[Floodgap Roadgap presents the Summer of 6]

Floodgap Roadgap's Summer of 6 -- U.S. Highway 6, Part 13: US 6 in Colorado (Minturn to Clear Creek; Eagle County, Summit County, Clear Creek County)

Go to: Part 12 | Main US 6 page | Part 14

Most of this section is I-70, largely because of the discontinuous mountain routings which would make exhaustively picking out the little pieces very time-consuming. As a result, we will get to look at the highest all-weather Interstate and US highway crossings in America as we go down the other side of the Rockies into Denver for the next Part.

Originally, US 6 continued along with US 24 (which we terminated at in the previous part) to Leadville. From there it deviated along CO 91 and a now-lost connector to enter Frisco. This lost road is partially under I-70 and partially under the Dillon Reservoir, which was formed in 1936 and subsequently expanded by impoundment, drowning the highway and requiring the town's relocation in 1956. By then, however, US 6 had already been relocated to old CO 78 over Vail Pass in 1940, completely bypassing Minturn and Leadville, and the new Interstate took over the rest.

I-70/US 6

Rejoining the Interstate, which is already in progress.

I-70 EB leaving the US 6/24 split, now along the old CO 78 routing.
Entering Vail.
Vail's name directly hails from the highway, for it was engineer Charles Vail who constructed the US 6 routing over the old state highway through the valley and over the pass which was also named for him. In 1962, the Vail Ski Resort was opened by entrepreneur Pete Seibert, a member of the famous US Army 10th Mountain Division and a professional skiier. The resort's first season was an incredible success, establishing the region as a tourist magnet, and the town was incorporated in 1966. By 1969, Vail Ski Resort was the most popular ski resort in the entire state of Colorado, and by 1988 it was the largest resort in America. The modern town has 5,305 residents [2010], though there's a lot more folks around in the winter!
I-70 and unsigned modern US 6 mostly bypasses the town.
Mile 174.
Overlooking one of the traffic circles and resort housing.
Distance signage leaving town.
Again entering the White River Nat'l Forest (see Part 12).
Continuing the ascent to the pass.
Another oddball milepost, with "E 70" and a fractional mile count (185.5).
Climbing again.
Vail Pass summit (10,603'). But this isn't the highest we'll get in this part.
Mile 190 and Summit county line.
Summit County, Colorado

Summit county is named for the many mountain summits in the region from the nearby Continental Divide, including this one, of course. Originally substantially larger, it included modern Eagle and Garfield counties (which we travelled) plus four other counties and itself within its original 1861 boundaries; its carving was complete by 1883. With its modern seat at Breckenridge, the modern county has 27,994 residents [2010].

Descending after the, you know, summit.
Exit 195 and the northern terminus of CO 91 carrying the old alignment of US 6 up from US 24 in Leadville. We continue, briefly united, along the Interstate. This is the end of old CO 78.
EB I-70/unsigned US 6.
Exit 201. The oldest alignment of US 6 diverts here into Frisco to drown beneath the Dillon Reservoir. We continue eastbound on the Interstate.
Still snow in July.
The Dillon Reservoir. US 6 is in there somewhere.
Advance signage for US 6 and CO 9 in Silverthorne.
CO 9 acts as a regional arterial for the rural locales of the Rocky Mountain axis. From US 50 in Cañon City it intersects both US 24 and US 285 along the way and crosses the Continental Divide at 11,532', dropping down to the Dillon Reservoir here. North of I-70, it runs alongside the Blue River to terminate in Kremmling at US 40.
Hazardous cargo and overheight vehicles not allowed through the Eisenhower Tunnels; they must use US 6 over the Loveland Pass.
Entering Silverthorne.
Silverthorne is a very recent settlement, established expressly for the construction of the Dillon Reservoir from 1961 to 1963 and later serving as a stop along I-70 during its development. Its roots go back to approximately 1959, when local entrepreneur Clayton Hill platted a few streets and built a few basic houses to serve as living quarters for those working on the Dillon Dam. In 1967, Hill decided to formally make it a town and sought a name; after much consideration he decided to name it after local Judge Marshall Silverthorn, but found the appellation insufficiently dignified and added on an 'e' for additional gravitas. (It is not known to history if the judge had a sense of humour about this.) Incorporated the same year, it has a population of 3,887 [2010].
Separation. Notice the bike restriction as well. We exit with the bikes, chemical waste and Sprinter vans on stilts.

US 6 over Loveland Pass

The signed route of US 6 is of course its more or less original course over the Loveland Pass and the Continental Divide.

