San Francisco, CA to Denver, CO: Over the Barriers

Text: Uwe Krauss • Photography: Uwe Krauss

To travel from 
San Francisco to 
Denver you have to cross several major ranges, endure 
blistering heat and frosty cold, and carve a path for yourself
up some steep and twisty inclines. There’s plenty of 
excitement to be had.

The great traveler Marco Polo would be jealous. It took him three years from Italy to reach China. In San Francisco we need only a couple minutes to cross from the Italian quarter of North Beach into Chinatown. The cosmopolitan city impresses with many different cultures in a small environment. But the steep hills and streets are not the only promise of joy. In the next two weeks, the horizon will widen. Atop my 2012 Harley-Davidson Road King I head out with my friends for one of the most interesting journeys: San Francisco to Denver. 

The excitement starts right away but is rather undesired. Fires are threatening eastern California, and our intended way through Yosemite is closed. The options are scarce. The next Sierra Nevada crossing to the south is 250 miles away. Our only hope is Sonora Pass toward the north. We get lucky. Even if we can see and smell the smoke, the pass remains open. Sonora turns out to be a spectacular ride, especially the last ascent, a tight part that climbs to the 9,624-foot summit. On the other side, the view from Highway 395 onto Mono Lake is worth every mile of detour. 

The Sierra Nevada is the first range we conquer. The second awaits at dawn. We sleep in the cozy town of Lone Pine, CA, the last before the deserts of Death Valley. It is a long ride up to Darwin Plateau, but we’re rewarded by the most beautiful sunrise between the Joshua trees. The altitude gained is eaten up in a dramatic way as we plunge down through colorful black, brown, and yellow rocks into Panamint Valley. This scarce basin of the earth is already down at sea level and belongs to Death Valley National Park. Ironically, we have to climb 4,958-foot-high Towne Pass to get to nearby Badwater, the lowest point in North America.

Old West Nostalgia

Las Vegas heat at 3 p.m. is worse than Death Valley in the morning but almost unavoidable for an overnight stop. Luckily, tonight’s resting point is in the opposite direction of Nevada’s entertainment hub. Seligman, AZ, is one of the nicest and most relaxed places along former Route 66. And it is much cooler here at 5,200 feet above sea level. From Kingman, the road climbs steadily until we arrive at movie-like surroundings in Seligman. The wide Mother Road, some old cars, Angel Delgadillo's barber shop and Snow Cap Drive-In—everything you imagine the Old West to be. When daylight fades, there is probably no better place to relax on 66 than outside of Westside Lilo's, watching the sun drop right above the highway into the horizon.

The morning allows a few more miles on 66 before we have to turn onto Interstate 40 toward Williams. This town also inspires nostalgia, but it’s much busier than quiet Seligman. There is a reason for the crowds. Williams is the turn-off for another big landmark: The South Rim of the Grand Canyon. Even if you have been here before like I have and know what to expect, the moment you walk those last feet and step to the edge of this natural wonder is pure adrenaline. Highway 64 circles the edge of the canyon. Each lookout is different and would be a scenic stop. When the path turns away from the rim, the beauty continues. The road rushes down the plateau and rewards us with a sensational perspective of the Little Colorado Gorge, well worth a visit on its own even if there wasn't the big brother around the corner. The log houses of the Cameron Trading Post are our well-suited and comfortable shelter for the night. 

Cinematic Vistas

In this part of the world, nature is generous and the wonders pass by in a short sequence. An hour into the morning ride we stop shortly before Page, AZ, to marvel at Horseshoe Bend, a picturesque meander of the Colorado River a few miles downstream from the Glen Canyon Dam. The panorama from a cliff 1,000 feet above the blue-green waters of the river merits the three-quarter-mile hike in desert heat it takes to get there. 

On our next excursion there is a bit more shade. Antelope Canyon is a three-foot-wide by 30-foot-deep labyrinth cut into the sandstone by water. It is famous among photographers for its earthy red and white colors, framed by the light that falls from different angles. Our cameras snap nonstop as we try to catch every detail. Then we get lucky. We are 30 feet underground and above us a small storm is forcing the sand to run down one of the gaps. In our pictures it looks like a waterfall dripping through the roof of the canyon.

