Saturday, August 16, 2014

Bicycling through Glenwood Canyon

I grew up in the 1970’s, the time of NIXON, Ford and carter. It was a time of polyester, smoking, wide neckties and shame at our perceived strategic reassignment of our objectives in Vietnam. 

“International” was on the back burner for America, and when my stupid older brother wanted to quit the Air Force after 18 months, they shrugged and said: “Sure. Okay. Thanks for stopping by.”

Domestic Achievements were the order of the day, and the crown
First road thru the canyon, 1903
jewel of our vast nation was our Interstate Highway System. We had been diligently linking up all of our nations regions since 1956 and it was all done by the late 70’s! Yay!

Well, almost done. There was one teeny, tiny 16 mile stretch of road that stubbornly defied all attempts at fourlanedom. 16 lousy miles out of 47,714. And that’s where my family vacationed every year.

My cousins moved to a little town outside of Glenwood Springs, Colorado in the early 70’s. And almost every year my Mother would take me and my friend Richard on a two week camping trip. 

The old, two lane State Highway 6, in 1969. The turnout here was about
the only 'feature' of this road. Now picture it filled with cars and trucks.
Our first destination was always the Kellers outside of Glenwood, and from there we would spread out for various adventures. Going West from Glenwood was no problem; I-70 was smooth and wide. But going East was a dangerous, beautiful slog, because you had to drive the old two lane road through Glenwood Canyon.

The canyon itself was gorgeous, and you always had plenty of time to admire it, because the two-lane traffic would always slow to a crawl, or just stop for hours as the road was cleared of falling rock or another big-rig pile-up. 
This is a graphic is from the
pre-interstate Canyon, and the carnage
indicated was not a rare occurrence.

As a tweener I remember the canyon as being kinda unreal, like the dioramas on the train ride at Disneyland. The Canyon was untouchable, unvisitable, because besides from a couple of shallow turnouts, there was no way to interact with the place. No visitors center, no nature trails, no Historical Markers! It was maddening. 

Those "Watch for Falling Rock" signs? Yeah, this is
what they mean. From the old state highway.
Various schemes had been floated over the decades as how to ‘solve’ Glenwood Canyon, but most of them involved blasting the walls of the canyon to smithereens in order to widen it enough. But then in the early 80’s a revolutionary approach was considered that would test the limits of Engineering while being Environmentally conscious. 

But this radical plan would have to be sold, to Congress, the President and the American Public. And for THAT, you need Artists Renderings. 

Not this kind of art.
And my Uncle, Durlin Keller, was just such an artist. So he did several “portraits” of the Department of Transportation’s vision, and that meant he had the blueprints, and that meant that me, as a terminally curious young man, I got to see the plan before anybody else. Oh, Man. 

The cantilevered roadways, flying viaducts and high-tech twin 4,000 foot tunnels were all very fascinating, but what really caught my attention, and my slowly tracing finger was the accompanying Bike Trail, that would wind in and out of the new roadways and would run the entire length of the canyon right next to the Colorado River.

Oh, Maaaaan……

Mt. Garfield, as I left Grand Junction. Your time
would come, mighty mountain. And soon....
By the early 80’s I was driving, but also working, and so the treasured family vacations came to an end. The Glenwood Canyon project was completed in 1992, 5 months ahead of schedule. I didn’t get a chance to visit until the Oughts, and as I drove through the elevated super slalom I was duly impressed. But my eye kept straining to catch a glimpse or two of the bike trail down below, and I vowed, that one day……

Fast forward to August of 2014, when my dear little Mother was laid up in the hospital in Grand Junction. It was time for me to “come on out”, as they gravely say in these situations. Well, Mom came through her operation fine but would be laid up a few days in ICU until she was strong enough. I would have to extend my stay a bit.
More scenery on the way to the scenery.


Bang! As soon as she was more-or-less stable I nabbed her car and high-tailed it across the state to Glenwood Springs. This was my big chance to live a childhood dream.
Hey! Grip shifters too. I love those things!

Not having brought my bike with me on the train out here, I opted for a package deal that supplied you with everything you needed: Helmet, gear bag, lock, the same model of hybrid bicycle that I had previously owned, and, very important, a ride in a van upstream to the Eastern end of the Canyon.

Yep, boys and girls, totally cheating and getting a ride to the top of the hill. Bwa-ha-ha!
It's a tight fit sometimes. That's part of the slow lane
 (East Bound), right above me.

Our van operator was a dead ringer for Andy Roddick (the tennis player), and I quizzed him about the history of the canyon, the Interstate system and his deadly first serve. 

Andy didn’t know much about any of that, but he DID know about the river. Specifically how it loves to demolish parts of the bike trail every year. In fact the tour I was on had just opened for the year (because of repairs), and it was already August.

