Rist Canyon Loop easily makes my top 10 list of favorite loop rides along the Front Range. It is a perfect distance (42 miles), has a slew of both steep and interesting climbing, is surprisingly remote for being so close to Fort Collins, and the bulk of the route wanders through the Roosevelt National Forest or alongside (and looking down on) Horsetooth Reservoir. Were it closer to Denver and Boulder, it’d be overrun with cyclists, sort of like Deer Creek Canyon and Lookout Mountain are. As it is, during the week you’ll be pretty much on your own, with the FC crowd showing up on the weekends. The stretch along Horsetooth Reservoir makes a convenient loop for FC regulars and there’s an annualFort Collins Cycling Festival that usually includes some version of Rist Canyon in its line-up, as a long road race or as a shorter, hill climb.
There are multiple places you could start this loop along Horsetooth Reservoir or in Fort Collins (from where a convenient bike path winds it way along the Poudre River), but I’m a confirmed espresso junky so the hamlet of Bellvue is the only way to go. As you come in from I-25, Fort Collins, and Laporte, look for the Trout Rearing Hatchery sign and dirt parking lot just before Bellvue at the junction of Rist Canyon Rd and Route 23. Park there, suit up, and pedal 50 yards to the Bellvue Bean for a quick espresso jolt or a muffin and you’ll be set to go.
Head west through rolling farm land and just keep going. Soon the farm land disappears and you’ll be climbing through a tight canyon with evergreens pressing in on both sides. Periodically the trees peel back to reveal an old homestead, a dilapidated hay rake, or a small ranch nestled into the hillside. Views of the distant Mummy Range flit in and out of your vision. The climbing is pretty steady, with short breaks where the road levels off for a respite. After five miles or so the canyon walls fall back, and give you a better picture of where you are. The higher you go, the steeper it gets. Pause for a snack and a drink, and enjoy the view at the top.
Drop steeply to Stove Prairie Road. Go left, southeast to Masonville. The road falls out from underneath you for most of this stretch–sometimes steeply, sometimes gradually. The closer you get to Masonville (really not much more than a junction in the road) the less remote the ride feels. Press on. There’s still great riding ahead. Traffic will increase slightly here, bearing tourists and their toys to the reservoir. If you need water or a pit stop, look for the Larimer County Open Space Trailhead on your left, just after topping out of the climb from Masonville. There’s also a liquor store just past Shoreline Dr if you need something stronger. And even though you left Rist Canyon some 20 miles back, there’s still some climbing to do. The road tilts up in short, sharp, shocks three more times before you get back to Bellvue. None of these is very long, but they are steep, mostly in the 8% to 12% range and can be demoralizing if you’ve started to bonk.
The views east across Fort Collins and west across the reservoir more than make up for the minor pain you’ll feel. At the north end of the reservoir the road plunges down once more into the alfalfa fields south of Bellvue. Look for the historic grange as you pull back into town.