Crossing Colorado

Crossing Colorado’s Great Plains heading west, the front range of the Rockies begins to appear about 50 miles away, and slowly gets taller and taller. (Photos: Clement Salvadori)
Crossing Colorado’s Great Plains heading west, the front range of the Rockies begins to appear about 50 miles away, and slowly gets taller and taller. (Photos: Clement Salvadori)

I was loafing along the two-lane U.S. Route 6 on the BMW R 1200 RT as the road crossed the low rolling hills of the Great Plains, when suddenly a sign popped up: WELCOME TO COLORFUL COLORADO, back dropped by a half-dozen grain bins. These big, corrugated contraptions are not terribly aesthetic, but practical, since they’re relatively inexpensive and keep whatever is inside dry and mouse-free until it’s time to go to market.

Arriving in Colorado on U.S. Route 6 from Kansas, one is welcomed to the truly beautiful Centennial State, and several very functional grain bins.
Arriving in Colorado on U.S. Route 6 from Kansas, one is welcomed to the truly beautiful Centennial State, and several very functional grain bins.

I occasionally mentioned U.S. 6 in my cross-country story (Rider, February 2016), but this is a more detailed and entertaining look at the 450 miles it covers in the Centennial State—celebrating its entry into statehood in 1876. Move up 50 years and in 1926 the feds decided to give some organization to the multitude of roads crisscrossing this great nation, and the roads going from state to state got a U.S. designation. Initially U.S. 6 went from Cape Cod, Massachusetts, to Erie, Pennsylvania, and then gradually got extended all the way to west of the Missouri River. In 1936, the feds decided to make U.S. 6 a coast-to-coast route, running all the way to Long Beach, California, which meant crossing the Rocky Mountains.

The undulating road stretched out in front of me, beckoning me on, and 15 minutes later I was in the town of Holyoke—named by some fellow who came out here from Holyoke, Massachusetts, and might have wished he were back home. The promoters of this “city of pride and progress” write that it “sits on the golden plains of northeastern Colorado.” This was still spring, so the countryside was more green.

Most importantly, a railroad runs through town, and it was the steam engine that opened up the West. No point to growing tons of wheat or raising herds of cattle if you can’t get the grain and beef to market, and tracks were laid here in 1887. Not wanting to buy a house in town, though the prices were good—3 bedrooms, 2 bathrooms, $140,000—I followed the tracks and U.S. 6 the 50 miles to Sterling, sitting beside Interstate 76 and the South Platte River. I have stayed in that town before, but it was an hour before my usual quit-traveling time so I crossed under the Interstate and over the river, staying on 6 southwest to Fort Morgan.

That’s the Logan County courthouse, in Sterling, built in 1910 for $100,000 and intended to last at least 200 years.
That’s the Logan County courthouse, in Sterling, built in 1910 for $100,000 and intended to last at least 200 years.

Coming in on the old main road, I found a couple of old-fashioned motels, good alternatives to the modern high-rises along the Interstate. A nice one had trees and grass, a picnic table and an amiable tabby prowling around. I checked in, got a sandwich and a bottle of beer, and enjoyed the evening. For me, that is good traveling.

I was up bright and early on a Sunday morning. West of Fort Morgan, U.S. 6 merges into the Interstate, and as I rolled along the Front Range, the Rocky Mountains slowly materialized in the far distance. That first promontory standing out may have been 14,000-foot Longs Peak. Never sure about what’s where when it comes to mountains.

Having no desire whatsoever to see downtown Denver, I skirted the place, turning onto Colorado Route 58 to have a quick peak at the Colorado Railroad Museum. It was too early to be open, but I got some good views of old engines and rolling stock. As I said before, it was the advent of the railroads that really served to open up the American West.

Right after the town of Golden, State Route 58 disappears into U.S. 6 as the route finds its way up the splendid Clear Creek Canyon…a great ride of 20 miles or so, two lanes winding alongside the rushing creek. A mining railroad was built here 150 years ago, and the road is now where the tracks once were. Put it on your bucket list. U.S. 6 then merges with Interstate 70 a little east of Idaho Springs. This was a major gold- and silver-mining area for more than 60 years, but during the 1930s the minerals petered out and little towns were pretty much abandoned. Now the mining takes place in tourist wallets, and outdoor types flock to the Rockies.

