Blazing Saddles: Cycling the Western Express
It’s hot, it’s dry, it’s desolate, it’s beautiful – The ACA Western Express Bicycle Route is a challenging 1,600 mile ride from San Francisco to Pueblo, Colorado. With a bit of common sense and planning, however, it is an extremely rewarding route full of incredible scenery and history. Here’s our ride log for this route:
For the route onwards to Yorktown see TransAm Pueblo to Yorktown route log
12 May 2012: San Francisco to Fairfield – 33 mi
After the obligatory tyre-dipping at the beach near Fisherman’s Wharf, we took the ferry to Vallejo. Rolling hills to Fairfield where we took a side-trip to the Jelly Belly Factory. The factory tour is good fun, free and comes complete with free jelly beans!
Fairfield to Sacramento – 48 mi
A really pleasant ride from Fairfield through cherry, apple and prune orchards to the town of Davis, the self-proclaimed “most bicycle friendly town in the world” and home to the US Bicycling Hall of Fame. Camped at the KOA just outside of Sacramento.
Sacramento to Placerville – 66 mi
Rode through Sacramento Old Town and followed the bike path out of the city and along the river. As we approached Folsom, Pete’s front gear cable snapped – luckily, we were within a mile or so of Bicyles Plus who were excellent and helped us out straight away. Some steep and winding roads to Placerville; originally called “Blood and Guts” in the mid-19th century until settling families complained of its un-Christian-sounding name, and the name was then changed to “Hangtown” (due to the number of public hangings)!
Placerville to Cook’s Station – 36 mi
The climb up Carson Pass started in earnest today. The climb follows quiet roads through pine forest. We camped behind the diner at Cook’s Station, the historic Pony Express Station.
Cook’s Station to Hope Valley Campground – 47 mi
A big breakfast at Cook’s Station set us up for the climb up to the summit – some snow still around in the shadows on the roadside. Amazing downhill after the 8,573ft summit to the campsite at Hope Valley.
Hope Valley Campground to Carson City – 36 mi
Short day today and the miles flew by as we descended further down the east side of the Sierra Mountains. Crossed into Nevada and stopped for coffee at the historic town of Genoa. The bar at Genoa is billed “Nevada’s oldest thirst parlor” and was patronized by Mark Twain, Teddy Roosevelt and Johnny Cash. Genoa was also the set for the movie Misery. From Genoa, we rode to Carson City. The highway into Carson City was a little busy so we instead rode from car parking lot to car parking lot along the miles and miles of strip malls, stores and fast food outlets that surround downtown.
Carson City to Fallon – 60 mi
Joined Highway 50 and followed it out of Carson City. The towns on route quickly become smaller and smaller and further and further apart. Fallon, however, is a fairly large town – we camped at the Fallon RV Park and stocked up on supplies at the supermarket.
Fallon to Middlegate Station – 54 mi
First big day of desert riding today without any services in between – mainly flat riding through great wide basins and salt flats. We stopped to view the 6000 year old petroglyphs outside of Fallon. We camped at Middlegate Station – a small hamlet and saloon with a population of 17 and in the middle of nowhere. Middlegate is full of friendly people who are full of stories. We lost at a game of horseshoe against some local Nevadans.
Middlegate Station to Austin – 66 mi
After a quick look at the “shoe tree”, we took the Carroll Summit alternative route to Austin. Carroll Summit route has more climbing but the traffic is very light and it is rather scenic. Lots of long straight roads and amazing views in between climbs – no services again on route to Austin. We spent the night in Austin and watched the annular solar eclipse from the vantage point at the top of the town.
Austin to Eureka – 72 mi
Long stretches of stunning nothingness today with a big climb out of Austin and other big climb before Eureka.
Eureka to Ely – 83 mi
A day of four peaks, four basins and no services – the long descents into each basin are lots of fun and make each climb worth it. Finishing the day with a big climb is always hard work though.
Ely to Baker – 60 mi
Climbed up Connor’s Pass and then the much steeper Sacramento Pass before arriving and camping at Baker. Good visitors centre for Great Basin National Park, but didn’t bother with the detour into the park as it involves another big climb.