Other times I would be down on the original roadbed,
and BOTH viaducts would be flying above me.
At the Eastern end of the Canyon, 16 miles up, Andy dumped out our group of 12 adventurers and unloaded the bike trailer. I leaped on mine, asked “Can we go now?!” and at his shrug I was gone. First one of the group away, and I never saw any of my tour mates again.

Sorry everybody, but I need to go be 13 years old again.

My path, East bound lanes, and up there
the West bound lanes. Incredible.
And it was……GLORIOUS. The Canyon is world-class gorgeous, but that was only one part of the giddy sensory overload that so wonderfully assaulted me.
  • The River is a mighty dragon in this region, and is quite angry at being confined to this narrow slot on its journey. You are a brave rafter indeed if you attempt Upper Glenwood Canyon.
  • The Railroad is always on the far side of the river, darting in and out of tiny tunnels, negotiating its own way through the maze of rocky turns.
  • The Interstate is an architectural marvel, as the East and West bound lanes dance up, over and around each other. There were times when I just stopped my bike and laughed as I looked up and thought: “Somebody actually had the insane idea to put the West bound lanes waaaay up there, and not have them touch the canyon walls. Bwa-ha-ha!”
  • And the bike trail was a concrete remora, tightly hugging the side of the East bound lane, and then diving and swooping under and around both lanes.

Here's the interstate with an off ramp crossing the river.
The rest of the facilities have also been upgraded: Several visitors centers now operate, along with picnic areas, nature trails, historical markers - even wide, concrete ramps for putting in the river rafts. From underneath it looked like the on and off ramps for these exits would be quite a thrill ride unto themselves.

And I duly noted the signs and slowed down for the picnickers and families who seemed to enjoy stopping and congregating right in the middle of the bike path. Ah, too much time in the car. Been there - done that.

Canyon, river and bike lane without the Interstate for a bit.
But not THIS day! 

In the middle of the canyon the Interstate gets all fancy pants and ducks into the mountain for some serious tunnel action, crossing the top of the ‘U’ that the river seems to like to make right there. 

The bike trail, beholden to no one, chooses to follow the river at this point, and so for a couple of miles you are away from the roaring, honking trucker route, and suddenly you are taking a quiet, leisurely ride in the canyon country. Aaaahh…….

The creek coming down from Hanging Lake.
Photo taken from the bike trail.
It's a delightful interlude. And this is where the Hanging Lake trail begins. So in my sudden tweener optimism, I jumped off the bike, locked it up, and charged up the steeeeep trail to the scenic spot. I made it about 1/4 of the way up before I realized that I was only wearing slick, old Birkenstock sandals, and that these were colossally inappropriate for the terrain represented.

I quietly made a ‘U’ of my own, returned to my rent-a-bike, and continued on downhill.

Downhill. All downhill. I can’t explain how gloriously silly it felt to be barreling through this countryside without having earned all of this coasting. I was cheating. Totally cheating. And giddily so.

I bombed the 16 mile canyon in just over an hour, even allowing
Trucks on the left, Cyclist below them,
rafting, and the train. Ta-da!
for my brief, failure-laden attempt at hiking up to Hanging Lake. So I was dive-bombing down this sinuous serpentine at about 20 miles an hour, on average. Yeeee-HAH!

All the while being continuously assaulted by the beauty of the Earth, the engineering feats up in the Air, the satisfying Fiery exertion of my body under an August sun, and the ancient energy of the fast body of Water beside me.

Click for larger size. Here's a basic map of the route.
Hmmm…..Earth, Air, Fire and Water. No wonder my Spirit felt so complete.

I took a selfie at the end of the Canyon, on the bike overpass that takes you across I-70 and puts you on the proper side of the (now calm) Interstate, for the final small stretch back into Glenwood Springs.

And it was a 49 year old man who took that picture - of the 13 year old boy who just completed a lifelong dream.

Angus McMahan

P.S. Thank yous to the nice folks at Canyon Bikes who did all this for me for only $40.00.

P.P.S. What brought me out to this part of the world in the first place? Read all about it HERE, and then HERE.

P.P.P.S. How weird and wild was the engineering of Glenwood Canyon? Check out THIS fun article from 2004. It's a good little read about the technical, environmental, traffic and wildlife factors - and their effects through the first 12 years. Spoiler Alert: Cars are much safer when you let them go really fast.

Shoshone Dam, and the Interstate diving into the side of the canyon.
Lots goin' on in a narrow canyon!
Photos: The 1903 and 1969 photos are from the article linked above, so I guess I need to the thank the United States Department of Transportation - Federal Highway Administration. 
The 'multiple crash' graphic is from
The '4 modes of transport' pic is from
All other pics are mine, most taken at speed!


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