Independence Pass from Aspen, Colorado to the the top of the continental divide just over 12,000 feet is to date my favorite ride. The ride length is just at 40 miles and climbs over 4200 feet on the ascent. Starting elevation is 7800 feet and the climb ends at 12,095 feet. Much of the climb takes place along a river so the scenery and sound is amazing. The road is rough with pot holes but it is very open and maintaining high speeds during descents is safe and enjoyable.
Aspen in the summer is a beautiful town to visit and there are hundreds of activities around the town and in the mountains to keep you busy for many days. Winter rates for rooms in Aspen are very high but during the summer months on weekdays you can find very affordable rates on hotels and ski condos.
My ride started on a Monday morning at 6:00 am. Temperatures were in the upper 40’s but the sun was out and I warmed up quickly. The climb starts right out of the south end of Aspen. There are only 3-4 miles of road before you start to pitch up. The lower climb is very tame with a few mild descents. Percent grade is under 5% for most of the lower hills. Traffic the first hour was very minimal. I was averaging less than one car per mile traveled the first hour. I saw more coyotes and deer along the way than traffic.
The middle of the climb is mostly along a ridge that overlooks a river quite a ways down. The sound of the falling water is very loud and during most of the climb you are on the outside edge of the road overlooking the ridge. There are a few tight switchbacks and you need to remain on the outside of the curve to avoid traffic descending the mountain. The middle section of the climb has long ascents in the 6-8 percent range. This is the steepest part of the mountain but they aren’t as steep as other area mountains. They are long though and when you round a curve it continues upward and out of distance around the next curve which proved to be humbling at times.
Independence is a ghost town about two thirds of the way up. It sits down in the valley and there is a nice parking area and some great views of mountain ranges from almost all directions. I stopped for a short time to take some pictures and have a snack. The highway temperature was now in the upper fifties and it was an absolute, perfect morning for a ride.
The last third of the climb is very open. You shortly climb out of the tree line and the views are spectacular. The last seven miles are on a ridge blasted into the side of the mountain and you ride on the outside of the road next to a very low guard rail. You are also above 11,000 feet and the air is quite thin. Keeping your heart rate in a tolerable zone through here is important. This would not be a good time to get dizzy or distressed.
The top of the climb is right after a 90 degree turn. There is a sign that lets you know you are at the top of the Rockies and a new section of black top that feels like about 9 or 10 percent grade but probably is only 6-8 perceint. Independence Pass is very open and large and the views of distant mountain ranges is bigger than life. There are a few pools around the area with very clear water and a nice parking lot with restrooms. The accomplishment of this 20 mile climb is pretty overwhelming and I wasn’t in a hurry to start back down. The view from up top and the upper sections of the highway are truly spectacular. You can’t put in perspective the vast miles of mountains and open sky that there is all around you.
Traffic picked up the second hour of the climb and there were about 20 cars at the top parking area. You will have a lot of site seers asking you if you came up the mountain.
mountain was in the lower 50’s and the wind was blowing so I was starting to become a little chilled. In fact the first 7-8 miles of descending I was cold until I went back into the tree line.
The road is mostly open with few sharp switch backs. It is easy to maintain a safe upper 30 mile per hour descent. There are a lot of road patches and occasional small rocks in the road. You do need to pay attention to shadows on the road and make sure they’re not hiding obstacles. It’s easy to maintain the speed of the descending traffic so you can safely use the entire right half of the road. On several long, open stretches I did reach speeds close to 50 miles per hour. The descent was non-stop and I reached the outskirts of Aspen in just 38 minutes. Aspen was alive and busy at 8:30 in the morning but the traffic makes room for cyclists. I found a coffee shop in the downtown area and enjoyed a nice caffeinated drink and a blueberry muffin.
Summary: This is a top 5 ride for any cycling enthusiast. The area shops seemed to discourage this ride and warned that traffic can be bad. From other reviews online and what the area experts said about this ride I expected it to be very hard and I had considered just riding up to the ghost town of Independence. Because of my early start not only did I have very little traffic I also didn’t see any other cyclists until I was almost back down. Compared to other climbs in the area I felt very safe on the road and although there is much more riding next to a guard rail I didn’t feel the wind pushing me on the road like some other climbs. From past experiences I did find some anger and frustrations building up when I was above 11,000 feet. Everyone handles high altitude differently and it is important to understand that your body and attitude will undergo changes the higher you climb. Once you return to a lower elevation you quickly regain your “normal” self and you should have the predetermined option when climbing that you can always turn around and head back down the mountain if you don‘t feel right.
The grades are not bad for this section of Colorado. There are few long, steep sections but there are many long, five and six percent grades that allow you to keep a comfortable pace and keep a good speed up the mountain. In the early July morning you will be riding into the sun. The mountain provides shade some of the time but it is quite blinding at times. It is very important to pay attention to traffic coming up the mountain as they will have a harder time seeing you with the sun glare.
My bike is a Trek Madone 6.9 with carbon sew up wheels. I use a double crankset with a an 11-24 cassette. Being from Nebraska and an elevation around 1,000 feet I spend a week each year in Colorado climbing mountain passes. I ride between 2,500 and 3,000 miles a year at home. I feel that anyone with good base mileage and a light bicycle can accomplish climbing the same passes that I have. The key is having a gear ratio that allows you to maintain a high cadence without going into oxygen debt. I usually spend the first few days riding shorter climbs and rolling roads. Later in the week I pick some longer rides with large climbs. It’s a great achievement for any rider to accomplish these passes in Colorado and I encourage everyone with an interest to someday visit with your bicycle and enjoy the roads and rides available.