Crossing the Rockies has gotten easier, but Mother Nature still rules
Getting across the Rocky Mountains has always been a major challenge, whether by a horse-drawn wagon or a Cadillac. Recently, it has been more difficult than usual, but that’s another story.
Some solutions to that challenge have taken place in my lifetime, which covers nearly a century.
When my family started exploring the state, around 1920, there were two main choices if you wanted to travel from Denver to the Western Slope by car. All routes were dirt roads, of course, and we tried a lot of them in the old Hudson.
You could go through Leadville, and on to Wolcott. Or you could go to Pueblo and over Monarch Pass to Gunnison. Either was a one- or two-day trip.
Monarch Pass was built in 1880, partly for the mining camps in Gunnison County and also as access to the southern counties in the state. It became part of U.S. Highway 50, one of the longest highways in the United States.
In the early 1930s came the first real shortcut through the mountains from Denver. I remember, as a young adult, standing on the hillside listening to the dedication ceremony when they opened Loveland Pass. There had been a wagon trail for many years, but now it was a miraculous, beautiful highway, rising to an altitude of 11,990 feet. It cut many miles off the trip, but you didn’t just zip over it. It is the highest mountain pass in the world that regularly stays open during a snowy winter season.
When the Eisenhower Tunnel opened in March 1973, it allowed motorists on Interstate 70 to avoid crossing the pass. Trucks that cannot pass through the tunnel (those carrying hazardous materials and those over 13.92 feet in height) must still take U.S. Highway 6 across Loveland Pass.
My regular jaunts across the mountains began in 1945, the year we moved to Grand Junction, decades before the Eisenhower Tunnel opened.
Coming down from Loveland Pass, we always stopped at the garage and greasy spoon that are now resting on the bottom of Dillon Reservoir. They were a welcome break for old cars and young appetites.
From the bottom of Loveland Pass to Glenwood Springs there were mountains, a lot of dirt roads and not much else. Somewhere along the way they changed the name of Black Gore Pass to Vail Pass, changed the route and paved it. This caused a major political hassle, but my memory has lost the details.
Then one day, on an empty hillside on the south side of the road, a lonely restaurant and gas station appeared. It grew very rapidly into a town. They called it Vail. And the people came — and came.
Then came the effort to bring the 1976 Winter Olympic Games to Colorado. Dick Lamm, a state representative at that time, fought it from the beginning because of the cost and the probable damage to our mountain terrain. Lamm, who would go on to serve three terms as the state’s governor, put a measure on the 1972 ballot to halt the games. He used the damning phrase: “These are rich men’s games paid for by poor men’s taxes.” The Olympics were defeated.
The following year, the Eisenhower Tunnel was opened for traffic. It cut through the mountain, taking hours off the trip, and turned Loveland Pass into a scenic drive.
Moving west again, Glenwood Canyon started as a two-lane road in 1899, was paved by WPA labor in 1938. Then in 1992, the sweeping, elevated four-lane highway was opened. My only complaint with the new highway is that it eliminated my favorite turnout, where I used to stop and have a cup of coffee from my thermos and listen to the river rush by.
So now you can drive from here to Denver in under four hours — well, usually. On weekends during ski season, the four hours are not necessarily correct. But it is the cars, not the roads, that cause the delays.
Well, there is one other factor: Mother Nature.
There are limits to what humans can do. A couple of weeks ago, a huge boulder that had been sitting peacefully on a mountain above Glenwood Canyon for a million years or so got loose from its foundation, rolled down the mountainside and punched a huge hole in the beautiful elevated highway. Humans are repairing it efficiently.
Going across the mountains has been an adventure from the time the first humans did it. And I believe it still is.