Yet Colorado was once a barrier.
The first American sent here that the Rocky Mountains were unfit for civilization and would be anything more than an icy wasteland. The first of California-bound settlers arrived here several decades later and saw only “a big block wall/’ as Colorado historian Bill Convery describes them.
So they simply went around the crest of the Continental Divide, bypassing what would become the highest state— until gold was discovered in 1848.
Following on the heels of the first prospectors came the first road-builders, men with a genius for seeing around corners and over canyon walls and a willingness to hazard it all.
Over the next 150 years, they put the “high” in highway, building the wagon trails that became the paved roads that became the 21st century gateways to Colorado’s Rocky Mountains.
“They had the vision and the willingness to go big or go home,” Convery said. Among the roads they built:
MILLION DOLLAR HIGHWAY
It looks like something straight out of Indiana Jones. Jagged ravines, 600-foot drop- offs, roadside crosses, and terrifying turns around hairpin corners with no guard rails— all are standard on the Million Dollar Highway, a 23-mile thrill ride that twists and loops through some of the most astonishingly beautiful and frighteningly dangerous geography in North America. Carved out of the San Juan
Mountains in 1883 and paved 40 years later, the route made USA Today’s 2013 list of the “World’s 12 Most Dangerous Roads,” a distinction it shares with the “Highway of Death” in Iraq and the “Death Road” in
Bolivia. “You need to pay attention to what you’re doing up there,” Convery said. Otto Mears understood that. A genius at finding paths through peaks in high rock canyons, the self-educated Russian immigrant built 400 miles of roads across inhospitable terrain in the San Juans, connecting once- isolated mining camps and towns with the rest of the West. “He had astonishing vision,” Convery said. “The San Juan Mountains were the most rugged, most remote and most isolated part of the state. He opened them up for development.”
Mears’ most sensational accomplishment was the 12- mile wagon road from Ouray to Red Mountain, an ancient, collapsed volcano thick with veins of silver and gold.
Unable to build on the floor of Uncompahange Gorge because of potential flooding, he had to chisel a narrow shelf out of the face of a towering cliff. “It required not only engineering skills, but mountaineering skills,” Convery said. From the rim of the canyon, workmen were dropped by rope—with dynamite equipped with unusually long fuses— then yanked back to safety before the dynamite ignited.
Ledge-walking pack animals were the only reliable means
of transporting supplies, a costly arrangement. Progress was slow and breathing hard, but Mears finished by year’s end – to less than rave reviews.
“The wagon road is dangerous even to pedestrians… the grade is four part vertical and one part perpendicular,” declared a local newspaper.
Yet the Million Dollar road proved an immediate success, despite avalanches that periodically swept wagons, horses and humans into the abyss.
In 1911, the first car bounced up the pass from Ouray, a 12- mile ordeal. A decade later, Colorado rebuilt the road for cars and rebranded it U.S. 550. To avoid perceived peril, some local residents shipped their cars by railroad to Durango. Even today tourists pull into
the Silverton’s sheriff’s office, begging for help piloting their cars to safer lowland territory. Along the way they pass a monument to Mears at Bear Creek Falls.
“He was a brilliant man with an indomitable will,” Convery said. “He was willing to take
INDEPENDENCE HIGHWAY Gorgeous Aspen forests, swatches of Arctic tundra, distant peaks.
Oh, and dizzying drop-offs, steep cliffs, nasty switchbacks… “It’s ‘black-diamond driving.” Top: Independence Pass circa 1920s.
Bottom: Cyclists ride down from the pass.incredible risks to achieve very spectacular results.”
Independence Pass Road winds across the Continental Divide between Aspen and Leadville, classic views appear at every turn: gorgeous Aspen forests, swatches of Arctic tundra, distant peaks. Oh, and dizzying drop-offs, steep cliffs, nasty switchbacks … “It’s ‘black- diamond driving,'” Convery said.
It’s been that way since 1880, when the first burro packed with rich silver ore made the journey from current-day Aspen to Leadville’s smelters.
