I love small towns, and Lake City, Colorado, is one of my favorites. We spent many happy Fourth of July holidays there camping, riding dirt bikes, watching the parade and the fireworks with the kids. Although the full-time population is just 400, it’s a very popular place during the summer. Campsites became harder to find and our visits dwindled. I hadn’t been back in six years, so we decided it was the perfect destination for our first overnight motorcycle trip.
Packing light is not one of my skills, but I was able to squeeze one night’s worth of my stuff into the travel bag that sits on the back of my bike. Actually, there was a little room to spare, and another small bag that fits on the top that I didn’t need, so longer trips are definitely an option.
We left Glenwood Springs early and headed south through Carbondale and Redstone on Highway 133, which is part of the West Elk Loop Scenic Byway. It winds along beside the Crystal River through one of the prettiest canyons I’ve seen and then up and over McClure Pass. The views are truly spectacular.
One of the things I’ve learned about Harleys is that total strangers love to come up and talk to us about them. That was the case on our first stop when a woman told us how much she wished she could hop on the back and go with us, which is a pretty typical comment. What came next, though, was so unexpected that neither of us could form the words to respond. She said, “I’ve killed off two biker husbands. It wasn’t the bikes that killed them, though, it was the guns and drugs.”
Really, what do you say to that? We mumbled something friendly and made a quick getaway.
In Hotchkiss, the byway continues south for 52 miles on Highway 92 through Crawford, past Crawford State Park and then curves along the rim of the Black Canyon of the Gunnison. The scenery changes from pinions and sagebrush to aspen groves, lush green fields and wildflowers, with postcard-worthy views of the Gunnison River and the canyon.
Highway 92 ends where it meets Highway 50 at the dam of the Blue Mesa Reservoir, which, with almost 100 miles of shoreline, is the largest body of water in Colorado. (Fun fact: Blue Mesa Reservoir is renowned as one of the best kokanee salmon fisheries in the United States.) The West Elk Byway runs east and west the length of the reservoir, nearly 20 miles, and continues on to Gunnison and Crested Butte. At the west end, though, we crossed the Lake City Bridge onto Highway 149, which is where the Silver Thread Scenic Byway begins.
From there, it’s about an hour to Lake City. We rented a cute log cabin that was within walking distance of pretty much everything in town. G&M Cabins has 15 fully furnished cabins of varying sizes; the property was clean and well-kept, with big hanging baskets of flowers, barbecue grills and outdoor furniture so that you can sit out and enjoy the cool, fresh mountain air. We loved it and hope to stay there again soon.
Our ride took a good five hours, so lunch at Poker Alice was the first order of business. A hot slice of pizza and a cold beer sure hit the spot! We wandered through town, and I was glad to see that several of my favorite shops are still there. The Back Country Navigator has been there as long as we’ve been visiting. Our finds have included books on ghost stories to read around the campfire, a giant Red Baron kite and, on this trip, a book called “Colorado Curiosities” by Pam Grout that’s full of quirky stories about our state.
Another favorite is the San Juan Soda Company. There’s a great selection of pottery and hand-crafted gifts in the front of the shop and an ice cream parlor in the back that serves old-fashioned sundaes, shakes, malts and ice cream cones.
All of this walking left us a little parched, so we stopped at the Packer Saloon and Cannibal Grill for a cold beer. (Alferd Packer was the sole survivor of a group of prospectors trapped in a blizzard near Lake City in 1874. Dubbed the Colorado Cannibal, he was found guilty of murdering his companions and confessed to eating one of them to survive.) Sitting outside on the patio was very nice during the afternoon and it looks like even more fun at night; the trees are strung with twinkly lights and there’s a fire pit surrounded with Adirondack chairs.
After exploring a little more of the town — there are historic markers on many of the houses that tell the stories of the original inhabitants — it was time for dinner. Eating at Southern Vittles is one of the things I’d missed the most and the down-home food was every bit as good as I’d remembered. Between the two of us, we had fried okra, hush puppies, catfish, fried chicken, mashed potatoes and gravy … definitely not something I’d want to do everyday, but so delicious!
There was time for another stroll before bedtime, and we enjoyed more of the historic buildings, the flowers and the crisp evening air.
We had breakfast at the Tic Toc Diner before getting back on the road to come home, and briefly discussed taking an alternate route. With clouds building to the east and afternoon highs in the mid-90s in the forecast to the west, we decided to to play it safe and go back the same way we’d come. The ride looks different traveling in the opposite direction, so we had another chance to appreciate the beauty of the Blue Mesa Reservoir, Black Canyon of the Gunnison and Crystal River Valley.
With our first overnight trip — and 400 miles logged on the bikes — successfully completed, we’re trying to decide where to go next! Perhaps a loop through Jackson Hole and Cody, Wyoming?
© 2014 Mandy Gauldin