The Colorado Railroad Museum, a bit west of Denver on Colorado Route 58, has more than 100 engines, cars and cabooses on its 15 acres.
The Colorado Railroad Museum, a bit west of Denver on Colorado Route 58, has more than 100 engines, cars and cabooses on its 15 acres.

Running alongside the Interstate are frontage roads, most of which are the remains of U.S. 6 before the freeway came in. Much more fun. I stopped in Georgetown for a hearty brunch, and then rode a short detour up to Guanella Pass at 11,665 feet, just because I had never been there. Back down to Georgetown, where I passed on taking the Georgetown Loop railroad excursion, a pleasant ride on a Shay steam locomotive up the narrow-gauge railroad to nearby Silver Plume. I’m told the crossing of the High Bridge is pretty exciting.

Beyond Georgetown the frontage roads disappear and I was freewaying toward the Eisenhower Memorial Tunnel—which opened in 1973. Just before I got to the tunnel, Exit 216 indicated a return to U.S. 6. That is the old road over the Continental Divide, Loveland Pass at 11,990 feet, and while 99 percent of the traffic goes through the tunnel, the one-percenters will enjoy large views. A fellow name Bill Loveland built the original toll road back in 1879, although it was such a tough haul it was pretty much abandoned 20 years later. But when the feds got interested in promoting highways, it was rebuilt in 1929.

Probably 99 percent of the I-70 traffic over the Continental Divide takes the Eisenhower Tunnel, but a fortunate few will find the old U.S. Route 6 over Loveland Pass at 11,990 feet.
Probably 99 percent of the I-70 traffic over the Continental Divide takes the Eisenhower Tunnel, but a fortunate few will find the old U.S. Route 6 over Loveland Pass at 11,990 feet.

Down the west side of Loveland, past the Keystone ski slopes, U.S. 6 again merges with I-70 at Dillon Reservoir. I headed for Vail Pass, then down through Vail Valley. This is where a couple of fellows with an idea made a lot of money promoting a ski resort, which opened in 1962. Beyond Vail at Exit 171, U.S. 6 again appears, now gliding alongside Eagle River for almost 50 miles through a series of suburban communities, many dedicated to housing the folk who work at the Vail businesses. Vail is as bustling in the summer as it is in the winter.

At Wolcott, where Colorado Route 131 and U.S. 6 meet, the Eagle Yacht Club (no boats) is busy as always on a sunny weekend with live music and crowds. At Gypsum I had a choice—I could go south over the dirt Cottonwood Pass (8,300 feet) to get to Carbondale, where a cousin lives, or go through Glenwood Canyon. Cottonwood does not have much in the way of great views, and is little used—except when Glenwood Canyon is closed due to a landslide.

U.S. 6 officially merges into I-70 seven miles east of Gypsum, at Dotsero, where the Eagle River disappears into the Colorado River. And the canyon! The most spectacular stretch of the 47,800 miles of the Interstate system are the 15 miles between Dotsero and Glenwood Springs…a road-building extravaganza!

This is the double-decker Interstate wending its way through Glenwood Canyon; the Union Pacific Railroad is on the south side of the Colorado River.
This is the double-decker Interstate wending its way through Glenwood Canyon; the Union Pacific Railroad is on the south side of the Colorado River.

Back in the 1860s, the U.S. government decided that it should pay to have some professional surveys done of the vast lands west of the Continental Divide, which would benefit the emerging railroad barons. In 1874, a group appeared in what is now Dotsero, looked into the canyon and wrote a report saying that it appeared impassable, not even Indian trails to follow. But 10 years later the Denver & Rio Grande Western Railroad (now Southern Pacific) began blasting out a railroad bed and building tunnels. In 1887, the first train went through. That was a real feat of engineering.

Several tunnels, originally carved out for a narrow-gauge railroad in the 1870s, add to the pleasure of riding old U.S. 6 along Clear Creek Canyon.
Several tunnels, originally carved out for a narrow-gauge railroad in the 1870s, add to the pleasure of riding old U.S. 6 along Clear Creek Canyon.