Baker to Milford – 86 mi
Headwinds slowed our progress today, as did the three climbs on route. Crossed into Utah early in the morning and immediately lost an hour due to the change in time zone.
Milford to Cedar City – 56 mi
Strong headwinds today together with four punctures made today, which should have been a relatively easy day, quite tough-going. Terrific dust storm outside of Cedar City took visibility down to a few feet for about half a mile. Carried most of that dust around on my face for the rest of the day.
Cedar City to Panguitch – 64 mi
Climbed the 4,500ft out of Cedar City up to 10,580ft and past the stunning views of Cedar Breaks National Monument. After the summit, it was largely downhill to Panguitch.
Panguitch to Bryce Canyon – 24 mi
Short day today so that we could spend time in Bryce Canyon National Park. The route from Panguitch passes through Thunder Mountain (which looks just like the Disneyland counterpart) and the stunning Red Canyon. Camped in Bryce Canyon National Park and took some time to explore the park via the free shuttle bus.
Bryce Canyon to Boulder – 81 mi
After cold, cold nights at Bryce Canyon, we set off early, headed out of the National Park and back on route through the towns of Tropic, Henriville and Escalante – great views and colourful rocks everywhere today. Beautiful run down to Calf Creek Campground, where we had planned to camp, unfortunately, the campground was very, very full so we rode on along the thin Hog’s Back Pass where the road drops steeply on either side. Stayed in the bunkhouse run by the gas station just before town – pretty basic, but welcome after a long hot day.
Boulder to Hanksville – 87 mi
Big climb out of Boulder and then a downhill to Torrey. After a morning of climbing through pine forest, the afternoon couldn’t have been more different as we passed through Capitol Reef National Park – full of canyons, red rock and martian landscapes.
Hanksville to Hite Campground – 52 mi
Gentle ascents this morning through more stunning red canyons and then down to the Colorado River and Lake Powell. Very hot today and camped at Hite Campground on the shore of the lake. Quick dip in the lake to cool off before setting up a makeshift sun shade using the tent outer.
Hite Campground to Blanding – 81 mi
Early start to try and beat the heat as we knew it was going to be a long day without services and with a lot of steady climbing. Spectacular scenery on the route but a tough ride.
Blanding to Doloras – 86 mi
Mainly rolling country roads today as we entered Colorado – camped by the river at the river RV park just past the pretty mountain town of Doloras.
Doloras to Telluride – 65 mi
The Rocky Mountains start in earnest today with an uphill grade for most of the day and a particularly steep section near the top of Lizard Head Pass. Telluride is a great little resort town with historic Victorian downtown – it is full of bikes, dogs and community spirit. The free gondola will take you up the valley walls to the top of the surrounding mountains where you can take the MTB trails back down to town. Camped in the well-equipped town park campsite.
Telluride to Cimmaron – 88 mi
A steady climb up to the Dallas Divide Pass – green forested hills, meadows and snow-capped mountains will keep you motivated. Lunch at the nice town of Montrose but good weather meant we pushed on over the next hill to Cimmaron Campground.
Cimmaron to Sargents – 80 mi
An early climb followed by gently rolling roads to Gunnison for lunch. Some very friendly bike shops in town, and some good opportunities to stock up on supplies. This was followed by a pleasant ride to Sargents – the start of the serious climb up the Continental Divide and Monarch Pass.
Sargents to Salida – 37 mi
The 6% grade and 10 mile climb up to the Continental Divide was not as difficult as we feared, although I am glad we tackled it with fresh legs in the morning. A coffee and muffin at the cafe at the summit and then a long, fun descent down to the cool town of Salida – another bicycle-obsessed, Colorado mountain town.
Salida to Pueblo – 106 mi
An unexpectedly long day after we reach Silver Cliff (our intended stopping point) by lunchtime. We decided to push on over the summit and on to the 40 mile downhill to Pueblo and the end of the Western Express. Pueblo isn’t what you would call a pretty town, but it is big and has plenty of food outlets and cheap motels.