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A 2000 Km. bicycle tour of Arizona and Colorado, USA, April / May 2015

route from Tucson to Denver

A detailed interactive route map is here    [opens in a new window]      (courtesy of

Starting from Darwin

Its time for another conference - or is that a bikeride? This conference is in Tucson, Azrizona, USA and then the plan is to cycle across and through the rocky mountains to Denver, Only a short ride, but with some decent mountain climbs. And perhaps snow!

As usual i rode to the airport, leaving home at 9pm, packing the bike and flying overnight to Sydney for a connection to Los Angeles and then Tucson. Transporting the bike on airlines in Australia is no problem, even on budget airline Jetstar. But i am aware that bikes are a problem on airlines in the USA and can attract expensive fees. So i planned to call it a "mobility aid" in the USA. I had to transit Sydney to take my international flight. I dislike Sydney airport for international connections and this trip reinforced my dislike. I had to collect my bike and get to the transfer bus, so i used a luggage cart, which is not free in Sydney. The terminal transfer bus is also not free and even a bit pricey. Eventually i arrived with my stuff at the international terminal, where luggage carts are not available at the bus stop. I slung my small bags on each shoulder, wore my helmet and carried the bike as i tried to find the unsigned access to the departure level and eventually to the United Airlines checkin line. Here i was asked what was in my unusually shaped luggage. I stated it was a bike, not thinking i would have to be devious here. Then i was advised bikes as luggage cost $200 !!!! I quickly changed my statement to a "mobility aid" but my deceit was obvious and the checkin person went to get a supervisor. Then i realised i was still wearing my bright yellow bike helmet, no wonder my deceit was so obvious! Ooops!!! The supervisor arrived and asked if the bike was disassembled and looked inside to check. Seeing the jungle of parts in the bag she declared that disassembled bikes are free, so there was no problem. Yet another reason for me to love my folding bike, despite the half hour it takes to pack and unpack it every time I fly.

After connecting through Los Angeles, i flew on to Tucson and arrived in the early afternoon, assembled the bike and rode north to meet Jeff and we rode together to his house where he had very kindly allowed me to use his mobile home. On sunday i rode downtown and met Jamie and Luke and joined them for a fun family cycling event in South Tucson for several hours. I then tried to get a prepaid cell-phone service which should merely have meant buying a prepaid-SIM card for my phone. But after 2 hours of fiddling around the guy had merely managed to wreck my existing Australian phone connection because he damaged my existing Australian SIM card. GRRRRRR!

The conference was sedate, but interesting enough. After 2 days of sessions there was a "social/rest" day, so i decided to go for a ride up the fabled Mt. Lemon, a truly masochistic challenge. It was 40km across the suburbs to the start, then another 45km while climbing about 5000 feet to the summit restaurant. I turned back some 10 km short of the top as i was out of water, food and energy. It was a long ride of about 150 km, an interesting conference "rest" day. After 2 more conference days i spent some time with Jeff and his family as they taught me about baseball as we watched his son play. I was extremely grateful for Jeff and his family's wonderful kindness and hospitality during the week.

Now it was time to depart to ride to Denver. Jeff and i rode together for about 40 km northwards to Oracle and shared a late breakfast before we parted and I continued north to Globe. Initially this was an easy downhill, but then became a long climb through many high hills. I had thought Arizona was mostly flat, but it is actually quite lumpy with many passes above 5000 feet altitude between valleys often at about 2500 feet. At 2000' altitude, cactus is dominant, but above 5000' the cactus is absent and the vegetation is mostly pine trees. After 160 km i reached Globe, rather weary and found a small motel. 

elevation to tucson to globe
    Don't expect flat country in southern Arizona. There are serious climbs en-route!

Next morning was cold ( just 6 C) and raining as i rode north. And once again there were many climbs on this undulating route with no flat road sections at all as the sun struggled in vain to send down some warmth. After 60 km with much slow climbing i had to cross the Salt river. This is a canyon rivaling the grand canyon with a long descent to the bridge across the river and an even longer ( it felt longer) climb back up the other side.

the salt river canyon crossing

    The Salt River Canyon crossing

But as i crested another high pass i saw a nasty storm ahead. As there was no shelter anywhere I tried in vain to hitch a ride, but then the storm arrived and i had little choice but to ride through it. It was very cold and i had trouble riding straight due to my shivering and my frozen brain. At times like this even i would agree that cycle tourists are crazy. It was still another 60 km to Show Low and there were no services where I could rest or warm up, so I was very weary after my 160 km ride battling the topography, the cold rain and isolation. At least i found a motel with a good heating system and the owner cranked it up to 90 F, more than enough even for me.

globe to show low elevation
    Plenty of climbing on this route, particularly the Salt River Canyon crossing, about 3000 feet deep!

The unexpectedly serious mountains have slowed me down and i can see my planned schedule was over optimistic. And i haven't even started the big mountains in Colorado yet. How will i survive this potentially foolhardy adventure?

