easy that night, even while the train bustled by at 4 AM.
Day 5- Trough Rd. Campground to Sylvan Lake
We started the day with a pancake breakfast offered by some neighboring campers. Maple syrup and everything. After another icy dip in the Colorado River we packed up and rode on enjoying the scenery and quaint little mountain towns we passed along the way. The trail was open gravel roads for the most part. Comfortable fast riding. We stopped for a swim around lunch time. I spotted a great little pull out under a train bridge with easy water access. This was one of the highlights of the trip for me. Coming from Iowa, our rivers are such a damaged resource, you never consider swimming in them. To see a beautiful river and have swimming access to it, made the COBDR a much richer experience.
We had a late lunch in Gypsum and I discovered fish burritos. It’s like a fish taco but much bigger. Enjoyable. We spoke to our third rider, David, who was planning to join us at camp that night near Sylvan Lake State Park. He was going on about some bullshit and saying that he was going to meet us mid-day tomorrow due to last minute difficulties. This meant he would be missing a substantial amount of the meat of section 4. Leadville, Haggerman Pass, and Weston Pass would be missed. Kevin and I pressured him into leaving ASAP and meeting us that night. He wouldn’t be arriving till about 9pm but at least he would be there for the good riding the morning had waiting. I was also about confused about this situation. For months, I had been planning a bike trip for myself and David that for me was every bit of nine days. Would David really only be joining me for one and a half days of riding? That didn’t seem right. Fortunately, he relented to our pressure and we agreed to meet at the Sylvan Lake Campground. Kevin and I pressed on. Riding through the beautiful forest and high country roads of the area. We passed a perfect backcountry primitive site and then another. Kevin was nearly frothing at the mouth about camping next to these streams and the high country. We rode down into Sylvan Lake State Parks campground, only to learn about its $35/night fee and rules about not being allowed to swim in the lake. We talked it over and opted to ride back up the mountain to secure a primitive site. I got started on firewood collection while Kevin rode into town to find cell service to let David know that we would not be staying where we had told him, but rather about ten minutes up the trail. We drank and ate good meals. This campsite had an excellent little stream next to it. Extremely cold water but it feels better to be refreshed and clean after a dusty ride.
David arrived well after dark and paced around camp for about 20 minutes before unwinding into the mindset of the trail. Kevin and I had already let it set in days before. The scenery and the riding do not disappoint on the COBDR.
Day 6 – Sylvan Lake to Buena Vista
In the morning we set about making coffee and starting to pack up. Kevin and I were treated to David trying to operate his refurbished gasoline Whisperlight stove from the late 1980’s. Gas was leaking everywhere and provided a solid laugh. We eventually helped him regulate it. He seemed slightly disappointed in his choice compared to our modern camp stoves. Kevin uses this little $10 gem and mine is a similar one made by MSR, which you can buy here. I collected fresh red raspberries from our campsite and shared them with the lads for breakfast.
We also all feel in love with our little Luci Solar Lights. I prefer the soft light version but both are cool. Very little charge is needed to get great light around camp. You can buy them here. They are great for just about any camping trip because they pack down so small, but you could also use them around the house, on porches, or along walkways. Very stoked with the direction of solar and outdoor products.
We packed up and headed for Leadville. This day would prove to be the most difficult riding of the COBDR for me. Haggerman Pass was very fun but extremely rocky and needs to be taken at speed to navigate the steep terrain. If you were to run this route in the intended fashion (Northbound) you would have a nice easy trip up and a rocky trip down. However we were traveling the other direction and needed to blast up the inclines in order to travel over the rocks. I lost level traction at one point and ended up sideways on the side of the road. The sage broke my fall. We laughed. We pressed on. Another minor spill with no damage. I lack pictures of this incline because we were too busy riding. The shame of most great adventures is that you do not have the time to stop for photos when the going gets tough. Kevin has a GoPro with abundant footage, but I will be retired before he gets to editing that down.
From here we proceeded down the mountain and then up the much more relaxed road of Westin Pass. Westin Pass is a car road that offers nice lazy switchbacks and stunning views.
From Westin Pass we continue South towards Buena Vista. We enter the lower elevation portions briefly and have a blast on the open roads and through the cattle country and sage lands. The riding is quick and open. Then we started up the forested two track as you climb towards BV (as the locals called it). David handles gate duty for us. We pass through and wait for him to ride his bike through the gate and latch it. He reattaches it with himself on the wrong side. Professional level comedy.
We pass large boulder fields and wind down sandy roads into BV. The clouds look dangerous overhead and the wind picks up. Kevin notices that one of the pieces of his luggage rack has bailed on the trip. It’s causing his saddlebag to collide with the rear wheel. We take a break as he hunts for a piece of wood to jam in there and secures it with some additional straps. Seems legit. We press on into the weather. We ride into BV and fuel up. We discuss our options for the night. Kevin wants to find a campsite out among the rocks and says this storm will blow over. David and I opt for the less ridiculous option and agree we should eat pizza, drink local beers, and secure a hotel room. Kevin acquiesces. We hit the Eddyline Brewery and enjoy ourselves. We stay at the Super 8. I take the floor because they are older than me.
Day 7 – Buena Vista to Lake City
We wake and hit the complimentary continental breakfast like overachievers. It takes us a bit to get started but we start moving again about 10:30. We make short work of the open roads and really enjoy the sage lands with numerous kickers present on the trail. Our bikes find air between the tires and the ground on many occasions. The tight two track and forest roads are all going swimmingly but David’s Bike starts to overheat leaving Tincup. He manages the situation with a Cliff bar and some standing around. While we are waiting for him, Kevin finds that his other luggage rack is also broken and we go to work repairing that. Soon we hit the open highway and make a brief stop about 30 miles from Lake City. I notice that my rear tire has picked up a nail.
