Lookout Mountain and foothills to the north and south are at the eastern edge of the Colorado Front Range of the Southern Rocky Mountains. This area is subject to weather conditions that may be rare in other parts of the country. In addition to the usual cycling hazards of lightning, hail, and rain, this area is subject to frequent high winds, rapid storm buildup, snow, ice, and low fog which make cycling hazardous. The weather may also create beautiful cycling conditions unlikely to be encountered elsewhere. Unfortunately, many of these conditions make cycling unsafe. At these times, it is safer to enjoy Lookout’s beauty on foot when the weather conditions can be enjoyed without risking serious injury or death.
Wind speeds over 50 miles per hour are frequent during some months of the year and speeds of 100 mph occur several times per year.
A strong, west-to-east air-flow over the Rocky Mountains uplifts and cools the air. Lenticular clouds, sometimes referred to as flying saucer clouds, appear as the moisture in rising air cools and condenses. As the cooler air descends on the east side of the mountains, the air warms and the leading edge of the cloud evaporates. Under strong wind conditions, the rapidly-descending, heavier, and cooler air may reach the surface in the foothills and adjacent areas at a very high velocity. The air may go from being calm to strong enough to knock a cyclist off of his/her bike and off of the road in a few minutes. The presence of lenticular clouds over the mountains is a serious warning to a cyclist that he/she may encounter dangerously high winds on Lookout Mountain and elsewhere.
When lenticular clouds are absent, high winds may still exist. Low atmospheric pressure area to the east and high pressure to the west are indications of possible high winds.
The strongest winds for an uphill cyclist are usually encountered as the cyclist enters Clear Creek Canyon from the east. The wind may blow strong enough to prevent any forward motion. Cyclists have been lifted into the air, knocked to the ground, and onto the guardrail by these winds. Being blown over the guardrail at this point would cause serious injury. There is also the very real possibility of being unexpectedly blown into traffic by a gust of wind here and elsewhere on Lookout. When riding into a strong wind, it is imperative to keep the bicycle pointed straight into the wind. Any slight misalignment likely results in being blown sideways and crashing.
Image courtesy of Kent Davis.
A cyclist turning downhill into Clear Creek Canyon after passing the “M” may also encounter very strong headwinds (which at times may be full of sand and gravel!) that actually prevent her/him from riding downhill. One solution is sitting on the top tube and pushing downhill with your feet. YES, this actually happens!
Windy conditions often occur early in the morning when warming air on the plains rises. It is replaced by cooler air descending from the mountains.
Serious windy conditions can occur anywhere including exposed and aptly named places such as Windy Saddle and Windy Point.
When in doubt about local wind conditions, numerous nearby amateur weather stations provide useful real-time local data through www.wunderground.com. There are many of these stations scattered throughout Colorado that are useful for determining local cycling conditions.
A new weather station on the summit of Mt. Zion provides a good estimation of the wind velocity in the canyon (www.wunderground.com/dashboard/pws/KCOGOLDE370). A station a short distance from the parking area at Beverly Heights Park also provides useful information (www.wunderground.com/dashboard/pws/KCOGOLDE191). The wind velocity reported at this location is typically about one-half of the velocity in the canyon. Both stations also provide graphical data on pressure and temperature. A graph showing dropping pressure is a very good indication of increasingly windy conditions while a graph showing rising pressure usually indicates declining wind.
Changeable weather includes snow. A strong snow squall may leave several inches of snow on the road in a very short period of time. Snow has been observed to fall deep enough to make riding at the summit of Lookout Mountain dangerous- while below at the Pillars the sun is shining.
Riding Lookout with snow on the ground and the trees is an exceptionally beautiful experience. Riding in the morning after a night of freezing fog when everything is covered with frost is wonderful. Fresh tracks in the snow reveal passing wildlife.
Riding on snow or ice covered roads is also dangerous. If this is the case, Lookout’s wonderful winter scenery is best appreciated on foot.