To find underground Antelope Canyon we really had to know what to look for. Approaching Monument Valley from the east, it’s obvious something dramatic will happen soon. The mesas and their colors become increasingly distinctive, the landscape more dramatic. If that wasn't good enough, even the sky jumps in to enhance the performance. Suddenly a thunderstorm develops in one part of the huge valley. We can’t believe our eyes: Rain drenches the mesas while we’re only hit by a few large drops. The whole scene peaks in an almost unnatural-looking rainbow that spans the stage. Hollywood could not have done any better.

Utah can't stop impressing. The last miles of the day take us through the violet shining rocks near Mexican Hat to our final destination, Bluff. The lonely village gives an idea of the tough living conditions in this dry and hot part of the world, even with the nearby amenity of a nice log lodge. From a distance, Mesa Verde looks like a tabletop mountain, but once you are up here you discover it is a jagged little world of its own. People have lived in the flats underneath the rocks since 1200 A.D. Theory goes, they depleted themselves of their resources, cut all the surrounding trees for firewood, then the wild animals left and the place was deserted.

The last three nights after Las Vegas we sleep in almost pure solitude. The former cowboy town of Durango shall change that. A saloon with piano players, exotic restaurants, and beautifully restored old buildings is a welcome shift the next two nights. To stay for only one day wouldn't be enough. North of here, the barrier of the San Juan Mountains is a playground of some of the twistiest roads in Colorado. One of them leads up to the old mining town of Silverton at an altitude of 9,320 feet. To get there we have to cross two passes: Coal Bank and Molas. The last one, with a view of Molas Lake, is stunning. 

In Silverton we have some fun. The steam train from Durango enters the small town, exciting passengers and visitors. The railroad was once planned to reach the lucrative mining area near Ouray, CO, but building never continued because of the hazardous and steep mountains. So they just managed to squeeze a street there, which is accordingly adventurous. Narrow and steep with switchbacks—it is a blast to ride this wild piece of tarmac. 

We save the second San Juan crossing for the next day. It has a completely different appeal than the Silverton-Ouray connection. From Pagosa Springs, the wide sweepers of Wolf Creek Pass take us to South Fork and the headwaters of the Rio Grande River, which means we have crossed the Continental Divide another time. In this high alpine environment, it’s hard to imagine that the river flows all the way down to the Gulf of Mexico. Nearby Slumgullion Pass is thrilling, especially on its steep northern side, which leads us down to Lake City. With its few hundred inhabitants, the name is slightly deceiving, but when mining in the San Juans was at its peak, 5,000 settlers lived here. Some nicely restored houses still give witness to that time. Lake City is a friendly place and makes for a nice stop. Sitting on the porch of a local cafe and having a fine espresso is the perfect break for us.

Across the Continental Divide Once More

The most appealing feature of Gunnison, our overnight stop, is the ride out of town. The small road parallel to Taylor River Valley is like a fairytale. A clear creek with only some forestry campgrounds as a sign of civilization flows beside us until we finally end up at Taylor Reservoir among herds of horses, in perfect cowboy country. Our job in the saddle becomes more taxing, as 13 miles of easy gravel waits for us on the way to Cottonwood Pass. The scenery demands the extra effort. On top of the pass we cross the Continental Divide again and are back on asphalt.

Leadville is a pretty mining town that has seen better days. But that's the history of many former boomtowns in Colorado and part of their charm. Around 1900, it was the second largest settlement in the state after Denver. Leadville still keeps a couple superlatives. At an altitude of 10,152 feet, it is the highest incorporated city in the United States, and home of the legendary Leadville Trail 100 ultramarathon. 

Our plan was to ride through the town of Frisco without stopping. But it’s raining cats and dogs, and I remember an old saying: If you don’t like the weather, just wait ten minutes. We take this option and sit down in an old-fashioned restaurant. The staff at Q4U offers simple but very good barbeque—and a story. The area was once rich in mining and in need of workers. There was already a train line going there, so some clever folks thought, Why not name the town Frisco? Then they sold one-way tickets. Many thought they were going to the promised land on the coast of California, only to end high up in the Rocky Mountains.

Geographical knowledge has improved since then. When we started two weeks ago in California, we could be rather sure to arrive at our final destination in Denver—but we could not foresee all the natural phenomena and fine experiences we would be exposed to. That's the good news. Even in the time of Google Earth, when you can virtually locate almost every rock on every road, you still have to go out and ride for real excitement. That's not much different than the times of Marco Polo.