Exiting the Interstate. This begins segment 006F at Mile 208.659.
Mile 209 in southeastern Silverthorne.
Briefly entering Dillon proper.
Although amusing to consider, Dillon in this case does not hail from Marshal Dillon; it was named for local prospector Tom Dillon. The town of the same name was incorporated in 1883 and has a population of 904 [2010]. The reservoir, formed by impoundment of the Blue River from the Dillon Dam, is a major water source for the city of Denver via the Roberts Tunnel diversion.
Distance signage, which calls the Dillon Reservoir "Lake Dillon."
Leaving Dillon.
Passing the Lake/Reservoir.
Mile 213.
EB US 6.
Crossing the Snake River. Not to be confused with the much larger tributary of the Columbia River (see US 395 Part 24), this small 15 mile river is a tributary of the Blue River, which itself is a tributary of the Colorado. The Blue runs approximately 65 miles from the Tenmile Range down to the Colorado River in Kremmling along a steep descent of over 5,000'.
Through the ski areas, closed now, even though we still have a teensy bit of snow.
Mile 217.
EB US 6 as we continue ascending to the pass. Grades here approach 7% with multiple hairpin turns. It's only because having a truck blow in the Tunnels would be catastrophic that they'd even be allowed on a road like this.
Mile 220.
The ski slopes, idle as we pass.
Mile 223.
More snow as we ascend past 10,000'.
Loveland Pass (11,990'), the Great Continental Divide, and the Clear Creek county line.
The axis of the Great Continental Divide, which we cross here, divides the watershed of the Pacific from the Atlantic along the Rockies and the Andes Mountains of South America stretching from the Bering Strait to the Strait of Magellan. Its highest point in North America is Grays Peak (14,278'), the highest peak of the Front Range and the tenth highest in the Rocky Mountains. It is located approximately four miles southeast of the Loveland Pass.

Loveland Pass overlooks the Eisenhower Tunnel by over 800 feet, making it the highest all-season mountain pass in the world. Named for Colorado Central Railroad president William A. H. Loveland and first developed in 1873, its height is variously reported at 11,988', 11,990' and 11,992', depending on who's counting and the exact location of measurement. The Loveland replaced the much more hazardous 13,207' Argentine Pass, an early and notorious toll road, which despite having less snow due to its scouring winds was gradually replaced because of the impossibility of reliable stagecoach passage due to those same winds. Although the Argentine is still vehicle-accessible, it remains a dirt road to this day and almost all traffic uses US 6. Even considering the less harsh travel conditions, occasionally blizzard conditions will still force the Loveland's closure, making even hazardous cargo and most otherwise proscribed traffic use I-70 through the Tunnels ... very carefully.

Loveland Pass has been the site of several historic tragedies, including a plane crash two miles north of the summit in 1970 which killed 31 people. Pilot error was blamed as the cause. More recently, a spring 2013 avalanche trapped six snowboarders from which only a single victim escaped, one of the deadliest in Colorado history.

Clear Creek County, Colorado

Clear Creek was one of Colorado's original seventeen counties as created in 1861, and one of only two to have not been changed. Named for Clear Creek, a 66-mile tributary of the South Platte River which runs throughout the county (and which we will parallel for some miles in Part 14), its former seat and now largest city is Idaho Springs but was moved to Georgetown in 1867. The county has 9,187 residents [2014].

Overlooking I-70 in the valley below.
Mile 226 on a very perilous overhang as we quickly descend.
Switchbacks ...
... and snow.
Mile 229 parallel to the ski lifts on the east side of the summit.
Junction I-70. This is the end of segment 006F at Mile 229.896. Let's hop on the WB onramp and check out the tunnels.

Bonus: Interstate 70 and the Eisenhower-Johnson Memorial Tunnel

The I-70 Eisenhower-Johnson Memorial Tunnel is a dual-bore, four-lane tunnel with a maximum elevation of 11,158'. Upon its opening in 1973 (westbound; the eastbound tunnel opened in 1979), it was the highest vehicular tunnel in the world at that time, since dethroned by the railroad Fenghuoshan Tunnel in Qinghai, China at 16,093'. It remains the highest point on the Eisenhower Interstate System and is of course named for President Dwight D. Eisenhower; the subsequent eastbound tunnel is named for Edwin C. Johnson, two-term governor of Colorado (26th and 34th) split by his U.S. Senate career from 1937 to 1955, who lobbied strongly for an Interstate to be built across his state.

