The one thing that every major bike race in Colorado in recent times has in common is the hill climb up the Lariat Loop Trail from Golden, Colorado to the top of Lookout Mountain. Both the US Pro Challenge and Colorado Classic included the hill climb and it's common to see more bikes on the road than cars. Climbing the hill is a “rite of passage” for all serious cyclists in metro Denver.
The ride to the top is under five miles, but climbs 1,600 feet with grades of 5-6%. There are more than a dozen hairpin turns, each with a view in a different direction, either west to the snowcapped peaks of the Front Range, or north to Boulder and the Flatirons, or east down into scenic Clear Creek Valley and the town of Golden.
Traditionally, the climb begins at two large stone pillars that were erected in 1917 as the start of the Lariat Loop. It was William “Cement Bill” Williams who created the route from 1910 to 1914, originally as a footpath and later as a two lane paved road designed to promote, of course, “Cement Bill’s” cement business. When Denver failed to pay some money they had promised to help build the road, “Cement Bill” set up a toll booth and made the road free to everyone in the world except people from Denver, who had to pay a toll. The dispute was soon settled, and the road became part of Denver’s famed mountain park system.
It’s difficult today to understand the popularity of one of Colorado’s first scenic highways. In 1917, some 70,000 cars drove to the top, 20,000 of them on one day when western scout and showman Buffalo Bill Cody was buried at the end of the route on top of Lookout Mountain. The next year, 116,000 automobiles chugged and puffed their way to the summit.
The road has been widened and improved, but still follows the original route that “Cement Bill” laid out, curving up the side of Mount Zion, past where the Colorado School of Mines placed their giant stone “M” in 1908 (considered to be the oldest and largest illuminated mountain monogram in the U.S.) before twisting and turning to Windy Saddle Park at the two-thirds mark. For those who prefer to walk rather than bike, there are hiking trails from here that zig-zag up the mountain to Buffalo Bill’s Grave or to the beautiful Lookout Mountain Nature Center, which as exhibits on the wildlife of the area that includes bear, elk, mountain lion, racoons and deer.
From Windy Saddle, there are six more twists and turns before the parking lot, gift shop, snack bar and museum at Buffalo Bill’s Grave. The view from the museum’s deck is one of the most panoramic in Colorado taking in an area much larger than the state of Connecticut.
Today, most bikers begin and end their journey about a mile from the stone pillars in historic downtown Golden. The town’s main street, Washington Ave., is lined with coffee shops, outdoor cafes, breweries, distilleries and one-of-a-kind shops, including bicycle shops, rock climbing shops (Golden is also a renowned world class center for rock climbing), kayak shops (Golden has a river flowing through it for kayaking and tubing), ski shops, and general outdoor sporting goods stores. In addition to being a cycling center, Golden is home to the American Mountaineering Museum, the only museum in the U.S. dedicated to the history of Mountaineering. There are six outdoor beer gardens for a victory celebration after summiting Lookout Mountain.
Golden also has a free seasonal Bike Library where you can check out a variety of bikes and pedal along the town’s many bike paths, particularly the paved Clear Creek Bike Trail that runs into the mountains to the west, and all the way down to Denver to the east.