Across Arizona into Colorado

After my cold arrival in Show Low i was behind schedule so i asked some pickup truck drivers at the gas station for a lift northwards next morning. But this was unsuccessful so i modified my planned route and rode north to Snowflake and Holbrook. Holbrook is on the main interstate highway I40, a route i had tried to avoid. I would then have to ride about 75km on this busy highway where bikes are permitted to ride on the shoulder.

The ride to Holbrook had only gentle climbs and crossed vast arid plains. At one point i noticed a car traveling slowly behind me and as it came alongside me the driver leaned across the car and held a bottle of water out of the passenger side window for me. How thoughtful, even if the driving manoeuvre was a little erratic. Random acts of kindness do happen! In Holbrook the tourist advice service provided information about accommodation options on my route. I subsequently discovered that only half the information was correct and i was fortunate that i did not rely on their mis-information. Riding on the shoulder of the main interstate highway had both benefits and problems. The shoulder was wide and safe despite the fast and frequent traffic, but it was carpeted with an astonishing quantity of shreds of blown up car tyres. The tiny steel wires in car tyres are a serious puncture hazard for cyclists and caused 3 punctures, a major annoyance. At least there were no significant hills as i crossed vast open arid areas. At Chambers I found a lone motel beside the highway, meant for tired long-distance motorists, for the night. Here a lady was amazed by my cycling out in such a remote area and we shared stories over dinner. She was a veterinary doctor and had worked for the local native tribes to service their herds and horses. There is a major problem in this region because the soil and grasses are deficient in phosphorus, causing bone issues in the animals.

Continuing north, i was now crossing Navajo indian reservation lands and there were very few services. The only village en-route, Ganado, had only a gas station store which serviced the natives, not tourists. This despite the tourist service having told me there were several motels here!! At a road junction i saw a person selling something from his car, so i stopped to investigate, and have a rest. The person was a navajo native and we chatted while i ate a snow cone. He lived in one of the small farm houses which dotted the route and had some horses but no job or income. But despite the remote location he had "mains" water supply, electricity and internet.

In Chinle, about 10 km further on, most of the population was native, but there were schools and community services and a major hospital. Although there were some motels in town, these were fully booked and i was fortunate to be staying with a kind cycling host, Colin, who worked at the hospital. There is an extensive canyon here which is the reason the town exists and it is a tourist attraction. To continue my journey i had to reach Cortez, about 220 km away in one day as there was no closer accommodation. Colin arranged for his schoolteacher friends to give me a ride for 30 km to the school at "Many Farms" where they worked, a small but very important head start to my long day of cycling. But it was a great sunny day with gentle winds as i rode along various impressive canyons, a very scenic day. I reached Cortez in Colorado about 5 pm after 191 km of cycling, pleasantly weary after my great cycling day.

Next day was just a short 90 km ride to the cycling mecca of Durango. Over breakfast i spoke with a part-native guy and learned about the workings of the native reservations, which are essentially independent nations within the USA. The ride to Durango took me by surprise as there was a bigger than expected pass to climb, but then a fun descent. I found a Nepalese/Tibetan restaurant for lunch where i met Rita who told me about the recent earthquake in Nepal and the local support for education of Nepalese girls. The restaurant owner, Jamou, was one of the first girls to attend school in Nepal, and only because she hid from her parents and went hungry in order to attend school. I was impressed and left a small donation for their charitable works. Later i met Caroline and Douglas, local cyclists who kindly accommodated me for the night and provided information about my challenging ride next day.

My plan was to ride to Montrose, some 156 km away, challenging enough, but there were also 3 high passes to cross and some 7000 feet of climbing. After long climbs over 2 passes i reached the old mining town of Silverton, now dressed up as a tourist town. But it was not yet tourist season and almost nothing was open. I was not yet half way but it was 3pm so i hurriedly ate a bowl of chilli and rode onwards to the highest pass, Red mountain pass.

Mountains between Durango and Silverton

    The cold mountains near Silverton

Snowflakes drifted around my face as i climbed the pass and my fingers were numb with the cold. There was a long and very steep descent from the crest, with many seriously sharp double-hairpin switchbacks. There was little traffic so i used all of both sides of the road to negotiate these bends, barely able to slow down as my fingers were too numb to operate the brakes properly. I sped downwards, hoping to escape the high altitude cold and although i did not need to pedal, i did so in an effort to keep warm. At Ouray, another old mining town now overdressed for tourists, i stopped for coffee to warm up, but i was still cold, so at 6 pm i continued my journey towards Montrose, 60 km further away. At least it would not be dark until 8 pm because of summer-time. It was a fast, exhilarating ride to Montrose, mostly downhill or flat and took just 2 hours as i pedaled furiously to keep warm. Surely i had earned a good rest tonight.

durango to montrose profile
     Three passes to cross with 7600 feet of climbing

Now i seemed to be within reach of Denver for my return flight schedule. But there were still 6 days of adventures and many more mountains to climb. The fun was not over yet!!!

