This is the first of a series that looks at different Colorado counties from the seat of a bike.
This wasn’t serious cyclist-in-spandex riding. It was me hauling my e-bike to different parts of the county and getting a look at the things you don’t always see when speeding through an area.
The inspiration for this series came when I helped my family get pictures of county courthouses in Nebraska. I had the time of my life just seeing the different sights that popped up in places I wouldn’t otherwise think of visiting. I thought it would be fun to look for the same kinds of things in Colorado.
Awhile ago, I rode in in a couple of Pedal the Plains bike tours. One of those came through Fort Morgan. Pedal the Plains was typically a three day, 150 mile ride in the eastern part of the state.
I always thought Eastern Colorado would be easier because the hills aren’t as bad trying to climb mountains with your bike.
But then, the wind out east made a liar out of me.
I’m a slow rider. The beauty of being slow is, you get more time to look at the world around you. That’s why I decided to do this journey from the seat of a bike. I wanted to see the little things. The quirky stuff. And to share them with you.
Morgan County seemed as good a place as any to get started.
So I started my journey in Fort Morgan, the county seat.
In 1820, an expedition led by Major Stephen Long followed the Platte River west into Colorado. It was in present day Morgan County that they spotted what is now known as Long’s peak. On clear days, it’s right about here that many modern travelers first see signs of the Rocky Mountains.
IFort Morgan (the fort) was established in 1864 to protect mail service and settlers coming in over the Overland Trail. Twenty years later, the town was founded by Abner Baker. By 1889, part of Weld County was carved away to create Morgan County, and Fort Morgan was chosen over Brush as the county seat.
By 1900, the Great Western Sugar Company was started to process sugar beets, one of the few crops that was able to grow well in the area. The smell from that plant has become well known to many travelers along Interstate 76 since then.
Unfortunately, riding a bike in the summer can be a little more challenging for that very reason.
The community has embraced their role as the home town of famous big band leader Glenn Miller. The city pipes his music and other tunes of the era over the loudspeakers around downtown. I found that it made riding around the area rather quaint.
Downtown Fort Morgan seemed to be a thriving area. Most of the buildings are in use, and traffic moved in and out regularly.
The pace around downtown was pretty leisurely, which means it wasn’t too difficult as a biker to get around or blend in with the traffic.
Riding around town was really pretty enjoyable.
Fort Morgan built their streets really wide, and that makes it easy to get around. I was never worried about competing for space with cars.
Bike lanes aren’t really a thing in Fort Morgan. But then again, the way traffic worked, it wasn’t really an issue. I had fun just winding up and down the streets. It’s a great way to see the interesting ways some will decorate their homes or yards.
One of the fun things in Fort Morgan and around the county was the number of barn quilts that were everywhere. Barn quilts are boards, usually four or eight foot squares, painted like fabric quilt squares and hung up on the outside of barns and other buildings.
Starting in 2007, Nancy Lauck began creating barn quilts, and over the next several years nearly 200 of them had been displayed around the county. These quilts had caught my wife’s attention (being a quilt lover herself). Though many are faded a little today, they added a quaint sense of community.
Fort Morgan has a bike shop called Bicycle Adventure. It was fun to stop in and visit. They have customers coming from a wide range of places, some from Nebraska and Kansas, as there aren’t many bike shops in the area.
This is not your typical bike snob type of bike shop. While they sell a number of new brands like Trek and Haro, they also keep an inventory of used bikes. They seem to really support getting people out on bikes and making it accessible for a wide variety of tastes.
Heading North to Riverside Park
I asked about the best places to ride. I was told that a number of people will ride through on Highway 34 or Highway 6. Locally, a great place is off Riverside park, which is north of town, and north of Interstate 76.
I’ll admit that crossing under along a highway to get there was kind of intimidating. But then I found out that they bult a tunnel underneath the highway that leads right to the park.
One of the highlights of the park is the old Rainbow Bridge. It’s a rainbow arch bridge over the South Platte River, the only bridge of its kind in Colorado. It was built in 1922 and survived three major floods that had wiped out newer bridges.
