Editor’s note: This is part of The Know’s new series, Staff Favorites. Each week, we will offer our opinions on the best that Colorado has to offer for dining, shopping, entertainment, outdoor activities and more. (We’ll also let you in on some hidden gems).
Canyon highways along the Front Range offer exceptional scenery and challenging climbs to entice ambitious cyclists, but they often have minimal or non-existent shoulders. While some cyclists are willing to brave narrow, winding roads with little or no margin for error, I’m not.
That’s why one of my favorite rides is Lefthand Canyon north of Boulder, a 14-mile climb with an ascent of 3,200 feet to the town of Ward near the Peak to Peak Highway and Brainard Lake. It has ample shoulders, so I always feel safe. It gets steep the last mile and a half, but that’s part of what makes it an attractive ride.
“It has a really nice, consistent grade all the way up to Sawmill Road,” said Parker Macy, a competitive masters racer from Longmont who knows the ride well. “When you get there, you take that right-hand turn and it gets really steep up to the Peak to Peak Highway. It’s super-challenging and keeps it real.”
I usually park at Buckingham Park, about 5 miles north of North Boulder and situated behind a beautiful hogback crowned with steep, rocky cliffs at the top that makes you feel enclosed by mountains. The park has toilets, and Macy sometimes soaks his tired legs in the chilly waters of Lefthand Creek that runs by the park after finishing a hard ride. (Although that may not be a good idea right now because the creek is running pretty fast with spring runoff.)
The ride begins at about 5,900 feet in elevation; Ward is at 9,100 feet. The canyon is defined by that creek, which runs along the south side of the road most of the way, occasionally passing underneath the road to the north side. I noticed a beaver dam on Wednesday, so I suggest keeping your eyes out for cool things to see along the creek as you climb.
For much of the ride, there is a wide shoulder on both sides of the road. Further up, the shoulder is only on the uphill lane, but that’s OK because you can ride 30 mph or more on the downhill and more or less keep up with traffic. There are Share the Road signs to remind drivers that cyclists are likely to be present.
In fact, this past Wednesday there were more cyclists than motorists. (That’s not the case on weekends, though.)
“During the week, it’s beautiful,” said Macy, who was training for next weekend’s Iron Horse Classic from Durango to Silverton. “There’s not that many cars, and for the most part, people are pretty cool. On the weekends, you don’t want to be up here. There are too many people and it’s annoying.”
The last mile is about an 8% grade and there is no shoulder as you approach Ward, but the speed limit is low there so the climb into town still feels safe. Ward is often described as a “semi-ghost town,” but there is a general store in case you arrive thirsty or hungry.
After all that climbing, the ride back to Buckingham Park is smooth and fast, but not too fast. Let gravity take you back to your car — you earned it.
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