Lookout Mountain may be rideable while other roads remain icy. The Jefferson County Highway Department does a very good job of clearing the road. They deserve everyone’s thanks for keeping the road as safe as possible. Deep, plowable snow is quickly removed. Prolonged light snow events are the most likely to get packed into ice when there is not enough to plow. Fortunately for bike tires, most of the deicer used is magnesium chloride and not sand— perhaps not so fortunate for other parts of the bike.
The areas most likely to retain icy spots are shady, north-facing areas near the bottom including the canyon; the upper hairpins; and in the trees near the top. Melting snow may create unexpected areas of ice. Areas of sun and shade change quickly with the movement of the sun. Sunny areas that were previously wet will quickly freeze when shaded.
It’s always interesting to watch for the last hint of snow along the road in Spring. This is usually around May 1 in the trees near the summit.
A rise in elevation usually results in temperature decreases of about 3.5 degrees Fahrenheit per 1000 foot gain in elevation, the environmental lapse rate. (The is also another measure called the adiabatic lapse rate that is about 5.4 degrees per thousand feet.) If you have ridden up Mount Evans or over high mountain passes you know it is colder up there!
Under certain local conditions, cold air may be trapped below warm air and the temperature increases with elevation. This is a temperature inversion. It usually occurs over smaller changes in elevation, such as that between Golden and the top of Lookout. On Lookout, the inversion layer tends to be somewhere between the “M” and Windy Saddle. If you are riding up and feeling cold, you will experience noticeable warming in this area. While riding down in the opposite direction, you will feel like you have ridden into a refrigerator or freezer when you hit the inversion layer. The existence of an inversion layer can be easily determined, for example, by checking the local amateur weather stations and comparing the temperature in Golden with that at Genesee.
A temperature inversion may also occur when the heavier, colder air of a cold front underruns the warm air at the surface. This can result in the temperature plummeting at lower elevations by many degrees in a very few minutes. The temperature change between the bottom and top of Lookout can be extreme.
A few years ago the temperature at the bottom of Lookout was six degrees while at the top it was in the fifties. While riding up, I kept wondering if it was possible to ride above the inversion layer before frostbite took the feeling from my fingers. As I gained elevation, the lower hairpins appeared to be the area where I had to consider the need to get back down safely while bucking a horrible wind chill factor.
On the second hairpin, faint, moving shadows suddenly appeared on the road. My first thought was that I was seeing bird shadows, but as I looked up, no birds were in sight. The shadows were the effect of light diffracting in different directions through a very sharp inversion layer in very still air. It is essentially the same effect that makes stars twinkle! The effect only lasted along one stretch of flatter road on the hairpin. By the time that I was on the segment of the road that left the canyon and turned towards the “M”, it was time to unzip numerous winter layers and enjoy the warm, spring weather.
The reverse effect was rather painful on the descent.
The hazy, colder air of a temperature inversion is visible below Lookout Mountain over Golden and North Table Mountain
A gentle breeze from the east may envelope Lookout Mountain in a veil of fog as the rising air over the mountain cools below the dew point. Dense fog and traffic are a dangerous combination for cyclists. Bright clothing and lights are a must for anyone finding himself or herself in fog. If one encounters foggy conditions on Lookout, the general visibility usually increases considerably by mid-morning.
On days when the fog is not too thick, cyclists may find themselves riding into and out of the clouds. Infrequently, the fog rises over the roadway leaving a clear tunnel beneath.
Image courtesy of Kent Davis.
On rare occasions, cyclists arriving at the summit find themselves looking out over the cloud deck with little hint of civilization below.
Image courtesy of Chuck Haraway.
The summits of North and South Table Mountains may appear as islands floating in a sea of clouds.
A few days each Spring can only be called worm days. After the ground has thawed and the road is wet from rain or fog, earthworms may appear en mass on the road above the upper hairpins. Usually the only problem is that you arrive somewhere with dead worms hanging from any or all parts of your bike in-line with your wheels, especially the front and rear brake arms, bottom bracket, and saddlebag. On rare days with exceptional numbers of worms mashed by tires, the road may actually become a bit slick!
When the snow is good for making snowmen and a loosened pebble or piece of snow rolls downhill, it may collects snow as it rolls. The result when it stops is a good rendition of a giant cinnamon bun or sweetroll.