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Ride Reviews

Mt. Evans via Motorcycle: Highest Paved Road in North America

Ricardo Perez

Echo Lake
I'll admit I'm afraid of heights and even though riding to the top of Mt. Evans Scenic Byway was a real rush it's not something I'd like to do again! In a four wheel drive vehicle it would be great, but it will still have you holding your breath on some of those hairpin turns. It's something I'm glad I've accomplished, but it was never on my bucket list of must things to do. Mt. Evans lies west of Denver and its narrow road, without guard rails and with dramatic drop offs and snow covered sides lays claim to being the highest paved road in the North America.
Our ride started in the Rio Grande Valley of South Texas in June at 5:30 am on a typical day in South Texas, a perfect morning soon to get hot. There were five of us riding, Marco Gutierrez a local physician who lives in Edinburg riding a BMW GS, his brother David who flew in from Florida and had his Yamaha at Marco's house ready to ride, Ed Ramirez a computer programmer at the University of Texas at Pan American from Alamo on his 2010 Harley Davidson, my brother Tomas Perez on a Honda ST 1300 and myself riding my 2008 HD Ultra Classic. We decided to avoid the major highways on our trip to Colorado by riding along the less frequently traveled roads or what we call the back way to West Texas. It's a lot quicker ride if you stay on the interstates, Highway 281/37 to San Antonio then I10 West with speed limits at 80 west of Kerrville. Our more pedestrian route first took us to Hebbronville on Hwy 1017 via McCook and San Isidro. From Hebbronville we took Hwy 16 North to Freer before turning northwest on Hwy 44 to Encinal then north on Hwy 83 to Carrizzo Springs and on to Del Rio, 300 plus miles from Mission. It was lunch time and we stopped to eat at Rudy's BBQ.
West of Del Rio is the Pecos River and Langtry, home to Judge Roy Bean, Law West of the Pecos fame. The bridge crossing the Pecos is the highest suspended bridge in Texas and it crosses the Pecos right before it merges with the Rio Grande River. We stopped at the Overview park to check out the view of the Pecos River, the bridge and off at a distance to the South the Rio Grande River.
Pecos River
It was over 100 degrees in Langtry, so we stopped at the very nicely built Texas Department of Transportation (TxDot) Travel Information Center. It's home to the historic saloon of Judge Roy Bean and just about every publication at the center is free including complimentary copies of Ride Texas Magazine. Langtry is like an oasis in the desert so it's worth the stop.
TxDot Information Center
On the road again, its now hot enough to make you think about how great tires are that they can roll mile after mile on pavement that's got to be at least 115 degrees without melting. You don't think about that in a car, but it sure crosses your mind on a motorcycle. Being partial to a tire manufacturer dedicated to motorcycle tires, I run with Metzeler and like their grip in the rain. We continued west along Hwy 90 to Sanderson, a town with two noteworthy gas stations. There's a popular big gas stop at the western end of town and on the east end of town a small gas station with a shaded picnic table that makes for a good soda break. I'm not sure why Sanderson is out there, maybe because of the intersection on Highway 285? It's this highway which we took as we headed 65 miles northwest to Fort Stockton. Fort Stockton is on I10W so it gets traffic running between El Paso and San Antonio especially truck traffic. We crossed Fort Stockton still headed northwest toward Pecos, another 55 mile jog. Pecos is usually very hot and dry, but we were lucky to hit a thunderstorm as we rode into town. The welcome rain cools us off for the rest of the day. Pecos is not suited to handle much rain and the streets were quick to flood. We weren't far from the Land of Enchantment, New Mexico so we pushed on. It was getting late in the afternoon so temperatures started to cool off as we entered New Mexico. There's a dramatic drop in speed limits going from Texas to New Mexico from 75mph to about 60mph. That's pretty unbearable on roads with little or no traffic so we ride at a conservative 73mph as the GPS reads. We rode past Carlsbad as the sun set and stopped for the first night close to Lakewood at a local KOA Campground. It was a good first day's ride, approximately 742 miles, and ready for dinner.
KOA Camp North of Carlsbad, NM

