Vail Pass Summary
The old adage is that you never forget or even get over your first time. Well, Vail Pass was my first. The previous year, while on a family vacation, I had seen what I thought was a bunch of idiots riding bikes Up and down passes in Colorado. Why would anyone in their right mind take a bicycle up to ten, eleven, or twelve thousand feet? But you know what, as I passed these folk in my SUV (giving them lots of room… they had to be crazy), I saw every one of them smiling: smiling ear to ear. There had to be something to this and I decided to look into it. Turns out they were with a group called Ride the Rockies. Amazing! The next year, after doing some research, I decided to try some biking in the state and chose some front range trails, Glenwood Canyon, and for a pass, Vail. That was almost 15 years ago and I have not missed a beat since then. I was hooked.
For anyone considering a pass ride and wondering if they can do it, the answer is yes, and Vail is the ride to do. The eastern side is only five miles long from Copper Mountain and has an elevation gain of less than 1000 feet. What’s even better, it’s on a trail. No cars, no trucks, no Winnebago's driven by clueless tourists. It’s pure peace and quiet as you gently climb the pass in the wide valley between east and west I-70. The trail even has its own version of switchbacks built into it. You end up with an easy ride, fantastic scenery and the feeling that you can conquer Mt. Evans next (OK, maybe I exaggerate a bit).
On the eastern side, the trail starts at the western edge of Copper Mountain and is an extension of the trail from Frisco, Dillon, and Breckenridge. It’s roughly five miles long and has a climb of 950 feet to the Vail Pass/Shrine Pass rest stop (a touch below the actual pass, which is on I-70 and not accessed by bicycle). Most of this section is wide open in a valley that separates the interstate. The climb is steady and constant and, for most of the climb is in the 3% to 4% range with an occasional jump to 5% or 6%, particularly near the top where there are a couple of amusing switchbacks. The valley is green, quiet, and filled with creeks, little waterfalls, and wildflowers. If this is your first ride, stop, go slow, and enjoy (just be sure to stop with your bike off the path… it’s rude and dangerous to block the path from other riders). If you are experienced, you can ride this pass as a basic warm-up ride. At the top, you pass under the interstate and can find rest rooms at the Shrine Pass, Vail Pass rest area. The view to the southeast is awesome.
Please note, that this is a shared use trail, so be sure to be courteous to the hikers and skaters also using this trail. The descent back to Copper is quick, but be sure to watch your speed, you don’t have too much pavement to work with.
The western side of this pass is every bit as fascinating as the eastern side. Whether you are riding alongside I-70 with only a plastic orange fence keeping the trucks at bay, are tooling along on a well maintained trail, or are reveling in the exclusive use of a road now closed to auto traffic, the scenery is ever changing and the ride exhilarating.
Starting at the covered bridge in Vail, you will travel about six miles on the frontage roads to the trailhead of Ten Mile trail. From here, you ride on the old Vail Pass road, now closed to auto traffic, for about 3 ½ miles to Ten Mile Canyon National Recreation Trail. The climb is a steady 4% to 5% and does not back off very much. Hop on the trail here and take the paved trail to the summit. Be cautious, however, as the trail immediately for a very short while and passes under I-70. The left hand turn after the underpass is brutal. You are already going slow (or should be) and you are faced with the steepest climb trail. It’s less than 300 yards in length, but if you are not expecting it, it will stop you in your tracks. After the short steep climb, it’s about four and a half miles of riding along in the high alpine air. At times the trail adjoins the interstate, but, for the most past, you are on your own among the high alpine foliage. The grade does back off for the last two to three miles and allows you nice easy access to the Vail/Shrine pass rest stop.
One can ride via trail or bike route from Beaver Creek to Breckenridge/Frisco/Dillon. It’s easy, fun, and will allow you to get up close with Colorado. The ride is easy and allows you plenty of access to services when you need them. Copper, Vail, Minturn, Beaver Creek, in the heart of ski country, allow you access to plenty of food, water, and lodging. Carry water and food with you, but know you are seldom more than a few miles from replenishment.
There are, however, two alternate routes I want to talk about: the Copper Triangle and Shrine Pass. First, the Copper Triangle… three passes, 78 miles and just under 6000 feet of climbing. Starting at Copper Mtn., head south CO 91 up Fremont pass (11,318 ft). And then down to Leadville. From Leadville, it’s CO 24 over Tennessee Pass (10,424) down to I-70. The climb up TN pass from the south is fairly easy as you are already near 10k in Leadville (comparable to the ease of Vail Pass from Copper Mtn), but, you must also cross Battle Mtn before you reach 70, which is a significant speed bump, but is not to be overly concerning. From 70, a combination of road and trails will take you back to Copper over Vail pass. I’ve done this route a few times and loved it… It was a long day for me but worth it.
Shrine Pass Road is a dirt road accessed from the Vail Pass rest area. It’s a great back country ride for mtn bikes or cross/cyclo-cross bikes. I once started in Vail, climbed the pass and then veered to Red Cliff via Shrine Pass road and returned to Vail using the roads and trails along 70. The RT loop to Vail is about 40 miles with 5000 ft of climbing. I wouldn’t take a road bike on unless you have appropriately wide road tires (700x32+), but the back country scenery makes it well worth the ride. Shrine Pass road is not heavily traveled or maintained and while the dirt road up the western flank of Cottonwood Pass is better than some paved roads, Shrine pass road is likely to be washboard, rock, and gravel.