This scenic and challenging ride climbs over one of Colorado’s highest and most scenic passes not once, but twice. Starting in Buena Vista, CO, 100% of the route is on officially designated Colorado Scenic Byways. To reach Aspen, you’ll have to summit 12,095′ Independence Pass. After a rest stop in Aspen, it’s back on the bike to tackle Independence Pass again, this time in the more challenging direction. Once the summit is reached for the second time, 40 miles of downhill awaits.
Distance: 201 km (125 miles) Climbing: 9,000' (approximate) Highest Elevation: 12,095' Availability: May through October (Independence Pass is closed in winter)
Start by checking into any business South of Main Street in Buena Vista. Good choices include Allgoods Quick Stop (Phillips 66, 548 US-24 Open 5am – 10pm) or City Market (438 US-24, Open 6am – 10pm). Parking is available on neighborhood streets such as Oak St. and S. Gunnison Ave., requiring only a trivially short ride to your check-in spot. City Market’s parking lot is signed for customers only, and it does fill up, so don’t risk parking there.
Take US-24 West out of Buena Vista. This is the Collegiate Peaks Scenic Byway. You’ll pass a few rafting companies and ride along the Arkansas River for a good portion of this segment. You’ll also see several 14ers on your left (The Collegiate Peaks).
Gazing at 14,000′ peaks in the distance is nice, but you didn’t choose this route to sight-see from a distance. You want to be in the mountains. You want to be part of the scenery, to ride tight switchbacks above treeline, to ride between snowfields in the middle of summer. That is why you’ll turn left onto CO-82 West, the aptly-named Top of the Rockies Scenic Byway.
As soon as you make this left turn about 19.5 miles into your ride, the character of your ride changes for the better. The traffic lessens and the views will not disappoint. Mt. Elbert, Colorado’s highest peak, looms to the northwest for the first part of this segment.
About 6.5 miles after turning onto CO-82, you’ll reach the Twin Lakes General Store. This is your last reliable source of drinking water until you reach Aspen, which is still over 36 miles away. If you have any concerns about running out of water, you’ll want to stop here and fill up (open at 8am in the summer).
Continue up to Independence Pass, admiring the views along the way. You’ll pass campgrounds and trailheads on the way up, and you’ll likely be daydreaming about coming back to explore off the road.
Once atop Independence Pass, enjoy over 15 miles of downhill to the outskirts of Aspen. Hopefully, you’ve chosen a day with light traffic, and you’ve timed your descent perfectly so that no cars are in your way. You’ll notice that on this side of the pass, there are a few pretty narrow sections where there isn’t even a center line. This is not much of an issue on the way down, as you’ll be able to keep pace with the cars through these sections.
Once in Aspen, check in at any local business. Good choices include City Market (711 E. Cooper Ave.), ink! Coffee (520 E. Durant Ave., serves sandwiches and salads), and The Big Wrap (also 520 E. Durant Ave., serves wraps, tacos, and salads).
After refueling and topping off the water bottles in Aspen, head back up the pass. There’s no gentle warmup from this direction; the climbing starts straightaway. Be careful on the narrow sections. They are generally short sections so don’t be afraid to claim your lane, especially if there are cars coming from both directions. There may not be room for two cars and a bike.
During the climb you’ll notice a pretty interesting waterfall and ghost town that you may have missed while flying by on the descent. This and the rest of the scenery should distract you a bit from the effort of climbing Independence Pass for the 2nd time in a day.
Once you reach the summit, the hard part of your day is over, and you have earned the right to coast on the downhill! Check your water bottles again when you reach Twin Lakes General Store, and enjoy the ride back to Buena Vista!