Day two was a much cooler day. We took some back roads toward Roswell where we stopped for breakfast at Denny's. Western New Mexico is fairly flat and the winds can really blow. We rode through some strong cross winds and luckily squeaked through threatening thunderstorm clouds that made the storms back in Pecos look like a spring shower. Traveling northwest we stopped for a couple of hours in downtown Santa Fe. We had a light lunch at the French Pastry Shop & Creperie by the plaza. They have great pastries and good coffee, a must stop if you're in the area.
Downtown Santa Fe near French Pastry Shop

We continued our ride through Santa Fe and headed north toward Pagosa Springs, CO and the San Juan National Forest. Cross into Colorado and the landscape turns emerald green a sharp contrast from the desert sands of West Texas and New Mexico. From Pagosa Springs we headed west to Durango and ending our second riding day. We had crossed the entire state of New Mexico, an easy 500 mile day compared to our first day's ride.
Close to Pagosa Springs, Colorado

Durango, Colorado is home to the Narrow Gauge Railroad that runs between that town and Silverton. It's a popular ride and one I had taken many years ago when my kids were younger. The scenic ride meanders through the mountain passes to Silverton.
Silverton, CO
Silverton, the only scheduled stop, offers enough time for shopping and lunch before heading back to Durango.
We stayed at the Holiday Inn Express and got a late start because I wanted to wait for the local Harley Davidson shop to open so I could buy a heated vest. Seems I packed long sleeve shirts, but not nearly enough warm clothes for the upcoming days. We would experience temperatures as low as 36 degrees on our trip, a dramatic difference from the weather in Langtry! Finally, late that morning we rode west to Mesa Verde National Park. The cliff dwellings of the Pueblo people date back to 600AD and it's good ride. The terrain flatten out as you go west and things warm up a bit.
Mesa Verde National Park
We backtracked to Durango and headed north to Silverton then Ouray.
Ouray is known to some winter tourists that visit us in South Texas as the little Switzerland of the USA. Having never been in Switzerland I have no clue as to the truth of that statement. Ouray is nestled between some fairly big mountains leaving you the sensation of being in a bowl.
We continued north to Montrose, but decided to double-back south to find Ridgway State Park near Ridgway where we wanted to camp for the night.
Ouray the little Swiss Town
We pitched our tents, made a fire, and chatted into the night before getting into our sleeping bags. It was 46 degrees that night so our sleeping bags were perfect for a cool night. I've always camped with our Marmot sleeping bags rated at 30 degrees and our Comet two person tent from Sierra Designs. The Comet has extra strength poles for those windy nights. Both of these come from REI online orders.
Ridgway State Park is rated as one of the top ten state parks in the United States. If you walk to the top of a small hill there's a beautiful view of an adjoining lake. We had two campsites, but decided to group our three tents on one site and got in trouble for that. We used one site to park the bikes and another to camp, but park rules limit the number of tents to two per site. Who knew?
Black Canyon
Marco Gutierrez at Black Canyon
The Park Rangers at Ridway State Park, yes, the same ones that got after us for too many tents on one site were very good in offering us travel recommendations. They recommended we stop at the Black Canyon mentioning that most people don't even realize its there and its often overlooked even though its a great place to visit. We took their advice and headed in that direction. We had an early brunch in Montrose before heading to the Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park then back on the road headed east toward Gunnison.
Riding into those mountains as we head to Aspen
We rode Hwy 50 east to Poncha Springs then north on 285 to Buena Vista. North of Buena Vista we caught Hwy 82 and headed northwest to Aspen. Highway 82 is a narrow two lane road that eventually makes its way to Aspen. The weather was overcast and threading to rain, but we made it safely to Aspen. After walking some of the downtown streets in Aspen we decided that it's not for us so we ride on.
Next came Carbondale then Glenwood Springs before getting on I70E and headed to Vail. We stopped for the night at one of the many hotels on I70.