Today, 38-mile Independence Pass Road, America’s highest paved pass at 12,095 feet is impassable in winter because of harsh weather.
“There’s no margin for error,” said author Steve Voynick, a local historian.
In the old days, silver mattered more.
“They had 25-man crews up there with shovels to keep it clear. They slept in a big shed,” Voynick said.
Even on mild days, single- file wagons often labored through narrow trenches between eight-foot walls of snow, with inches to spare. A trip might take days.
The mud season was another headache. “Up to one’s knees,” the Leadville Chronicle reported.
The pace picked up in summer, when stagecoaches came roaring around blind turns at peak speed. Brakes often gave way. If a horse in a team of six fell, he would be dragged hundreds of feet before the coach or freight wagon came to a stop.
“It had to be horrid on horses,” Voynick said. “They were incredibly heavy loads— six to eight tons. Horses ran until they were so weak they fell. Then they were pushed to the side. There were supposedly piles of bones all over the place.”
Animals weren’t the only casualties. One day an out-of- control stage teetered along the edge while the driver fought for control. “He was unable, with all his dexterity to (succeed) … the (back) wheels went over, taking with them the covered box and nine passengers over the cliff four hundred feet,” reported the Leadville Chronicle.
The arrival of railways in 1887 spelled the end of the road— until autos rolled onto the scene. In 1927, the Colorado Highway Department built a graded, gravel road over sections of the abandoned toll road. The road was paved in 1967 when Aspen became a major tourist destination. “This is what Colorado is all about—right here on this road,” Voynick said.
PIKES PEAK HIGHWAY
On an August morning in 1901, two men climbed into a two-cylinder Locomobile and rattled up the side of Pikes Peak.
In three hours, they covered just two miles on an abandoned carriage road, nearly destroying their radiator on the way to the top. On the way down, the Locomobile went airborne, landing with brakes jammed and engine locked in reverse. “We weren’t altogether certain we could stop,” the driver said after the first successful ascent of Pikes Peak in a car.
The automobile age had arrived, coughing and sputtering, in the Colorado high country. Down in Colorado Springs, Spencer Penrose was making notes. Realizing the role cars would play in travel, the flamboyant mineral tycoon tapped into the newfound mobility. In 1916, he built a dirt road to the summit of America’s most famous mountain—the highest thoroughfare in the world at the time—and decided to celebrate his achievement with a race. Thus began the Pikes Peak Auto Hill Climb, the country’s second-oldest motor race after the Indianapolis 500. “Penrose was always a brilliant marketer more than anything else,” said Leah Davis Witherow, curator of history at Colorado Springs Pioneers Museum. “He builds the road, creates a race to advertise the road, and opens up travel opportunities to a whole new generation of Americans and arguably people around the world. “He had an incredibly modern sensibility. The idea you could drive up what was essentially a race track was thrilling to
people, especially people from the flat Midwest.”
In a bit of historical irony, Zebulon Pike, leader of an Army survey party, never made it to the top of the mountain that bears his name. “I believe that no human being could have ascended to that pinnacle.” Only Japan’s Mount Fuji draws more visitors today than Pikes Peak, which welcomes a half- million highway users a year. The unconquerable mountain has been hiked over, slept on, landed on, flown over, and raced up at 100 mph.
In 1929, a man pushed a peanut up the mountain with his nose, reaching the summit three weeks after he began. In
1950, a man pushed a 120- pound wheelbarrow to the top in 103 hours, 35 minutes.
Penrose himself joined the parade. He entered his personal Fierce-Arrow in the Hill Climb and saw his team finish ninth in the open class. “He was such a fantastic,
larger-than-life character,” Convery said. “I think people knew he had a pretty good chance of accomplishing whatever he set his mind to.”
TRAIL RIDGE ROAD
Tired of the 21st century? Drive through the gates of Rocky Mountain National Park and climb some 4,000 feet in a matter of minutes on Trail Ridge Road, the highest continuously paved road in the world.
