Marshall Pass / Old Monarch Pass
Sat Oct 08 2022
I have a tradition of taking a day off every fall to do a long bike ride. This year I was able to do a ride that I have always wanted to try: Salida to Sargents via Marshall Pass, then back to Salida via Old Monarch Pass.
I waited till around 9am to start so that things would warm up a bit. From the house I headed for Poncha along the bike path - I love it when we have calm cool mornings without any wind. From Poncha Springs I headed up Poncha Pass on Hwy 285 to Mears Junction. All of Poncha Pass has a really wide shoulder so it is fairly safe to ride even though there is usually quite a bit of traffic.
From Mears Junction the climb to the top of Marshall Pass consists of a very nice roadbase that follows an old railroad grade. There are a few sandy and soft spots on this stretch. I had 40C tires on, but you could do this ride with even thinner tires as long as the road isn't too wet. The pull up to the top has some really nice aspen groves as well as views of the San Luis valley. It is about 20 miles of solid climb from Poncha to the top of Marshall Pass.
It was extremely cold at the top of Marshall Pass. My last minute decision to throw a pair of pants in my pack really paid off here! Although I was super cold for most of the 16 mile descent down to Sargents, this part of the ride turned out far better than I expected. I had never ridden the Sargents side of Marshall Pass and was blown away by the fall aspen colors. The west side of Marshall Pass road travels through some enormous aspen groves with amazing views of Mount Ouray. The road is mostly smooth on this stretch, but my hands were definitely ready to be done bouncing around by the time I got to Sargents.
I got rained on while approaching Sargents and along the small jog up Hwy 50 to county road 888 which heads towards Whitepine. Thankfully things were quite a bit warmer down at the lower altitude so I put all my warm stuff in my pack and kept it dry while I got soaked. The ride up road 888 to the base of Old Monarch was one of my favorite parts of the ride. Traveling through the Cross Bar Ranch and along Tomichi Creek the views here were amazing! Plus, riding a paved road with zero cars is a rare experience in Colorado anymore.
Old Monarch pass has a much steeper grade but the roadbase is in fantastic condition so it makes for a very nice and steady 9 mile climb. There are very few aspen trees on this stretch of the ride but views down into the Tomichi Creek valley are amazing. From Sargents all the way to the top of Old Monarch I did not se a single person or car! It was really cold at the top of Old Monarch so all my (dry!) gear had to come back on for the ride down Monarch Pass.
Thankfully there was road construction going on for most of the ride down Monarch Pass. They had the speed limit at either 25 or 45 from the top all the way below Garfield. This slowed car traffic down and made the ride much lower risk. This stretch of road:
- has no shoulder
- has a nasty ledge where the asphalt ends
- features random wind gusts that try to push you off said ledge
- broken down semis like to block the uphill lane
- motorhomes create long lines of cars
- angry people try to pass the motorhomes regardless of the cyclist in the oncoming lane
Needless to say, I normally avoid Monarch Pass, and if I do ride it, I only ride down in order to reduce the amount of time I am at risk.
From Maysville at the bottom of Monarch Pass back to Salida is one of my favorite backroads rides near Salida. I take country roads 220, 250, and 140 which keep me off the highway. Normally there is a nice tailwind downhill to Salida too!
Here are the different road segments involved in this ride:
- Salida to Mears Junction : dedicated bike path / asphalt with wide shoulder
- Mears Junction to Sargents : dirt road on railroad grade, 40C+ tires recommended but smaller could work
- Sargents to Old Monarch : asphalt
- Old Monarch to Hwy 50 : dirt road, 40C+ tires recommended but smaller could work
- Hwy 50 to Maysville : asphalt with No Shoulder, high traffic, blinky light and high visibilty clothes recommended
- CR 220 from Maysville to CR 250 : dirt road, any size tires ok
- CR 250 and 140 : asphalt, low traffic