Soaring granite walls. The sounds of rushing water crashing down the mountainsides. The snow capping the spires and trees. These are just some of the images ingrained in my mind from a drive up or down Boulder Canyon Road. As a resident of Nederland, I’ve made hundreds of trips over the past six years up and down the canyon, the scenic byway that connects Boulder to the Town of Nederland over the course of 18 miles. But occasionally my mind drifts back to what it was like in years gone by — maybe 100 years ago, when the first automobiles like the Stanley Steamer made their way up the bumpy dirt road. Or even farther back in time, say 140 years ago, when the road had just happened and wagons and stages made the arduous trip that could take an entire day.
Boulder Canyon Road is the product of the boom of the mining area and the competitiveness of Boulder business owners. In the early 1870s, when Colorado gold rush was in full form in places like Black Hawk and Central City, the first mining roads were built connecting the towns of the plains to the mining camps. The most well traveled road of the time was the Enterprise Road connecting Golden to Black Hawk. Boulder business owners wanted a piece of the mining pie and decided to build a road from Boulder up to the mining camps, mainly as a stage route.
The silver mining boom in Caribou, just a few miles west of Nederland coincided with their plans to build a road, and the construction was expedited to take advantage of the freight traffic that was sure to follow. Building the road up the canyon was no easy feat. They had to navigate steep and rugged terrain, while taking care with Middle Boulder Creek, forcing them to cross from one side of the canyon a mind-boggling 33 times. The road, finished in 1871, was a one-lane road with little room to pull out for oncoming traffic.
Riding the canyon was fraught with danger for all. There were few turn outs to use in the face of oncoming traffic. Drivers would attach bells to the harnesses of the draft horses or mules, or lanterns to the wagon boxes at night to alert those coming the other way. Because of the few turn outs, wagons who were lighter had to remove the box off the wheels and be lifted off the roadway to allow oncoming traffic to pass. It often took from dawn until dusk to cover the 20 or so miles from Boulder to Caribou townsite.
Miners weren’t the only ones to frequent the canyon. The scenic road was also used by tourists. The first open top touring wagons were used to carry people to scenic vistas along the canyon, such as Boulder Falls and Castle Rock. They would often have picnics at grassy spots along the creek, before returning back to Boulder by nightfall.
The road as it was originally built wasn’t very suitable for automobile use. When the first cars started driving the canyon in 1911 and after, the grades of the canyon road took its toll on cars. Motorists frequently had to pull over from their radiator overheating and use water from the creek to refill it, take a break, before commencing with their journey.
Because of this, the road was completely reconstructed during the 1940s and 1950s, building a tunnel through the rock face, widening the road, straightening out hazardous curves, and eventually paving it. All that work came at a cost of 2.3 million dollars, but most today would find that well worth it. Today, the groundwork laid in 1871 has proved to be not only a commuting route for Nederland residents, but a scenic byway that draws hundreds of thousands of both local and out of state visitors up to the beauty of the Rocky Mountains.