A friend of mine told me he used to drive a school bus over that bridge every day. The bridge was only 20 feet wide, barely enough for two vehicles to fit side by side, so he said it was pretty daunting. I found that interesting, given how incredibly wide their city streets are, that they’d build such a narrow bridge.
It has since been closed off to car traffic and only available for pedestrians and bicycles.
Riverside park also has a network of trails that loop around in a section between the South Platte River and the Interstate. It’s a wide, well-maintained gravel path that’s an easy, pleasant ride. A lot of people were out walking, and there were even a few folks out playing frisbee golf.
Riding out from town, looping around the trails and heading back into town was about a 6 mile ride for me. I know I didn’t hit all the loops, they seemed to be in a sort of multiple figure 8 configuration. It’s a great place to ride for beginners and intermediate riders who just want a leisurely place to safely ride in a nice, scenic location.
Leaving Fort Morgan
A number of highways make their way through Fort Morgan. US Highways 6 and 34, Interstate 76, and State highways 144 and 52 all go through the area. Highway 34 is pretty good through town, as it has pretty wide shoulders. However, I’m not a real fan of riding highways further out in the country where the shoulders aren’t as wide and cars can come up on you fast.
I spent more time riding county roads south of the Interstate. They were an easy ride, traffic didn’t seem to be going nearly as fast, and people were pretty respectful when passing.
Sometimes it’s those off-the-beaten-path rides where you just come across things that catch your attention. There was just something poignant about this spot where on the one hand, there was freshly plowed farmland ready for a new growing season, alongside a memorial for a young lady who lost her life in a car accident.
East of Fort Morgan is Brush.
At about 5,300 people, it’s a little less than half the size of Fort Morgan.
Brush too was a nice town to ride around in. It was fairly quiet, though downtown still had a good bit of activity going on.
The town was founded a couple of years before Fort Morgan and made a strong push to be named county seat.
Eastern Morgan County
I drove east from Brush, and followed Highway 6 south as it split off from Highway 34. This brought me to Hillrose, where I ventured out some on my bike through town and along the highway.
According to the Hillrose website, the town had boomed for awhile in the early 1910’s, including having a pickle factory and town band. It was the third town incorporated in the county and at 308 people, is the smallest.
A storm had rolled through the area when I was out, and there was just a peacefulness afterwards where I felt comfortable riding out to the eastern border of the county. I’m glad I did.
I know sometimes I think of eastern Colorado as drive through country. You get spoiled by the mountains and you just want to drive through it. But with the wide open plains and big skies, sometimes the view can be breathtaking.
The Highway 144 Communities
East of Fort Morgan, State Highway 144 angles up north and west through a number of smaller communities including Weldona, Goodrich and Orchard. The road is a scenic one and would have made for an enjoyable ride, if you don’t mind the lack of shoulders.
These communities were interesting. There are a number of residents and still some activity, but they’re also made up of a number of abandoned or empty buildings. You look at them and wonder what they were like in their heyday.
Jackson Lake State Park
North of Orchard is Jackson Lake State Park. It’s become a popular boating and hunting destination in that part of the state.
There are a number of roads especially around the western and southern ends of the lake. I had hoped there would be more extensive trails for riding further around. There may be some single track trails that I was unable to find.
Jackson Lake State Park is a designated dark sky park. The lack of light pollution makes it a great place for viewing the night sky and for astrophotography. If it weren’t for a full moon, I’d have loved to have camped out and snagged some pictures of the milky way.
Then again, I’m old and cranky and don’t do the late night thing too often these days.
Wrapping it up
While I drove through Wiggins, the third largest town in the county, I didn’t get a chance to ride around much. It’s a busier place than the smaller communities I visited and appears to have some recent growth.
Overall, you don’t normally think of Morgan County as a Colorado bicycle destination. However, I was pleasantly surprised what I found. It’s not as focused on cycling as many front range and mountain communities, however I found a lot of great places to ride.
More important, I just felt like everything was charming. Admittedly, I’m glad I wasn’t riding in mid summer when the sugar beet plan is at it’s most powerful.
I wondered if this was a good place to begin my journey. In the end, I feel like it proved my point. You can really see and appreciate more than you would expect when you do it from the seat of a bike.