We add a can of slime in hopes that it will solve the problem until we can really address it. We hand pump the tire to 36 PSI and head out towards Lake City with the slime in the rear wheel. David and Kevin are keeping an eye on the tire as we ride. The riding is fortunately not very rocky and I am able to keep up a normal pace without too many concerns. As we pull into Lake City, I realize this is a bit of a tradition of mine. Three years ago on a trip though the same area, on my way to Moab, I also picked up a nail in Lake City. We pull into the service station and I pull out the PSI monitor. It reads 3 PSI. I just limped in with the bead breaking. We ask the gas station if they can offer any assistance and he tells me he will patch the tube, but only if I get the wheel and tire off myself. It will cost $10.
“So you’re saying I can do all the work and pay you $10?” Thanks for nothing buddy. This place must be rolling in cash. They run massive amounts of Jeep and 4×4 tours out of there, but it also has to be the shittiest customer care from a service station I have ever experienced. Maybe I’ve lived in the Midwest too long? Last time I was there and flat there, they were just as useless. They wouldn’t help at all. This time I asked if I could fill up my tire with their air compressor. They reluctantly agreed, but mostly because I told them I would be back in the morning to have them patch the tube (even though I was planning to do it myself). I filled it up and then asked if they would mind if the girl power washing the jeep next to me would give me a quick spray to help get some of the grime and dust off the back wheel to help clean it up for the removal. They had to ask the boss. I offered to pay a dollar and they agreed. With a freshly cleaned wheel and an inflated tire secured, we stopped by a grocery store for beer and food and headed out to Engineer Pass Rd. We heard there were some good primitive campsites along the river. We found a solid one and I went to work removing the tire and tube.
Getting the tire and wheel off the bike was fairly simple. Removing the tire from the wheel not so much. As with a lot of adventure bikes, the manufactures have opted to give riders the familiarity of tubed tires. However, most adventure bikes also require a substantial tire that can also be run tubeless. This creates a situation where you have a hell of a time removing the tire and tube from the wheel in the field. Oh and make sure you do not pinch the tube while you fight the tire to the death. After a few beers and some elbow grease, three grown men pulled the tire away from the wheel. I set to work patching the tube. Once I was happy with that, we put the tire back on and I set about to setting up my tent and making dinner in the dark. I circled back after a few hours to make sure the patch was holding and then I put the wheel back on the bike and put it on the side stand overnight. I slept better this night than any on the trip. The air was cool but I was worn out from the days of riding and the hard work of tire repair.
Day 8 – Lake City to Monument
I woke and immediately submerged myself in the beautiful waters of the river. It was shockingly cold but so refreshing. I made coffee with the river water (a personal COBDR tradition) and surveyed the tire pressure. The patch was holding. We took a few group photos and David and I packed up to head East, the start of our rides home to Iowa. Kevin was going to explore the area and wait for his girlfriend to arrive in Telluride. She had taken a train out from Iowa days before and was driving his car and trailer down to meet him.
David and I rode quickly on the state highways towards Monument, where his family was staying. The tire seemed to be holding just fine. We had beautiful weather and days like this really make you glad you bought the adventure bike instead of a smaller, less powerful dual sport. We ripped through the curvy mountain passes and around cars. The roads were a real treat compared to what we have in the Midwest. We arrived in Monument about 4pm and settled down with beers and bowls of chili. Things are feeling good. It was a nice to receive the creature comforts but also the fatigue of the road gives you a space cadet- like demeanor. We ate well that night and had a fire. I crashed on the couch and slept well.
Day 9 – Monument, CO to Fairfield, IA
I packed up and departed at 7:40am. My goal was to be in my own bed that night. 835 miles to go on a patched tire and questions about how well my wheel was balanced after reattaching it in the field. I had also bent both rims on the trail. I had read that most riders air down to 34 PSI when riding f800gs’s on this trail. I did just that, but I did not consider that I was carrying a full complement of luggage. Also, the air temps would drop the PSI as it got colder in the altitude. I should have just kept them at what I normally run them at, 38 front and 42 rear. Live and learn.
I hit the highway hard though and made decent time across Colorado and Nebraska. I mostly avoided traffic in major cities. It was cool, in the low 60’s most of the morning. As I passed through Omaha, I started to feel the trip coming to a close, but the final phase was presenting a huge challenge for me.
I made one last stop in Des Moines before starting the final leg of the trip. The Iowa State Fair goers fill the parking lot of the gas station. I get fuel and water and start the ride home. Dusk descends on the cornfields. I see multiple deer feeding on the edge of the fields. I hit a deer last summer and am subsequently hypersensitive about them running out in front of me again. The low light of dusk is the worst time because they are on the move and it’s difficult to make them out in the fading light. The light is dim but your headlights aren’t quite illuminating the road ahead yet. The sky turns jet black for the final hour and a half of the trip. I tuck behind a semi truck in the left lane about 1 second back from his rear bumper. I use his truck as a shield to the deer running out from the right side. No chance they could get in front of me if they missed him. His high beams lighting the road well ahead of us. I use my own headlight to illuminate the grassy median in the center of the 4 lane highway. I am on high alert for the entire ride. 12 hours on the road, I pull off the highway at my exit just as a huge yellow moon peaks up over the horizon. I am home. Another adventure in the books. Exhausted and excited all at once. Ready for what’s next.