Occasionally, I get a morning off during the middle of the week. Mostly, however, my training rides — the real ones, where I strap my cycling shoes into my clipless pedals and push myself as far and as hard as time permits — are relegated to evenings and weekends. Trying to narrow down my favorite Fort Collins route is hard. I haven’t hit a bad one yet (minus the north-ender loop during 40 mph+ sustained winds with 60 mph+ gusts…that one was not my favorite.)
If you find yourself in the Fort Collins area, here are three rides that you can’t miss, but take heed of the days to do them or calamity could befall you. Or dirty looks. Or giant work trucks who really do need the right of way.
#1: Rist Canyon
I am hesitant to even mention Rist Canyon at all. This is where the High Park fire concentrated it’s destruction. The good folks who live up there are still recovering — and rebuilding — and so encouraging more bikers to go and take up the nearly non-existent shoulders of the road isn’t a nice thing to do.
What I would do, if you absolutely need to try this route, is avoid late week and weekend rides up it. Also, AVOID GOING DOWN RIST CANYON. There is little left up there to hold the soil down and a ton of construction. They’re doing great work, but the shoulders are covered in runoff and sand, making any kind of descent DOWN Rist Canyon extremely dangerous. Besides, the fun is in the climbing. If fun = pain + misery.
If you’re going to climb Rist Canyon, Monday or Tuesday in the late morning is best. You miss commuters and construction traffic and have the road (mostly) to yourself. Regardless, stay far right and be polite.
To get there from Fort Collins, head up N. Overland Trail. For more fun, take a left up Bingham Hill for a quick climb and then right into Bellevue. From there, it’s left and west all the way up Rist Canyon. At one point, I believe it hits about 12% near the top (at least 10% for a good while). This is the point where you want to stop. Don’t. Stop. Trust me, it’s worth it.
Once you summit, you are — regardless of weather — given the gift of a gorgeous view, and an even more awesome descent to Stove Prairie Road. From here, you can’t go wrong. Head south and enjoy a nearly constant descent back to Horsetooth via Masonville. Head north and descend through the epicness that is Poudre Canyon.
I choose south (normally) as it brings me closer to home towards the end and avoids having to get out of Poudre Canyon and back to Fort Collins, which along 14/287 can be a bit of a harrowing experience.
#2: Carter Lake
Another favorite is Carter Lake. If you want an experience that will push you while allowing you to tail other riders who might be willing to drag you all 80 miles, join up with the Oval group ride out of CSU on Saturday morning. The details are listed on YourGroupRide.com.
If you’re more into riding solo and enjoying your own pace, take it from the north via Horsetooth Reservoir and CO29. Leaving from Fort Collins, you’ll head towards Harmony Road which takes you up a quick climb to the south dam of Horsetooth. Follow this around the south end of the reservoir and into Masonville. Before you get to Masonville, you’ll have two more climbs about equal with the first climb, before descending into Masonville where you head south on CO27.
From here, keep going along the flats between the two distinguished ridges of the Front Range until you can take a right on CO29. There’s a short climb up over the second small ridge before following CO29 down to where you cross HWY 34 and continue south on CO29.
The signs up to Carter Lake are clear from this direction. The other clear thing is that this is the more difficult of the two ways to climb to Carter Lake. Instead of boring old, steady switchbacks leading up from Loveland, you struggle up a steep incline that levels off only to smack you in the face laughing as it ascends again into the trees before letting you out at the north end of the lake.
From here, it’s an easy descent down to CO23 and back into Loveland and then up to Fort Collins.
#3: Estes Park
When we first decided to move to Fort Collins, I kept going back to Google Maps and drooling over the fact that we were a mere 45 miles from ESTES PARK! I had missed the opportunity of a summer camp job in Estes Park and instead took the job at the eastern camp in Hendersonville, NC. Granted, that gig lead to my education at Warren Wilson College and eventually to meeting my wife and everything wonderful that has come from that happy accident…but still, ESTES PARK.
Ever since we moved here (and I found out that was where the Stanley Hotel was located), I was determined to do the ride to Estes. So far, my favorite is the route up through Glen Haven. It’s the road less traveled, well protected from the winds that travel up the Big Thompson Canyon and…well, why not.
Take your route down to 34 (I prefer going up over Horsetooth and down CO29) and follow it up through Drake. A few miles past, two roads diverge in a yellow wood…take the right. From here, it’s a quiet ascent up through farm land, through the quaint village of Glen Haven and up through the worst last 2 miles of a climb I have yet experienced. Imagine the Tour stages that end on Mont Ventoux and the looks on the riders faces. It’s worse than that.
Just when you think you’re getting close to the top, just when you can see daylight streaming in through the trees on all sides, the final switchbacks happen. I ride a compact gear set with 2 rings up front, but even then, I had to stand and struggle up the last two switchbacks before I was delivered into one of the most picture perfect scenes.
Unfortunately for me, the last time I made this ascent to take pictures for this post, the temperature went from mid-60s in Fort Collins to mid-30s in Estes. By the time I summitted, my iPhone battery thought it was colder and had conked out on me, so no photo from the summit. Just Google “estes park bike ride glen haven summit view”. That should give you an idea.
Or better yet: come up here and ride it all yourself!