As part of working at the park, I often tell people some of the history of the two main roads in the park, Trail Ridge Road and Fall River Road. Roads in Colorado are not only scenic, but very often have an interesting history to them as well. Many of the famous roads in the state were built during the Colorado Gold Rush and mining era back in the 1800s, one of the most famous being the Million Dollar Highway down in southwest Colorado. Bryon and I became very well acquainted with a lesser known mining road during a rather adventurous trip from Grand Junction to Boulder shortly after moving to Colorado.
Bryon had been invited to present at a conference in Boulder — being somewhat unfamiliar with traffic patterns, we set out on a Sunday afternoon in August, not realizing that the traffic on I-70 going back to Denver can be horrific. We became mired in bumper-to-bumper traffic at the Eisenhower Tunnel, about 50 miles outside of Denver. I grabbed our Colorado map (we didn’t have smartphones then) and looked for a way around the traffic. We saw there was a road that went through Central City, then connected to Highway 119 to Boulder. However, we thought the road started in Idaho Springs, when in fact it starts farther down the highway. We got off at Idaho Springs, and as the sun faded, Bryon spied a small sign that said Central City with an arrow pointing up a hill.
It did seem a bit odd, given the road on the map made it appear to be a major road, but nevertheless we set off up the canyon. It was dark by now, and we kept going up, driving around what seemed countless switchbacks. I was somewhat grateful for the darkness, as I could sense that there were some steep drop-offs along this dirt road, but not seeing them made it easier to not think about them. Every time we thought maybe we should turn around, we’d see another tiny sign, with tiny letters that said Central City, with an arrow pointing up the next hill. After what seemed a really long time, but in reality was probably 30 minutes, we crested the ridge, and entered what seemed to be a ghost town. There were lots of abandoned buildings, and some obvious remains of mines and signs, and then we went down a hill into a town full of lights. Ah ha, I thought, we have finally reached civilization!
The civilization we had reached was no other than the former mining towns, now turned gambling havens, of Central City and Black Hawk, complete with numerous casinos. Then we finally reached Highway 119 and 45 minutes later, our ultimate destination, Boulder. The irony of our little detour is it led us through what would eventually be the town that we would make our home several years later, Nederland.
I later found out that the road we had driven was referred to by the locals as Oh-my-Gawd Road because of its precipitous drop-offs which can be kind of frightening when driven in the light of day. I also found out the eery ghost town we had driven through was named Russell Gulch and also had a rich mining history, which is actually why the road was built in the first place. That was just the start of learning that many of our road trips in Colorado are not only scenic, but serve as lessons in history as well. When I want to get off the beat and path and take a step back in time, I still drive the Oh-my-Gawd Road as a way to remind myself of those who came to seek their fortunes so many years ago.