The main tunnel bores are 48'x40' with a length of 1.693 miles WB and 1.697 miles EB. Vehicular traffic, however, is limited to the lower 16' with the upper segment used for forced air ventilation and drainage from the western Straight Creek to the eastern Clear Creek, and vehicles taller than 13'11" may not enter (an alarm will sound and the vehicle will be diverted from the highway). Several million vehicles pass through the tunnels annually despite the steep approach and exit grades, sometimes nearly as severe as the Loveland Pass and US 6. Runaway truck ramps are available on both sides of the Tunnels.

A tunnel to replace Loveland Pass had been entertained in some form since at least 1940. Although the US 6 corridor was believed to be the most advantageous routing, the rugged territory made that alignment substantially harder to upgrade to Interstate standards. Construction at the new site started in 1968 and immediately encountered many setbacks due to previously unknown fault lines requiring emergency reinforcement; seven workers died during the construction of the tunnels due to collapses and other accidents. The westbound tunnel opened almost two years late with single lane traffic per direction, proving immediately inadequate and forcing engineers to expedite eastbound construction. The total cost for the two tunnels was over $210 million, approaching $1 billion in 2015 dollars.

Entering the WB tunnel as we turn back from US 6.
Through the tunnel.
Entering the EB tunnel as we turn back around, showing the directional arrows and signage.
Through the EB tunnel. Notice the overhead variable message signs which were retrofitted to increase vertical clearance and give individualized speed limits for trucks in 2007 after these pictures were taken.
Joining US 6 at the eastern side of the Loveland Pass and Exit 216, briefly entering the Arapaho National Forest.

I-70/US 6

We now continue along Interstate 70 and unsigned US 6.

Leaving the Arapaho National Forest.
EB I-70/unsigned US 6.
Passing by Georgetown at Exit 228, the current county seat.
Georgetown, named for prospector brothers George and David Griffith, was a boomtown founded in 1859 during the Pike's Peak gold rush. Despite gold being the fascination of early inhabitants, a silver strike nearby in 1864 near Argentine Pass brought the local population to several thousand and in 1868 it contentiously took the position of county seat from Idaho Springs shortly after its incorporation. For a time the residents of Georgetown numbered over 10,000, and it was even briefly a contender for state capital. As most boomtowns do, unfortunately, growth collapsed when the mines did and much of the population subsequently departed. However, its picturesque location remained to become a tourist attraction for skiers in the 1950s and today Georgetown maintains its historic downtown, hotels and restaurants and craft shops. The current population is 1,034 [2010].

Segments of old US 6, at times discontinuous, serve Silver Plume, Georgetown and Idaho Springs. These have not been US 6 nor state highway since at least the 1980s, and while picturesque, at the time we didn't have enough spare to travel them. I mention them for reference.

Distance signage leaving Georgetown.
Merging with US 40. For some reason the merge signage was missing in 2006, so here is an advance sign.
US 40 was one of the transcontinental US highways, and at its greatest extent ran from San Francisco to Atlantic City. It has been completely replaced by Interstate 80 west of Silver Summit, UT, and mostly superseded by I-70 from Colorado to Pennsylvania and in portions of Maryland. Nevertheless, the old Victory Highway and National Road still stretches 2,286 miles and US 40 still maintains its historic terminus in New Jersey to this day. We discuss the Victory Highway in more detail in US 395 Part 13.
EB I-70/unsigned US 6/unsigned US 40.
Exit 239 to Idaho Springs and modern BR 70. This is an old alignment of US 6 and US 40 long since bypassed by the Interstate. Again, we mention it for reference and future travel.
Idaho Springs takes its name from the legendary visits of an Idaho Indian tribe to the local radium hot springs, believing they had magical properties. The town was founded in 1859 during the Pike's Peak Gold Rush, and remained the regional mining centre for some decades despite temporarily losing preeminence to Georgetown; like Georgetown, however, it has reinvented itself as a tourist and leisure destination in the modern day. Officially incorporated in 1885, the modern city has 1,717 residents [2010].
Advance signage for the US 6 split.
The I-70 Twin Tunnels, shortly to be renamed the Veterans Memorial Tunnels after the completion of upgrades in 2015. This photo shows the original US 6/US 40 tunnels as they were constructed in 1961, replacing the more twisty alignment south of Clear Creek which is now discontinuous county road. Although relatively short at approximately 700', their dark interior made them a perpetual visual hazard; the CDOT upgrades widened the horizontal bore to 53', improving internal visibility and allowing for a future third freeway travel lane.
US 6 separation to Golden, with US 40 diverting with us (unsigned).
Exiting the Interstate.
Continue to Part 14
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