As a child growing up in Missouri, my family took frequent trips to Colorado, driving our family station wagon out on I-70 west. My first glimpses of the mountains were usually from somewhere out on the plains near Limon, Colorado. And my first “oooh, aaah” moment most certainly came while driving along I-70.
Before I moved to Colorado eight years ago with my husband, he had never been to this state. His new job was located in Grand Junction, the very western side of the state, less than an hour from the Utah border. So our long drive from Maryland required us to drive I-70 most of the way, including the last four hours from Denver to Grand Junction. Floyd hill is the first big climb on I-70 west leading out of Denver before descending into Idaho Springs. And Floyd Hill is where Bryon got his first “wow” moment of the Rocky Mountains as we crested close to 8000 feet on a clear July day with 13 and 14,000 foot snow capped peaks smack in front of our windshield. As we stopped for gas in Idaho Springs, Bryon could scarcely put into words how amazed he was by the beauty of the Rocky Mountains.
Life in the mountains of Colorado is synonymous with one road more than any other, Interstate 70. And though I take a drive on I-70 for granted, it wasn’t always so. Interstate 70 wasn’t even supposed to reach the Rocky Mountains when first constructed. Rather than its current day western terminus at Cove Fort, Utah (why?), it was instead supposed to end in Denver, Colorado. The state of Utah was not interested in a connecting route along what was already a transcontinental route of U.S. Highway 6. Through some diplomatic negotiations, officials from both states came to an agreement, and the federal government approved the route in 1956. I-70 in Colorado would not be completed until 36 years later.
What makes a drive on I-70 from Denver to Grand Junction so breathtaking is and unique is what engineers and construction workers went through to complete this highway. Not only did they have to deal with short windows for construction dealing with winter weather, they also had to deal with working at incredibly high elevations. At 8000 feet, there is 30% less oxygen than at sea level, and if you don’t think that affects manual labor, give it a try yourself some time.
Perhaps the biggest challenge was the one that makes the highway so special today — the amazing rock, peaks, canyons that make up the Rocky Mountains. One of the greatest achievement was how to make it through one of its most rugged passes — Loveland Pass. Old U.S. 6 had climbed up and over the mountains via a circuitous route of twisting and winding switchbacks that frequently close due to avalanche danger in the winter. This was no route for an interestate highway. No, instead of trying to climb the mountains, a decision was made to build a 1.7-mile tunnel through the mountains at an elevation of 11,000 feet — the highest interstate highway tunnel in North America. The Eisenhower Tunnel opened to great fanfare in 1973, followed by its companion tunnel six years later, the Johnson Tunnel in 1979.
But perhaps the segment of highway that caught my attention on Bryon and my cross-state drive more than any other was the most difficult and last segment completed in 1992 — Glenwood Canyon. Though only 12 miles long, it is breathtaking both in its construction and for those of us who are privileged to drive it. Glenwood Canyon is a narrow canyon carved by the Colorado River with towering granite cliffs rising on either side up to 2000 feet straight up. So you can imagine, trying to construct an 4-lane highway through it was no easy feat. It required creative engineering as well as great amounts of manpower, time and money to route I-70 through this rugged canyon. Like the Bay Bridge in San Francisco, they essentially built two decks to the highway, with two lanes going on direction built directly above two lanes headed the other direction.
Today, I drive I-70 into and along the mountains more times in a year than I can count. I take its ease of access to the high country for skiing, rafting, camping and hiking for granted. But a look back to its past provides a great gratitude to the perseverance of the people who made it possible for so many of us to enjoy the splendor of the Rocky Mountains.