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Photo courtesy of Shauna Farnell

You Still Have Time to Pedal Up a Car-Free Mt. Evans

Depending on when the next snowstorm rolls through, your days to slog to the top of America’s highest paved road sans cars are limited.

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Although Mt. Evans has loomed over me my entire life—it’s the closest of Colorado’s 58 fourteeners to Denver—I had never ascended the peak until a couple weeks ago, before the early season storm blanketed much of the state in snow. I reached the 14,130-foot summit solely by my own power, taking advantage of a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to pedal up the mountain on two wheels, without dodging the influx of cars that usually crowd the road during the summer months.

Between Memorial Day and Labor Day, typically more than 200,000 people travel to the top of the highest paved road in North America, and most of them get there by car. However, this summer, the Colorado Department of Transportation (CDOT), in conjunction with the U.S. Forest Service and Denver Mountain Parks closed the paved road to motorized traffic to reduce the spread of COVID-19.

“It had to do with both the safety of the public and long-term viability of the recreation area,” says Reid Armstrong of the U.S. Forest Service. “Unlike some high mountain passes, it’s a dead-end road. It’s a narrow summit. Access is based on fees. Could we manage those visitor centers safely in the COVID environment? The second piece was economic feasibility. It was going to be an abbreviated season since we didn’t open until July. In order to run safely with COVID measures, we’d run at a deficit.”

With warm weather in the forecast, cyclists still have time to make the journey. However, with recent winter weather and chilly temperatures at the summit, Armstrong urges extra caution. While the road doesn’t officially close to foot or bike traffic, after enough snow falls, it becomes progressively dangerous and then impassable.

Those who want to take advantage of the carless road are in for an unforgettable experience. I made the trip with my incredibly fit, high-country mountain biking buddy Amy on August 27. On road/gravel bikes, it us took a little more than two hours to pedal the 14.5 miles and nearly 4,000 feet up to the summit from Echo Lake, and every second of it was breathtaking—in the most literal sense and in the best possible way.

There’s something truly surreal about riding an expanse of pavement above treeline—your destination looming ahead as the shadowed, lower peaks fade away below. It was so quiet on the road that the only sound was our tires rolling over the (many) cracks in the asphalt. If you usually ride skinnies, it might be a good idea to opt for nubby tires for this trek—you can especially feel every bump in the road on the way down.

We only saw about 25 people all day—a mix of hikers and cyclists of every variety. There were the hardcore, Lycra-wearing type—many of whom had started their trek from Idaho Springs, making the ride 28 miles each way and 6,500 feet of climbing—slow and steady cyclists who make the trip an annual pilgrimage, bucket-listers on dilapidated, old mountain bikes, and flatlanders using their handlebars like walkers for the last two miles.

But where humans were lacking, the wildlife was plentiful. We saw herds of mountain goats—some staring us down in the middle of the road—marmots scurrying over rocks, and even fuzzy-antlered elk along the way.

“We’ve been hearing a lot from the non-motorized community enjoying the experience this year,” says Armstrong. “We’ve heard really good feedback. People have been really grateful for that opportunity. Of course, we’ve heard the opposite, too … motorists upset they couldn’t drive up this summer.”

Motorists will get their chance again next year; the road is scheduled to reopen again by Memorial Day 2021. In the meantime, cyclists should embrace this opportunity to have the highest road in America all to themselves. Just don’t forget your layers.

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