In 1899, a two-rut wagon road was completed, and not long after Harleys and Indians, along with Fords and Oldsmobiles, would be following that route. In the late 1930s, the road was often closed while the Works Progress Administration, created to employ people during the Great Depression, widened and paved U.S. 6, with detoured traffic going over Cottonwood Pass. In 1975, the feds planned to put I-70 through the canyon, and work began in 1980. Over the next 12 years, 40 bridges and viaducts were constructed, and three tunnels. By 1992, the Glenwood Canyon portion of I-70 was completed, at a cost of half a billion dollars. Definitely worth the money, in my small estimation.

A couple of nights with cuz on her cattle ranch, then dinner with Travis Fulton, son of Robert Edison Fulton, an early adventurer who rode his motorcycle around the world in 1932-33. Travis now has his father’s Douglas motorcycle. I would have a picture, but the bike was wrapped in plastic awaiting the return of a rebuilt engine.

Back on the road. At Glenwood Springs, I got onto West 6th Street—surprise! It is old U.S. 6 paralleling the Interstate for a couple of miles, then merging at Exit 114. At New Castle, signs again show U.S. 6 diverging, and it is more entertaining to follow the two-laner for more than 20 miles, until the next merge a mile or two beyond the town of Rifle…which has a Walmart Supercenter almost as big as the entire town of 10,000 souls. Truth, it caters to a lot of ranchers in Garfield County and is quite profitable. Parachute goes by in the space of a minute. Parachute? Rifle? Where do these names come from? Look them up on your iPad.

We’re looking up the Colorado River at the diversion dam near De Beque, which diverts water into the fertile Grand Valley.
We’re looking up the Colorado River at the diversion dam near De Beque, which diverts water into the fertile Grand Valley.

Beyond Rifle the Interstate runs very close to the Colorado River and at times seems almost level with the water; infrequently the highway is closed due to flooding. A low diversion dam spans the river near De Beque, serving to irrigate the fields of fruits and vegetables in the upcoming Grand Valley, a very fertile area about 30 miles long with a six-month growing period.

Coming into Grand Valley, U.S. 6 splits off just east of Palisade, going south of the Interstate and straight through the thriving city of Grand Junction, being the junction of the Colorado and Gunnison rivers. If you’ve never been to the Colorado National Monument, southwest of Grand Junction, it is highly recommended. This covers some 30 square miles encompassing a high ridge that was preserved for public use back in 1911, and the 23 miles of Rim Rock Drive provide an unforgettable ride…“awe-inspiring” reads one description. But I stuck to U.S. 6.

In the middle of Grand Junction, U.S. 6 meets U.S. Route 50, and the two continue together westward through Fruita—where the western entrance to the Colorado National Monument is located—and into Loma and Mack. Here travelers are advised to turn south and return to I-70. However, old U.S. 6/50 continues on for another 10 miles, crosses the Utah border, the pavement gets rather tatty, enters BLM land, turns to dirt, and finally merges into the Interstate at Utah Exit 227.

Far more fun than the Interstates!

Map of the route, courtesy Bill Tipton, compartmaps.com.
Map of the route, courtesy Bill Tipton, compartmaps.com.

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This view of Mount Sopris, almost 13,000 feet high, comes with a short detour from the Cottonwood Pass road. (Photo: Wendy McNulty)
This view of Mount Sopris, almost 13,000 feet high, comes with a short detour from the Cottonwood Pass road. (Photo: Wendy McNulty)

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Nice bridge, which crosses the Eagle River and gives access to the very private Eagle Springs Golf Club—membership limited to 300.
Nice bridge, which crosses the Eagle River and gives access to the very private Eagle Springs Golf Club—membership limited to 300.

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1 COMMENT

  1. Really enjoyed Clem’s piece “Crossing Colorado” – my favorite destination, winter or summer. In his article, Clem refers to Cottonwood Pass as “not having much in the way of great views”, with elevation of only 8,300 ft. I wonder if there is more than one Cottonwood Pass. Wish I could have found a way to attach a few photos taken of the pass on the way to the 2013 “Top O’ the Rockies” rally. Paved road on the way up (12,000 ft), dirt heading down – spectacular – the highlight of the trip.

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