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When to go: Anytime after the snow melts in the spring and before it falls again in the winter. Riding roundtrip? Give yourself twice as much time on the eastbound stretch as the westbound leg.
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There are plenty of mountain passes in Colorado. All of them are scenic. Most of them are steep. Few of them are as familiar to the weekend warrior as Vail Pass. Every time my car lurches up the highway past Copper Mountain’s base village, I notice the broad valley that stretches lazily toward the pass’ summit. When there’s no snow, the bike path is visible; it cuts through a rolling meadow below and between the eastbound and westbound lanes of the raised highway, before it disappears around a bend. I’ve always wanted to know exactly where the path goes, and this year I found out.
I met a few like-minded—which is to say, bike-minded—girlfriends earlier this summer at the trailhead in Dillon, and we set off to ride the 25 (or so) miles to the summit of Vail Pass and back. The route, which includes both paved biking/walking paths and bike lanes on county roads, follows I-70 pretty closely, but diverges temporarily in a few places. The ride from Dillon to Copper Mountain is easy, peaceful and shaded. It’s a gradual uphill, but it doesn’t feel like a climb. Ten Mile Creek tumbles playfully beside the trail, and you cover the first four to six miles of the ride before you know it.
Just west of Copper, the trail begins to climb more noticeably through that rolling meadow, and, though the raised highway passes overhead, you hardly notice it. Two miles from the summit, the bike path begins to switchback with a few tight hairpin turns. Keep an eye out for bicycle tour groups and “hikers.” At the top of the switchbacks is the summit rest stop, which bustles with cars, trucks, recreational vehicles, and tour buses. Snap a photo to prove you made it and then move on.
Energized by our relatively quick ascent that morning, we decided to keep going all the way to Vail. The western half of the route is much busier. The path is narrow and close enough in places to I-70 that you have to keep a tight grip on the handlebars. You also need a tight grip on the brakes, as it’s a pretty steep and fast descent. A few miles from the base of the pass, the trail crosses under the freeway and through a peaceful forested area that feels far more remote than it actually is. Once down the pass, a few miles of rolling bike path along Vail’s golf course or the frontage road bike lane will carry you into Vail Village.
We stopped for a much-needed sub sandwich lunch on La Bottega’s shaded patio, considered thumbing for a sag-wagon ride back over the pass, and then decided to go back just the way we came. The return was steeper and harder, and we had a few what-were-we-thinking moments, but those melted away as we rolled back into the Dillon and checked our odometers. Fifty-five miles ain’t bad for a Sunday morning spin.
Getting there: Take I-70 west to exit 201, Dillon’s Main Street. Pass under the highway and make your first right on Forest Drive. Park in the open lot and follow the path across the creek and onto CO Road 1070, westbound. It’s 12.5 miles to the summit of Vail Pass.
—Image courtesy of Shutterstock