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TRUE WEST // A canyon and its highway

Published Oct. 14, 2001|Updated Jun. 20, 2006

There's a canyon in Colorado loved by hikers, rafters and fishermen. It has wildlife, a bike trail and gorgeous views. It also handles 12,500 vehicles a day.

The traffic passes through Glenwood Canyon on Interstate 70, but the highway is part of the attraction. The 12.5-mile stretch of road through the White River National Forest has been called the jewel of the nation's interstate highway system _ the country's most environmentally sensitive road.

It is a half-billion-dollar engineering marvel, with lanes that twist through the air for more than a mile. Its rest areas are landscaped wonders, fit to host a Martha Stewart country picnic.

It's also a great place to take a walk.

The highway route includes a concrete recreation path that passes through Douglas fir groves and parallels river rapids. It looks like a park trail _ not a segment of the interstate highway system.

Over three days this summer, I explored Glenwood Canyon on nearly every mode of transportation possible. I hiked, biked, floated, drove and took a train. At night, I soaked weary muscles in the world's largest hot-spring pool. I toured Glenwood Springs' cave, dined in its brew pub and marveled that a highway could add so much to a tourist town.

The canyon, of course, would be even more spectacular without traffic _ and until 115 years ago, it remained largely undisturbed. It was so steep that even the native Ute Indians stayed out.

But then railroad builders blasted open a route that became the most direct train path between Denver and Salt Lake City.

The route became known for its scenery. After riding through the canyon in an open-air locomotive cab during the 1940s, a railroad executive was so thrilled with the view that he invented a way for passengers to have the same experience: His Vista Dome rail car provided views of the entire canyon through an all-glass roof.

Similar cars are still in use today, in California and Alaska.

"This is the most scenic part of the Amtrak system," says Curtis Katz, a railroad employee providing narration on the cross-country train that passes through Glenwood Canyon. The route, he notes, is called "a silver thread through the Rockies."

But where trains go, roads often follow. And, by 1902, a highway was taking traffic through Glenwood Canyon. A half-century later, the canyon was suggested as a path for Interstate 70.

Building the road proved difficult. Area residents were afraid that a new highway would destroy the canyon, limiting their access to fishing, rafting and hiking. The old U.S. 6 running along the river had more than 70 pullouts, which made it easy to enjoy the scenery but contributed to many fatal accidents.

Highway planners eventually won support. One compromise was to place four rest stops in the canyon. These would not be simple bathrooms: Plans included boat launches, composting toilets and access to hiking trails.

The $490-million project had its share of critics. It received Sen. William Proxmire's Golden Fleece Award for wasteful federal spending.

But once it opened, the complaints faded. And the visitors poured in.

"It's a marvelous job," said Sam Caudill, a retired Aspen architect, who headed the project's citizen advisory committee. "At first, I opposed it. I didn't think they could design and build a four-lane highway through that canyon without tearing up the environment. But it has enhanced it."

The road has received a presidential commendation and numerous design awards. It has been featured in books and in a museum exhibit on 20th century engineering achievements.

My first view of the canyon comes from a train: a view of cliffs, forest and rushing river. It whets my appetite for more. After checking in to a Glenwood Springs hotel, I rent a car and immediately return to the canyon entrance about a mile away.

My goal is the state's most popular hiking path, Hanging Lake Trail, accessible from a highway rest area.

The 1.2-mile path climbs through rocks and crosses a rushing stream. Seven bridges take hikers past ferns and canyon outcroppings as it climbs more than 1,000 feet. Eventually, it reaches a waterfall that empties into a turquoise lake surrounded by a boardwalk.

I am alone for most the climb. My only company is a marmot _ a chubby rodent resembling a small beaver _ that darts between rocks in front of me. Near the top, I encounter the Montemayor family from Friendswood, Texas. The family had come to Glenwood Springs to soak in its 1-million-gallon, hot-spring-fed outdoor pool. A lifeguard there had told them about the hike.

"It's awesome," says father James, who is climbing with his wife and two sons, ages 7 and 9. Everyone is panting, but there are smiles on their faces. "It's worth it whether you're in shape or not."

The trail attracts more than 30,000 hikers a year. At one time, the highway threatened to destroy it.

The next morning, I drive the canyon with Ralph Trapani, the highway engineer who shepherded the project through more than a decade of design reviews and construction.

We climb into his white Colorado Department of Transportation Jeep Cherokee and pull onto the highway, heading east from Glenwood Springs.

Our first stop is No Name rest area, which provides a view of the highway, canyon and river. The rest area features a building with a cut-stone design fronted by a trellis. A winding walkway leads up a hill to a wheelchair-accessible overlook.

Trapani, scribbling on a note pad attached to his windshield with a suction cup, outlines the challenges of building a wide road in a narrow canyon.

The usual approach would have been to dynamite the canyon walls, dump the rock in the river and build the road on top of it, he says. Instead, engineers tiered the highway so that eastbound and westbound lanes are at different levels, which requires less space. They built bridges and placed the highway on pillars so the traffic is carried above the narrow canyon walls. And, in a few cases, they bored tunnels through mountainsides.

"For a lot of people driving the interstate, this is going to be their only exposure to the Colorado Rocky Mountains," Trapani says. "I want them to step out of their car and say "Wow!' "

Designers used many tactics to achieve that reaction.

In the few places where builders had to blast canyon walls, road cuts were sculpted and painted to match the natural rock shadings around them. The highway was dedicated in 1992.