Continue on to the crest of the Continental Divide, at 12,000 feet, where you cruise above 40 per cent of the earth’s atmosphere, in alpine tundra replicating the Canadian
Arctic. You also roll over trails that Paleo-Indians and their successors trod for 10,000 years, first on foot, then with dogs pulling cargo-laden travois, and finally with horses.
“It’s very different up there,” said Amy Law, author of A Natural History of Trail Ridge Road. “It’s just between you and the universe up there.
“Trail Ridge Road is the soul of Colorado.”
Constructed from 1929 to 1932, Trail Ridge was considered an engineering marvel at the time. Today it still is. From the start, most mountain roads were built in valleys to avoid the cost and hardship of going over the top. Engineers always aimed higher in Rocky Mountain National Park, starting in 1916 with the construction of the original Fall River Trail route. From the day it opened in 1920, the Park Service struggled to keep Fall River Road open.
“Fall River was steep, rocky, tricky,” Law said. “It was so tight at some point that you had to make 3-point turns around corners, like backing into a
were made for Trail Ridge Road. While surveying a potential route, Rocky Mountain National Park superintendent Roger Toll walked the Ute Trail, where
early Ute Indians conducted game drives in A.D. 1200. There are at least four locations in the region where Indians drove and killed elk and deer as many as 4,000 years ago,
adding to the mystique of what
1-70 THROUGH GLENWOOD CANYON
Eventually became Trail Ridge Road.
“There was kind of a feeling that this was something special when they started building the road,” Law said. To minimize damage to the pristine landscape, tundra sod was salvaged and carefully placed on road banks. Log and rock dikes were constructed to minimize scattering of rock parking spot. You had to make a couple of those.” It wasn’t long before plans
More than 40 bridges and viaducts span more than six miles, with one side elevated to hug the canyon walls. Top: Pre-cast concrete section of 1-70 is lowered into place using a gantry system devised to minimize impact on Glenwood Canyon. Botin.* The 1-70 viaducts weave through the canyon.
blasting debris. Rock walls using indigenous stones replaced metal guardrails. “They did a fantastic job of building the road and then returning to it to a very natural state,” Law said.
This scenic drive, connecting Deer Ridge Junction on the park’s east side with Grand Lake Junction on the west side, topped out at 12,183 feet. Twelve miles stretch above
11,000 feet and a mile and a half rise above 12,000 feet. “To cross more than 10 miles of tundra is special. You’re out of your element up there, and you know it. What is unimportant gets stripped away,” Law said. “Everyday worries fall away up there.”
1-70 GLENWOOD CANYON
Inside a four-story command center, sunk in a Glenwood Canyon mountainside, a crew sits in front of a bank of video screens and lighted grids.
As cars and trucks whiz across the screens, workers activate automated signs, pavement temperature sensors, satellite weather monitors and other high-tech bells and whistles. As highways go, the 12-mile stretch of Interstate 70 through Glenwood Canyon is a modernistic marvel, as far removed from Colorado’s early roads as an Audi from a Model A.
Completed in 1992, it was the last piece of America’s Interstate and Defense Highway System,” President Dwight D. Eisenhower’s longtime dream. Ironically, the original plan bypassed Colorado.
“It didn’t seem practical to try to survey an interstate through the heart of the Rocky Mountains.” Convery said. Glenwood Canyon never was a
natural transportation corridor. Nineteenth-century settlers often scrambled out of the canyon and found alternate routes rather than ny to wriggle through narrow passages A primitive dirt road was built in the early 1900s, and then upgrade; to a two-lane paved highway in the 1930s. Designated U.S. 6, it became the primary corridor between Denver and states to the West during the next 60 years—and
one of Colorado’ most dangerous stretches of two-lane highway.
While the rest of 1-70 fell into place Colorado engineers faced a coloss;. challenge: squeezing a modern, foiiF-lane freeway into a narrow gorge while preserving the environment and the beauty of a canyon.
“It’s no wonder that this was the last piece of interstate highway to be built, because in many ways it wa; technically the most challenging portion,” Convery said.
