Attempting to ride the Mount Evans Scenic Byway is no joke.
The road is the highest paved road in the USA, and as such, it will present unique challenges to anyone looking to tackle it.
Mount Evans is situated in the Rocky Mountains, Colorado, and can be accessed via the town of Idaho Springs.
Often thought to be one of Colorado’s most demanding road climbs, the ride will draw you away from civilization and into a barren lunar landscape.
The 45 km long paved road is rich in wildlife; expect to see a flurry of bighorn sheep, deer, mountain goats, marmots, and the odd cyclist covered in lyrca.
The area is also home to mountain lions and black bears. However, their presence remains elusive.
In this guide, we’ll be covering:
- History Of The Highest Road In United States
- Guide To Cycling Mount Evans Scenic Byway
- Tips For Cycling Mount Evans: Highest Road In US
Let’s roll into it!
History of the Highest Road in united states
The Mount Evans Scenic Byway came to be during a large-scale construction of automobile loops seeking to encourage locals to explore the mountains; it was facilitated by the Denver Mountain Parks authority.
As you approach the top, you will notice Crest House, an old ruin in a peculiar location. Once a restaurant and gift shop, it was destroyed in a fire in 1979.
Nowadays, it serves as a welcome windbreak and viewing platform, a beautiful location to perch and observe panoramic views of the Rocky Mountains. Perhaps more desirable than a gift shop.
The highest pass in the US also hosts the Bob Cook Memorial Mount Evans Hill Climb.
The one-day race began in 1962 and has been held almost every year since. The age range of the participants is from nine to eighty-five years. The race is primarily fuelled by local volunteers from the Colorado cycling community.
Each year some 1000 cyclists participate from all over the world, including a host of professional cyclists.
Originally named the Mount Evans Hill Climb, it was renamed in 1981 to Bob Cook Memorial Mount Evans Hill Climb in memory of five-time race winner Bob Cook.
After winning the event six times, three of which while he was a junior, Bob sadly died of a brain tumor at the age of 23.
He diligently kept a diary, which highlighted his unique attitude and dedication. The final addition to his journal, dated 5th February, read:
“I try not to think too much about my condition and what it might lead to. I may get better, but I may get worse. I may die. That’s unpleasant, but I have to face the possibility. I’m glad I don’t think too much about it. Just living each day the best I can keeps me in pretty good spirits.”
To date, the fastest known times to the summit are held by Tom Danielson, who set a blistering time of 1:41:20 in the 2004 edition of the race, and Jeannie Longo with a time of 1:59:19 in 1998.
Quite extraordinary – expect the ride to take 3-5 hours, depending on your level of fitness.
Guide to cycling Mount Evans Scenic Byway
- Departure Elevation: 2312 m (7585 ft)
- Finish Elevation: 4306 m (14127 ft)
- Altitude Gain: 1993 m (6539 ft)
- Length: 44.2 km (28.9 miles)
- Average Gradient: 4.5%
- Steepest 400m: 8.4%
- KOM: Tom Danielson, 1:41:20
- QOM: Jeannie Longo, 1:59:19
However, what it lacks in steep gradients, it more than makes up for in length and altitude.
You’ll never hit a double-digit gradient, but you’ll spend most of the climb at altitudes you can rarely reach on a bike. In fact, the gradient is almost always in the 4-7% range.
Navigating how to deal with the altitude is critical to a successful and enjoyable climb; we’ll detail what preparations you can take later!
It’s well known that the road surface, in certain sections, leaves a lot to be desired. Be sure to pack 2 spare inner tubes.
As the climb is so long, breaking it up into sections may be helpful. You’ll begin in the historic mining town of Idaho Springs, just off I70 on Highway 103. There is parking at the bottom of the climb.
The first section takes you out of the town and up to Echo Lake; this segment spans 20 km and climbs over 900m with an average gradient of 4.5%. The first 10km is the most congested part of the route, with relatively heavy traffic as you leave Idaho Springs.
As you reach the sign for Arapaho National Forest, the frequency of traffic will decrease, and the beauty of the climb will begin to unfold. The forest is dense and vast, tall pines will now accompany you until you hit the tree line.
Just before you reach Echo Lake, a beautiful glacier lake with spectacular reflections, there is a short descent. Enjoy it while you can, as it will be over before it starts.
A few descents are littered throughout this climb, which mask the actual average gradient of 5.8%.
As you depart from the lake, you will meet the junction of Highway 103 and Mount Evans Road. Here is usually a great place to stop for food and drink from the Echo Lake Lodge; however, it is currently closed, with no notion of when it will re-open.
Mount Evans Road is a toll road, but not for bikes! You are 22.5 km away from the summit, so keep the effort steady; you’ll start to feel the altitude difference from here on in.
The next section of the climb will take you to Summit Lake, which is 14.8 km long, averaging a 4.4% gradient. 5 km into this section, you will rise above the dense pine trees, leaving the forest behind.
You now have stunning, unobstructed views of the Rocky Mountains accompanying you to the top. A short downhill awaits you before Summit Lake.
Although nothing changes much in the way of gradients, the last 9 km of the climb from Summit Lake will most likely be the hardest. Over 400 meters of verticle ascent at an average 4.7% gradient.
Doesn’t sound too bad right? However, at this point in the climb, there is almost 50% less oxygen in the air, coupled with tired legs that have already climbed 1500 meters of ascent.
A series of graceful switchbacks accompany you on this last stretch – 12 to be exact – but it will feel like more. After 5 or 6 you’ll be wondering if it is your last. One last push, to the summit!
You’ll be greeted by a bike rack to hang your bike, breathtaking views, and maybe a cheer from a stranger!
Tips for cycling mount evans: highest road in US
#1: Acclimate to the altitude
The climb is uniquely difficult because of the reduced availability of oxygen in the air. In this environment, your blood oxygen levels decrease, and as such, the body struggles to deliver oxygen efficiently to your muscles.
If you usually live at sea level, it can take some time to adjust to a higher altitude.
Oxygen density in the air sits at 20.9% at sea level and rapidly diminishes the higher you get.
Colorado is known for its high altitude, with Idaho Springs sitting at an altitude of 7585 ft, meaning the oxygen density is around 15.75%.
That’s a 25% reduction, and you’re only at the start line; by the summit, which sits at 14,127ft, you are looking at an oxygen density of just over 12%.
Early signs of insufficient oxygen include sleepiness, physical fatigue, headaches, nausea, dizziness, shortness of breath, and vomiting, so it may be hard to distinguish whether you are just cycling uphill or suffering from altitude sickness.
Nevertheless, be mindful of how you feel as you ascend.
The body will adjust, but it takes time. Be sure to get out on the bike when you arrive in Colorado rather than tackle Mount Evans straight away. Altitude sickness is more likely to happen when you go above 8000 ft, so find some climbs around that altitude.
The best thing you can do to prevent altitude sickness is to give your body time to acclimate before starting the climb.
#2: time of year
On a gravel or mountain bike, cycling is theoretically possible all year round.
On a road bike, the best months are between May and September. As always, check the weather forecast and pack your gear accordingly, always erring on the side of caution – conditions can deteriorate rapidly at such altitudes in the mountains.
#3: Weather Forecast
The weather is unpredictable, you can be basking in glorious sun in Idaho Springs and be battling strong winds, lightning, and freezing rain at the summit, even in summer.
Make sure you check the mountain forecast for an idea of what to expect.
Start early in the day because the weather typically turns sour in the afternoon. Be sure to bring a wind jacket and a few extra layers. The descent is bound to be cold.