Onwards to Denver

I enjoyed a late, relaxed start from Montrose next morning as it was just 100 km to Gunnison. After several modest climbs i was cruising comfortably when my rear tyre exploded. This problem was the result of tyre damage caused by a nail while riding in Tucson. I was lucky this failure had not occurred on one of the fast downhills where i had reached speeds of 70 kph! Fortunately i had a spare tyre which i installed and continued my journey. I would simply buy another tyre for use as a spare at the next town, Gunnison. Just before Gunnison i caught up with another touring cyclist, Jean-Pierre, and we stopped to talk. He was french and was cycling from San Francisco to Quebec, camping en-route, so he had a heavy load and was traveling much slower than me. We shared a coffee together in town as i communicated with Jarral, a local cyclist with whom we later shared a pizza supper and who kindly offered accommodation to both me and Jean-Pierre for the night.

Jean-Pierre and I depart gunnison
    A contrast in touring: my light travel load versus Jean-Pierre's full touring load.

After a great breakfast of crepes, i set off to cross the major Monarch pass. A tailwind helped me to the base of the climb, but then it took 2.5 hours to reach the summit at 11300 feet altitude, which was still covered with snow. There was a ski-resort restaurant at the summit so i warmed up with a bowl of chilli before an exciting, fast and long descent to Salida.

Monarch pass
    Monarch pass (11,250'  3430m), still engulfed in snow.

I found 3 bike shops in Salida, but none of them had the size of tyre i needed. I also found a cosy hostel for the night and here i relaxed and exchanged stories with 3 of the other guests. Matt and Sarah were there from Denver, riding their motorcycles, and they very kindly invited me to stay with them when i reached Denver in 3 days time. Next morning it was cool but sunny as i set off toward Fairplay, the 5th highest altitude township (9900 ft, 3025m) in the USA. However afternoon storms were forecast and as i rode along a vast open valley these storms threatened me. Despite riding hard and non-stop to try and outpace them, i was pelted with hailstones and occasional cold raindrops. I was very cold when i reached Fairplay after 95 km, the last 60 of which were without stopping. At a coffee shop where i tried to warm up, my fingers were so numb i could not unclip the buckle on my helmet. Eventually i thawed out enough to find a nearby bed and breakfast hotel where they lit the fire in the lounge for me as i relaxed.

Overnight it snowed and i reconsidered my plans to ride in such cold weather again as my cycling attire did not include warm or rainproof clothing, a consequence of minimising my traveling weight. I found out that there was a bus service to Denver and decided to escape the forecast bad weather by taking the bus. The sky in Denver was overcast, but not raining when i arrived in the late morning. But as i rode south through the extensive suburbs it began to rain. I was trying to reach the headquarters of the "Society of Economic Geologists", of which i am a member, and which is located in far SW Denver. Despite a long stop to avoid the heaviest rain shower, i was extremely wet and cold when i arrived there. At least they made me very welcome despite my unusual lycra cycling attire and wetness. I then proceeded to meet Matt and Sarah, another cold wet journey. Despite the weather, suburbs and traffic i still rode about 70 km. I was very glad of Matt's hospitality to warm up and dry out at his house, even though i had arrived a day earlier than planned.

I now had a spare day in Denver and although overcast it was not wet, so i rode downtown and visited several bicycle stores before cleaning my bike in preparation for my flight back to Australia next day. There are a number of good bicycle paths in Denver and most motorists were considerate, making Denver a reasonably bike-friendly city. Although my flight back to Darwin next day was not until late afternoon, i rode off to the airport early to avoid any afternoon rain as the sky was still overcast and threatening. It was a 50 km ride through the suburbs to the airport. Although the last 15 km is on a busy freeway it was quite safe riding on the wide shoulder where bikes are permitted. Just take care at the interchanges! Now i had to find a quiet corner to pack up my bike. The only spot was opposite the checkin counters, which concerned me as i was expecting a problem with bicycle baggage on the airline. I planned to call my baggage a "mobility aid" and did not want to be observed. But i was too obvious and as i completed the packing a United airlines person came and spoke to me. She had been watching and expressed her surprise and interest at just how compact my bicycle packed into its carry bag. And she continued on to say that it would avoid having to pay an excess fee for bicycle luggage! I did not have to be devious at all and had no problem checking my folded bike in as standard luggage.

departing denver
     Ready to depart from Denver. Tour completed.

I had many issues with the weather during this trip. Late april was a good time to ride in southern Arizona at low altitude, as the temperatures were not yet excessive. But as I traveled north and/or to higher altitudes, cold wintery conditions were still common in early May. June is a better time to travel in these areas.

My USA cycle tour was relatively short at just 14 cycling days and 2000 km. but was packed with surprises. I had not expected such rugged topography in southern Arizona, or the low temperatures, rainstorms or snow on the high altitude passes. But the most memorable aspect was the great kindness and hospitality extended by so many people i met along the way and for which i was very grateful.