How times have changed since the days I attended Colorado State University (CSU) in Fort Collins, Colorado, in terms of cycling opportunities.
In the early 1970s many roads in the nearby mountains were dirt. This was before I knew sturdy tires could handle the dirt roads, although I recall the roads had a fair amount of gravel.
Fast forward to September 2012 and a beautiful day in the Rockies. I parked at Big Thompson Elementary School at Hwy 34 (Big Thompson Canyon) and rode north on County Road 27, Buckhorn Road.
It’s a gradual climb through a peaceful valley to Masonville. On the way you can check out the Arkins Park Stone Quarry on your left, where a lot of flagstone is taken out for building projects.
Masonville is one of those outposts from the 1890s back when there was still gold fever. Nothing panned out though. There’s a general store where you can stock up on provisions. Do so now because there aren’t any stores until near Fort Collins.
Turning left, I continued on Buckhorn Road through more lush valleys where you’ll find isolated, modern faux ranch homes scattered among the surrounding hills.
As the miles tick by you’ll start a series of stair-step climbs which get steeper by the mile, probably around 8 percent at their steepest. The elevation only goes to about 7,300 feet from 5,200 feet, with many ups and downs.
Buckhorn Canyon narrows
My favorite section comes where the road narrows as it heads through a rocky outcrop and passes a grove of aspen. If you leave early on a Sunday morning, you won’t see much traffic, although it picks up later in the day as the motorcycle tourists show up to enjoy the view. You will see a fair number of competitive cyclists riding out here.
The road name changes to Stove Prairie a few miles before the Rist Canyon Road junction and summit.
It’s also here where you’ll notice the effects of the High Park Fire that burned 87,000 acres, destroyed 259 homes and took one life. It started on June 9 from a lightning strike and was fully contained a month later.
Fortunately the fire skipped along the high peaks and left the valleys I saw unscathed, although I avoided Rist Canyon where most of the damage occurred.
Rist Canyon popular
Rist Canyon Road climbs steadily from Fort Collins at about a 6 percent grade. Coming from Stove Prairie Road there’s a steep climb of about a mile before the descent begins. (It was dirt in the 1970s.)
I continued downhill on Stove Prairie Road because I wanted to check out Poudre Canyon where I spent a lot of time in my youth. Watch out for the cattle guards on the way down. The second one has a wide gap where you can ding your rim.
It’s a brisk descent on the winding road through Roosevelt National Forest. Turn right at Poudre Canyon Road and you’ll have a spectacular view of Poudre River as you head downhill on a gentle grade. If only the traffic weren’t so bad!
Even in the 1970s it wasn’t pleasant, but today Poudre Canyon is the gateway for RVs and trailers going to the high country. I didn’t see a single cyclist on this gorgeous Sunday afternoon, and I’m not surprised.
Call it Karma: As I emerged from the canyon I passed the truck hauling its oversize camper that nearly ran me off the road. Its owner was changing a flat tire as I sped by.
Ted’s Place a memory
I stopped at the historic Ted’s Place store at the Hwy 287 junction. Today the store is gone and there’s just a cookie-cutter gas station. The original building looked like a Swiss chalet and stocked just about anything a camper could need.
After hours in the saddle on a dry, warm day in the Rockies, you’ll develop a powerful thirst. Bring plenty of water on these days to avoid dehydration.
I continued south on 287 for a short distance before turning right on W. County Road 54E, then left at Rist Canyon Road, which leads to Bellvue with its old buildings surrounded by farm land. There’s a state fish hatchery nearby worth a look.
Horsetooth Reservoir climbs
In Bellvue turn right and continue south on County Road 23, which is also called Centennial Drive. Horsetooth Reservoir’s narrow lake is nestled between two ridges and goes for miles. You’ll enjoy the ups and downs along the way, with grades of about 8 percent. From up here you’ll have sweeping views of Fort Collins. Hughes Stadium is also at the base of the mountain. It’s a nice spot, but too far away from the CSU campus, in the opinion of many.
Once past the southern end of the reservoir, there’s one more long climb before the road levels and it’s mostly downhill back to Masonville on W. County Road 38E, then south to Hwy 34 for a 60-mile trip. An alternate route is to go left on County Road 25E, Glade Road and miss Masonville.
There’s plenty of nearby adventure riding in this area on dirt roads, as documented by Bicycle Quarterly.