Experiencing our national parks’ grandeur from the saddle of a road bike is a bit like summiting a high peak. The arduous pedal through the park is rewarded with the scenery and equally thrilling descent from the park roads’ high points.
Fall is sublime for cycling in national parks, so with the season quickly approaching, now is the time to experience the Mountain West’s greatest national park road cycling routes. You can either pedal the parks on your own or join legions of other cyclists as part of an organized bike tour. Bike tours often provide snack-laden comfort stations, roving bike mechanics, and “sag wagons” to pick up or help those who can’t make it all the way to the tour’s end.
Few bike tours quite beat the Yellowstone Fall Cycle Tour, a 60-mile roundtrip ride from West Yellowstone, Montana, to Old Faithful on September 26. If it’s bugling elk, colorful aspen, and geysers that’ll get you going, this ride is for you. The tour begins early Saturday morning in West Yellowstone, heads east through the park’s west entrance to Madison Junction, and then turns south through the Lower Geyser Basin, past Grand Prismatic Spring, and finally down to Old Faithful.
While tours are fun — the Moab Century Tour skirting the border of Arches National Park on September 18-20 is my favorite — it can be just as fun to go it alone and explore some parks that large bike tours rarely visit. With that groundwork laid, here are some Rocky Mountain classics:
Trail Ridge Road, 44 miles one-way, shuttle) — If cycling in the thin air above treeline will thrill you, the arduous ride along Trail Ridge Road is a classic. Trail Ridge Road, which does double-duty as U.S. Highway 34, is the highest paved highway in the United States, topping out above 12,100 feet along Trail Ridge.
At about 44 miles and a harrowing 4,000-foot elevation gain one-way, this can be an epic one-way ride. Start at the Beaver Meadows Visitor Center near Estes Park, Colorado, climb the Continental Divide, and then drop down into the Kawuneeche Valley near Grand Lake. Near the end of the ride, you’ll parallel the mighty Colorado River, which trickles down from its headwaters a few miles to the north.
Park a shuttle vehicle in Grand Lake, or spend the night and cycle back to Estes Park the next day for a spectacular 88-mile epic adventure.
Rim Rock Drive, approximately 370-mile loop — Riding a road bike on Colorado National Monument’s Rim Rock Drive is about as close to flying as you can get without acquiring a pair of wings. The road’s 23 miles very nearly take you to the brink as you glide along the edge of 500-foot redrock cliffs and through dark tunnels on the highway’s sharp descents to Grand Junction and Fruita, Colorado.
Often overlooked by people on the way to Utah’s famous national parks, Colorado National Monument boasts not only some superlative canyon country scenery, but also one of the best roads for cycling on any Park Service-managed land on the Colorado Plateau.
With multiple loop options, finding a challenging and fun route is easy. The classic ride begins at the Colorado Welcome Center at Interstate 70, Exit 19 in Fruita. Head south on Colorado Highway 340 for two miles to the monument’s west entrance and the beginning of Rim Rock Drive. From there, it’s about 2,000 vertical feet to the top of the Uncompahgre Plateau and 23 miles through deep canyons and along the rims of towering cliffs to the monument’s east entrance near Grand Junction.
To complete the loop, exit the monument and after about a mile, make a left on South Camp Road, which you’ll follow to its intersection with South Broadway. Turn left and follow South Broadway to Colorado 340, and back to your car.
New Mexico Highway 117, El Malpais National Monument, New Mexico, 74 miles out-and-back — El Malpais means “Badlands” in Spanish, and the desolate, startlingly beautiful volcanic world this highway passes through makes this an unforgettable ride.
Highway 117 drops south from Interstate 40 east of Grants and passes along the edge of a massive lava field filled with crevasses and even an ice cave. It also squeezes through the Narrows, where the lava flow ends only a few yards away from the towering sandstone cliffs of the Colorado Plateau. Along the way, you’ll pass La Ventana Natural Arch, one of the largest sandstone arches in New Mexico.
For a 74-mile roundtrip ride, start at the Park Services' Northwest New Mexico Visitor Center, then follow old Route 66 to its intersection with I-40 and N.M. 117. Follow 117 south through the monument and the BLM’s El Malpais National Conservation Area to the Lava Falls overlook, then turn around and return via the same route.
Going-To-The-Sun Road, 52 miles one-way, shuttle — Just visiting Glacier National Park is a superlative experience by itself. Riding the park’s Going-to-the-Sun Road is an adventure of a higher caliber, if only because the scenery and the road’s dizzying heights seen from a bike are so thrilling.
Keep in mind, though, that Going-to-the-Sun Road is under construction in places, so you will likely experience delays and be required to ride on gravel for short distances. Check the park’s Web site, www.nps.gov/glac, for current restrictions.
There are several ways to ride the Sun Road: Start from West Glacier and ride 34 miles to Logan Pass, then return the same route. For a 52-mile one-way ride, start from West Glacier, summit Logan Pass, and end your ride at St. Mary on the east side of the park, parking a shuttle car there for a ride back. Or, ride from end-to-end and return the following day for a 104-mile odyssey.
Visitor center to Devil’s Garden, approximately 36 miles roundtrip) — Roads through national parks often earn their share of superlatives, but the alien redrock fins and towering walls of Utah’s Arches National Park still amaze me even after more than 50 visits.
Biking Arches from the visitor center to Devil’s Garden affords you the opportunity to experience Park Avenue, the Petrified Dunes, Courthouse Wash and the pungent aromas of Canyon County much more intimately than you can in a car. It’s a half-day out-and-back ride well worth the effort to get here. Be aware, though, that this is a very busy road with almost no shoulder. Scenery-gawking tourists are rarely on the lookout for cyclists sharing their lane, so ride very defensively.
Start at the visitor center five miles north of Moab, climb the switchbacks to the rim of the valley, and make for Devil’s Garden. Take a hike once you’re there, then turn around and ride 18 miles back to the visitor center.
U.S. Highway 191 to Grand View Point, 67 miles out-and-back) — Both paved entrances into Canyonlands National Park provide views that defy words. But the ride from Moab to the park’s Island in the Sky District takes you to the park’s most well-known areas and gives you a great workout in the process.
Along the way, you’ll catch fantastic views of the canyon country northeast of the park, and once you enter, you’ll ride by the famous Mesa Arch, Schafer Canyon and ultimately to Grand View Point. A short detour takes you to the Green River Overlook.
Park at the information kiosk on the northwest corner of the U.S. 191-Utah Highway 313 intersection about 10 miles north of Moab. Follow Hwy. 313 until it turns sharply left to Deadhorse Point State Park. The park road continues south and into Canyonlands National Park. Follow the signs for Grand View Point.
Once you’ve visited Grand View Point, you can add another 10 miles to the trip by following the road to Upheaval Dome, which branches off northwest near Mesa Arch.
Fine print: Even though you're on a bike, you'll need to pay an entrance fee, unless, of course, you have an America the Beautiful Pass. Also, pack plenty of water for these sojourns. The high, dry climate, and the usual presence of the sun high overhead, means you'll quickly burn through water. Two bottles on your bike frame and a hydration pack on your back would not be too much.
Bobby Magill lives in Fort Collins, Colo., only a half-day’s bike ride from Trail Ridge Road. Contact him at [email protected].