Outside Idaho Springs
I really wasnâ€™t looking forward to this part of the trip. I just hate being cooped up in a car for long periods of time, no matter how pretty the scenery is. Actually, I have been very deficient in my description of our beautiful drive in the mountains to this point. Letâ€™s press rewind, for a few seconds here. LaLaLaLaâ€¦Talk amongst yourselves for a secondâ€¦â€¦Click. Stop. OK, here we are, back home and just getting ready to leave.
Brighton and Denver do not lie in Colorado Mountains. Colorado is divided first into two halves; The Great Plains in the eastern third and the mountainous western two thirds.
Loveland Pass, just east of the Eisenhower Tunnel
So for the first 45 minutes of our trip this early morning we spent it watching the imposing Colorado
western horizon rise to the sky. The city of Golden
, home of Coors beer and the Colorado School of Mines marks the first place at which I felt I was definitely â€śin the mountainsâ€ť. We had gotten onto I-70 in the heart of Denver
and would continue on it until late this afternoon.
The wide open spaces at either side have disappeared and now we were surrounded by peaks and valleys, with only the highwayâ€™s presents there to interrupt the pattern. The contrast of five minutes ago, with buildings and roads everywhere, to trees, plants, and the ever present mountains is striking.
During this time we were treated to signs telling us that Buffalo Billâ€™s grave is up on Lookout Mountain, then and a nice water fall appears near Idaho Springs.
Inside the Eisnehower Tunnel (Photo courtesy of CDOT)
Soon I settled into a pattern of wondering what the next twist of highway, crest of the hill, or descent into the valley would bring. Sometimes I was rewarded with a new perspective or sight. Often I would start to think that the view was starting to look more and more the same. Beautiful, but the same. But, I felt compelled to keep looking, because just as I was lulled to complacency, something would jump into view that had me staring until it is out of sight.
Sometime in our second hour on the road we came upon the Eisenhower Tunnel. The Eisenhower Tunnel is two tunnels that carry four lanes of traffic through the Continental Divide. The Continental Divide is effectively the top of the mountains. From this point we would be mostly losing overall elevation as we traveled. At least until we got to Grand Junction late this afternoon. The Eisenhower Tunnel is at an average elevation of 11,112 feet. That makes it the highest tunnel in the world that vehicles travel through.
In Glenwood Canyon
And as I-70, the major east-west interstate in Colorado
passes through it, that means about 25,000 cars a day, on average, go through it.
Driving through a 1.7 mile tunnel is slightly unnerving. Most tunnels are over in just a two-Mississippi count. But, you are in the Eisenhower tunnel for about two minutes. I knew it was perfectly safe and had ventilation vents for exhaust, and walkways that would take you in, out, or between the tunnels. Still I couldnâ€™t help but wonder â€śWhat if something happens?â€ť Of course competing with this thought was the â€śHow in the hell did they actually build this thing? It just goes on forever!â€ť But about the time both of those thoughts had gotten in a few mental jabs, we exited into bright Colorado sunshine.
Once on the Westside of the tunnel we found ourselves in the heart of the Colorado ski country.
The Colorado River
Ski areas with the names Loveland Basin, Keystone, Breckenridge, and Copper Mountain were marked one after another, although miles apart. Of course, during the summer, they just look like a mountain with tree strategically removed. After about 40 miles post-tunnel, we came upon the sign directing us to one of the two most famous Colorado
ski areas; Vail. We wouldnâ€™t be detouring here, but it did mark the two thirds point of our journey to Glenwood Springs
Another half hour of traveling saw us enter Glenwood Canyon. Named for our destination at the other end, it has some of the prettiest views of our I-70 journey. The ever changing landscapes, and seemingly endless valleys, are breathtaking. About halfway into the canyon the Colorado River joined us, and began to run along the side of the highway.
Storm King Mountain is out there somewher
It would be our companion until we left I-70.
This gets me all caught up. We can no return to our regularly scheduled program.
Leaving Glenwood we passed Storm King Mountain. It is a few miles off the interstate and to be honest I was not positive which mountain it was. But, I knew about where it was. I knew this because the tragic fire of two years earlier was on my mind when planning this trip. The South Canyon fire, which killed 14 men, was the subject of a book and movie; Fire on the Mountain. To this day I can remember hearing the news on 850KOA. It happened around the Fourth of July holidays, and I remember wondering what could have possibly happened to have killed so many, so quickly. That turned out to be a very complicated story.
Look at that sky!
There is a monument there now, but we wouldnâ€™t be stopping to see it. Next time
The mountains soon receded as we descended out of the canyon and into the Colorado River Valley. The valley here was very wide, with mountains all around, but at a fair distance. We passed the towns of Rifle and Parachute in the next 40 minutes. I discovered that in addition to being Kid Curryâ€™s Waterloo, Parachute is the heart of the oil shale region of Colorado. Iâ€™d always wondered where that was.
After 1 Â˝ hour of driving we pulled into Grand Junction, CO.
Coming out of Glenwood Canyon
Grand Junction is the largest city on the Western Slope of Colorado, and sits about 30 miles from the Utah border. This was going to be a good place to stretch our legs and get a quick bite to eat. It was already about 4:30 PM, and we still had about 3 Â˝ hours of driving to go. We grabbed a sandwich at a Subway station off the highway and then headed south on Highway 50.
With our south, actually more southeasterly, change of direction we were now climbing back into the mountains. Over the next hour we passed through the towns of Whitewater, Delta, and Montrose. Forty minutes or so later we made it to the town of Ouray. Up until now, which was now after 6:30 PM, our drive had been scenic, but not challenging. But now we were about to climb up to Red Mountain Pass, using Highway 550.
Ouray (photo courtesy of Andreas Borchert)
Highway 550, from this point, and until we hit Silverton, is known as the Million Dollar Highway
. This is reflection on its cost; a million dollars per mile. Small change in todayâ€™s dollars, but when it was built 85 years ago, that was serious cash.
Many people have challenged that the â€śmillion dollarâ€ť moniker refers to its views. Itâ€™s hard to dispute that, but the driver, my dear wife, in our case, had better watch the road and not the view. The climb to Red Mountain Pass is marked by hairpin and â€śSâ€ť turns, cut right in the side of the mountain. The road in narrow and in some places, without guard rails. My mother does not like this at all. She says she always feels like the car is going to go off the side, and tumble down the mountain. To compensate, she sits farther away from the car window, and intrudes on the space in the middle. But, we had rented a minivan, so room was not a problem.
By the time we had cleared Red Mountain Pass and started down towards Silverton we were starting to lose the sun. It can get dark sooner in the mountains, with those massive peaks blotting out the descending sun. This didnâ€™t really make us anxious to drive, but it sucked not being able to see the view. It was still another hour until Durango. So by the time we pulled in, after 8:00 PM, it was dark. We were all very tired when we reached our hotel, The Budget Inn of Durango. We arrived, checked in, unloaded, and settled in for the night. Tomorrow we would ride The Silverton!