It is lined with steel tube guardrails. Standard concrete walls, known as New Jersey barriers, were rejected so that drivers wouldn't feel closed in. The Colorado River's banks were restored to their natural state. In a few places, engineers dug out creeks that had been filled in by previous road builders, then constructed bridges over the reclaimed waterways. The goal was to return the canyon to its natural state.

Extraordinary measures were taken to preserve the scenery. Contractors were fined if they killed plants outside of a narrow construction area. A downed raspberry bush cost $30, a damaged cottonwood tree $22,000. By project's end, only about $150,000 had been collected.

It is peaceful the morning I bike the canyon.

I take a shuttle to the east end to embark on a 16-mile trip back to Glenwood. There's a slight downhill slope, so it's a leisurely ride, with as much coasting as pedaling. I have little use for most of the 21-speeds on the rented Schwinn.

The path is mainly lower than the highway, so there's no danger and little distraction from the traffic. The path switches sides several times, passing beneath the lanes.

At one point, it loops through a grove. The highway, balanced on concrete columns 80 feet above, twists through the trees and is forgotten. I pause to admire the scenery, feeling far away from the modern world.

At the Grizzly Creek rest area, I lock the bike in a rack and follow a hiking path up the stream. After five minutes, I'm alone. I find a bench-size rock, open my knapsack and remove lunch: a cheese sandwich and trail mix. In front of me, trout dart in the tumbling water and a cool breeze sends a chill up my sweaty back.

Again, it seems hundreds of miles from civilization, although if I look carefully through the trees, I can see Wal-Mart trucks zooming by.

The final stretch of trail is along an older portion of the interstate. Only a chain-link fence separates it from traffic. The last several hundred yards are noisy and unpleasant, making me appreciate the work that went into the rest of the path.

My final Glenwood passage comes on the Colorado River, which carved the canyon over millions of years.

Several companies offer guided trips through the rapids. I join a group of four visitors for an afternoon outing, retracing part of my bike trip. We put in at the Shoshone Power Plant rest stop and are immediately caught up in a swirl of water.

As our river guide barks orders, we paddle furiously. Within a few minutes, we're bouncing through a rapid called Taco Bell _ so named because if we hit a boulder in the middle of the river, our guide says, our boat will fold around it like a taco. We're clearly visible from the highway, and occasionally a car or truck will honk hello.

Boaters feared that the highway would ruin the rafting but the opposite has happened. Builders strategically placed extra rocks in the river, which river-runners say enhanced the rapids. While parts of the road were still under construction, the area hosted a national kayaking championship.

And the highway engineers' long-feared project has become part of the canyon scenery. In the distance, there's another friendly honk from the highway, and I'm reminded that, at least for today, so have I.

If you go

GETTING THERE: Glenwood Springs is 185 miles west of Denver on Interstate 70. It is served by Amtrak and shuttle services. The train leaves Denver at 8:25 a.m. daily. Plan to spend the previous night in Denver. The train returns to the city at 7:30 p.m..

The national railroad company has followed the airlines and offers numerous discounts. My one-way fare to Glenwood Springs cost $37.50; it is possible to pay more. For more information, call toll-free 1-800-872-7245; the Web site is www.amtrak.com.

The nearest airports to Glenwood Springs are at Aspen and Grand Junction. The city's main car rental agency is Enterprise Rent-A-Car, (970) 945-8360.

ACTIVITIES: Glenwood Springs was built around the Hot Springs Lodge & Pool, open daily year-round. It is worth a quick soak, even if you are just passing through. Cost: $9.50 for adults, additional charge for sports club, massages, etc. Call toll-free 1-800-537-7946 or (970) 945-6571;www.hotspringspool.com.

Nearby is the Yampah Spa and Vapor Caves, where Indians once breathed in sulfurous fumes for therapy. It now offers massages and saunalike cave visits. Located next to the highway, it's a relaxing, if smelly, experience. Call (970) 945-0667;www.yampahhotsprings.com.

Several companies will rent bikes and ferry you to the east end of the canyon. I used Canyon Bikes in the Hotel Colorado. Call (970) 945-8904 or see www.canyonbikes.com. It offers a discount if you take a raft trip with next-door-neighbor Blue Sky Adventures, toll-free 1-877-747-2673 or (970) 945-6605; www.blueskyadventures.com. A half-day float trip costs $39. Other firms are priced competitively.

Companies also offer horseback riding and jeep tours. Glenwood Caverns has tours in the cliffs high above the city. Cave formations are impressive.

STAYING THERE: I stayed at the Hotel Colorado (toll-free 1-800-544-3998;www.hotelcolorado.com), a red stone castle. The 108-year-old hotel is rich with ambience. Theodore Roosevelt stayed here and was given a stuffed bear by staff _ said to be the first teddy bear. There's no air conditioning, just windows and ceiling fans. This wasn't a problem in June, but it's something to remember if you're visiting in midsummer. Rates begin at about $125 per night.

Motels also are nearby. A budget option is the youth hostel, where a private room for couples is $26. Call toll-free 1-800-946-7835 or (970) 945-8545; www.rof.net/yp/gwshostel.

Other options are available in Aspen, 40 miles away.

FOR MORE INFORMATION: Contact the Glenwood Springs Chamber of Commerce at (970) 945-6589 or the Lodge Reservation Line toll-free at 1-888-445-3696; www.glenscape.com.

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