The next morning we continued on I70E headed for the base city of Mount Evans, Idaho Springs which is about 45 minutes west of Denver. Idaho Springs was a welcome site, unlike Aspen or Vail, this town had regular stores and restaurants and just regular working class people. We had been on I70 with typical traffic congestion, but still a beautiful ride as expressways go. After a short break in Idaho Springs we started on Hwy 103 to Echo Lake. Echo Lake has a nice gift shop and restaurant and I don't know if its best to stop there on the way up or on the way down, but I would recommend making that stop on the way down. Weather changes can be sudden and dramatic especially in the late afternoons so it's best to get the ride out of the way before it gets too late. On the way down the Echo Lake stop seems like you're safe again, so stop and get those bumper stickers that say you made it to the top of Mt. Evans. On the way up those decals seem expense, but on the way down they seem like a real bargain.
We started our climb about noon with clear skies. It had been in the 70s down at Idaho Springs, but it was now getting cooler. Just beyond the Echo Lake stop is the official park entrance. An entry fee of about $10 is required. The park road is very different than the highway leading up to Echo Lake. It's much more narrow and the tall forest trees are much closer to the road than down below. The road has a steady climb, the terrain slowly giving way to less trees and suddenly you are above the tree line. Being scared of heights made me tighten the grip on my handlebars, focus on the road and not on the sheer drop-off just a few feet away, and a fixation on my Garmin GPS's altitude gauge. I knew that the switch-backs would end at 14,130 feet so I kept glancing at the GPS wondering if it was really right. The switch-backs literally make 180 degree turns. Keeping the bike upright as you navigate each turn was a challenge. The altitude displaying on my GPS was moving fast, but to me it seemed too slow for me. After every turn around the bend there was more road in front of us, always leading up. Eventually we could see the lookout building and knew we were making it all the way to the top. The temperature was now between 36 and 39 degrees. It was difficult to breath and my heart was really pumping. I think its natural to breath more rapidly to get more oxygen in your lungs. I was wrong and realized that when I read the informational sign telling you to stay calm.
View from top of the highest paved road in North America!
Knowing what lay before us, the ride back down the mountain was very welcome. We could relax and enjoy the view knowing that every turn got us back closer to planet earth.
Once we were back at Idaho Springs we made our way West on I70 and turned north on Highway 40 heading to Grandby. We took the Trail Ridge Road 34 across the Rocky Mountain National Park to Estes Park. The Trail Ridge Road was another high altitude adventure as we crossed the Continental Divide again on our crisscrossing ride in Colorado. Of course, this road was tame compared to the Mt. Evans adventure and the inclines on the cobblestone roads of Real de Catorce in Mexico. Rocky Mountain National Park gets over three million visitors a year and I can understand why as you travel the Ridge Road you will see wildlife like huge elk, green meadows in panoramic views below your road elevation, and snow in the summer. Estes Park is another great park that serves as the East entrance to the national park. It makes for a great camp base before heading into the national park.
We spent our last night in Colorado on the outskirts of Boulder and so ended our rocky mountain ride. We headed out of Colorado via Hwy I70E across the eastern part of Colorado. As we headed east we made Salina in Kansas then south to Wichita and pressed on to Oklahoma City. It was a long day's ride logging over 700 miles. The next day we duplicated our miles by doing another 700 plus mile ride home from Oklahoma City to Mission, Texas. By the time we hit the Texas state line we were back in hot weather and our heavy jackets and electric vests were somewhere deep in our saddle bags by then.
David Gutierrez at Independence Pass - 12,095 Feet

Road leading to summit
We rode over 3,200 miles on our trip and crossed West Texas, New Mexico, Colorado, Kansas, Oklahoma and Texas again, but north to south. We averaged about 500 miles a day at speeds between 80 and 5mph. We weathered temperature changes from 100 degrees to close to freezing, crossed the Continental Divide, camped out, visited several National Parks and got to see the great outdoors.
Yep, we're at 14,130 feet!

Tomas, Ed, David, & Marco

Marco Gutierrez, David Gutierrez, Tomas Perez, Ricardo Perez, Ed Ramirez
Summit 14,130'

View Mt. Evans Colorado in a larger map