Riding in central Colorado is a treat, no matter the time of year, but doing it in the fall is something everyone should experience. The aspen trees are bunched in groves varying in thickness all over the mountains and they begin to explode into a wildfire of color in mid-September. If you want to add to the experience, following a dual sport route that traverses some of the gorgeous mountain passes will be just the way to see the colors up close. Traveling through the rugged backcountry of Colorado has a tendency to transport one back to times gone by. It’s hard not to think back to a time when there were no GPS safety nets and it could be days or weeks between encounters with other humans.
From Fort Collins, we made our way south. We watched the Rockies roll by to our right before turning and heading into the mountains where we were met with two-lane paved roads and gravel forest service roads. The day’s destination was Woodland Park, CO, nestled in the mountains to the west of Colorado Springs. Before stopping for the day, though, we continued south to a special place for the moto-minded—Pikes Peak.
Motorcycles & Gear
2005 KTM 950 Adventure
2007 KTM 990 Adventure
Jacket & Pants: Klim Marrakesh
Gloves: Klim Marrakesh; Klim Dakar Pro
Boots: Forma Adventure
Camera: Nikon D850
Lenses: Nikkor 28-300mm f/3.5-5.6; Nikkor 50mm f/1.4
Pikes Peak, at 14,115 feet, is not even in the Top 10 highest peaks in Colorado. But it’s one of the most well known, especially among motorsport enthusiasts, thanks to the road that leads to the summit and the annual hill climb event that’s been held on the mountain since 1916. In fact, it’s the second oldest motorsport event in the country. The road is a spectacular winding ribbon of asphalt that’s been draped over this beautiful mountain, but it hasn’t always had asphalt. Even though it was built in 1888, it has only been fully paved since 2011. In short, the decision was made to pave it in order to minimize erosion caused by the tens of thousands of cars that travel to the peak each year.
Motorcycles have been a part of this road and the race’s history for over a century. Until recently, as many as a third of the competitors were on two wheels. The motorcycle ban in the race was enacted after the 2019 death of Carlin Dunne, a veteran of the event that held multiple world records and was a four-time winner. Organizers stated that, for safety reasons, the decision was made to permanently ban motorcycles from the event. It seems like a disservice to the competitors that have given their lives to the sport they loved to ban motorcycles rather than to implement more sensible solutions, like displacement limits which have effectively served to make other events safer. Regardless, it was something special to ride the road that such titans of motorsports had competed on.
In Search of a Good View
With three mountain passes and a healthy helping of unpaved riding in the Rockies on the itinerary, I wasn’t worried about the second day’s ride being anything other than breathtaking—literally. The route took us farther into the mountains and into Gunnison National Forest as we made our way toward Marshall Pass, our first mountain pass of the day.
Marshall Pass, named after Lt. William Marshall, ascends to 10,842 feet. The Marshall Pass Toll Rd served as a stagecoach route from Gunnison to the Arkansas River for a short time. More notably, the narrow-gauge mainline of the Denver and Rio Grande Western Railroad was constructed in the pass, making it the first railroad to cross the continental divide in Colorado. Although it has been many years since the lonesome wail of steam locomotive horns could be heard echoing through the mountains and the tracks have long since been removed, I’m always fascinated by how these routes we travel came to be.
From Marshall, we proceeded toward Cumberland Pass through the old mining town of Pitkin, where we crossed via FR 765. The Cumberland Pass road, built in 1882 for wagons to travel between Pitkin and Tincup, reaches just over 12,000 feet. FR 765 is unpaved and closes seasonally due to heavy snowfall. We were passing through in September and it was already quite cool, especially on top of the mountain passes. Despite cooler air being more dense, we were short of breath when moving our bikes around for photos. We stopped for a quick lunch and to take in the view from the top of Cumberland Pass. In addition to lunch, we’d packed some canned oxygen and a deep hit from time to time helped keep us alert.