By that time, a new political force had come to the fore in Colorado— an angry and idealistic crowd of environmentalists. They joined force with ordinary citizens to question every decision by the Colorado Department of Highways. There were countless public hearings, environmental- impact statement and lawsuits. In one well-publicize; protest, singer John Denver attempt to show the canyon was too
narrow for an interstate by throwing a side dollar from wall to wall. He failed. “It would’ve been so easy to carve a highway through that would have ruined the natural landscape,” Convery said.
Instead, these late 20th- century mountain road-builders erected more than 40 bridges and viaducts spanning more than six miles, with one side elevated to hug the canyon
walls. They built terrace walls so that not as much rock had to be blasted out. They sculpted and stained cut walls so that they would appear natural, reseeded all the native plants, and captured and relocated all the bighorn sheep so that they wouldn’t be disturbed during construction.
“The engineering required to build a highway that actually harmonizes with the scenery was phenomenal,” Convery said.
In 1992 more than 1,500 people gathered for the ribbon- cutting ceremony in the 4,000- foot-long Hanging Tunnels. Nearly 110 years earlier, Otto Mears had punched through the San Juan Mountains with a wagon road that was an engineering marvel of its time—illustrating the great chasm between the technology of that day and of ours.
MOUNT EVANS HIGHWAY
By the time Denver Mayor Robert Speer came to power in 1904, Mount Evans was already the stuff of folklore. Two decades before, American landscape painter Albert Bierstadt had used his sketches of the 14,264 foot-peak as inspiration for Storm in the Rockies—a class.: century work that changed the way Americans viewed the Rocky Mountains.
“People didn’t believe some :>: the original descriptions abcin how spectacular and colorful arc jagged the Rockies were.” au:r.: – and University of Colorado-Der.-.* history professor Tom Noel said “When they saw this painting. ‘:. made them real. It’s probably the most famous painting ever done about Colorado.”
Speer gazed up at the same tableau and saw something else-highway running to the summi r-vision became reality in 1930 wiJ the completion of the Mount Erai Highway, the highest paved road : North America and a national fc scenic byway. “Speer wanted every Denver.*.; :: enjoy the benefits of living so near the mountains,” Convery said. “He aggressively acquired mountain parks and built roads in those parks to connect city dwellers with the mountain landscape.”
Today, the road is an alpinist’s dream and an acrophobe’s nightmare. It curves around the shoulders of Colorado’s 14th highest peak without a protection rail, hanging
precariously over steep cliffs that drop off several hundred feet. Then it climbs into barren tundra that features Rocky Mountain bighorn sheep and gnarled 1,000-year old bristlecone pine—among the oldest organisms on earth. The journey ends in a parking area at 14,155 feet, a short stroll from the summit, 62 miles west of Denver.
In 1915, the Colorado Division of Agriculture made Speer’s dream drive part of the proposed Peak to Peak Highway, which was to connect Longs Peak to Pikes Peak. The project was abandoned, however, and
workmen started building a road to Mount Evans’ Echo Lake—a prelude to the staggering difficulties they would face near the top.
“Road building jobs are pretty , much the same wherever located,” a 1920s Popular Mechanics story reported. “But this is a weird bare world.”
If the altitude didn’t take workmen’s breath away, the danger did. Men and machines were pulled up to higher elevations by ropes. Tons of dynamite were gingerly hauled to the construction sites to
blast away mammoth sections of rock. Log mats were laid to provide traction for threaded vehicles.
Work literally took place in the clouds. High winds razed work camps and picked up work tools, flinging them into valleys. Dynamite exploded at the slightest jar. Some workers lost their sense of direction in dense fog and wandered.
“It’s a hard place to put a shovel,” C.F. Capes, head of construction, told Western Builder magazine.
In the end, however, Capes’ men matched Speer’s vision: The road ended at 14,130 feet—20 feet higher than the terminus of Pikes Peak Highway.
“Speer knew if Denver didn’t do this, nobody else would,” Noel said. H
Clay Latimer is a freelance writer in Denver.