Operation Oregon Trail, Part 2

I awoke the next morning at the hostel to a loud jackhammering sound coming from the alley next to my room. It seems the eager street repairmen of Salt Lake City were already hard at work paving the hill outside. No matter, it served as a well-timed alarm clock, and with about six hours of driving ahead, I thought it best to finally rise from my slumber. Outside, I met three young men clustered around a minivan with British Columbia license plates. This van contained an Aussie, a Brit, and a German, all headed from their university life in Vancouver to summer jobs at Yellowstone National Park. They’d been globe trotting for years, and had just begun to scratch the surface of the hugeness of North America. I empathized with them. With a beginning like this, the day held promise.

The hostel is located in a neighborhood in north Salt Lake called the Avenues. I had stayed in this part of town a few years prior when seeing a friend who lived there, and remembered a nearby cafe where I could find a strong cup of coffee. The inside was all comfy couches and studious cilentele, reminding me of the place I did most of my heavily caffeinated all-nighters in college. My memory served well, too: the coffee was still strong and delicious at the Cafe on 1st, and with a smile from the barista, I found a couch and settled in for breakfast and a little prep work. My plan was to book a hostel room outside of Boise for my next pit stop, but a call confirmed my fears: no vacancy. No matter, I moved on to finding a suitable place to crash for the night. Before long, the Internet had come up with a retro-looking motel near the city’s center. The price was right, and another quick phone call secured me a last minute room. With business done and breakfast down, only a few distractions remained before hitting the road.

I don’t consider myself to be an adherent to any particular organized religion, but regardless, I find religious architecture to be fascinating. Often, its intricacy is matched only by the devotion of those within. About a mile from the cafe, I snatched up a rare parking spot next to Temple Square. The Salt Lake Temple at the heart of the square is the holiest site in the Mormon religion, and is also the architectural centerpiece of SLC’s downtown.


Finally, all in one composite photograph: the Salt Lake Temple.

The throngs of glowing newlywed couples and their wedding parties on photo shoots crammed into Temple Square meant getting the whole building in a single picture was a bit more difficult, but with that done, I headed down John Stockton Drive and out of Utah’s capital.

About an hour north of Salt Lake City, I turned off of the highway to satisfy a curiosity I’ve had since I was in SLC the last time. During that previous adventure, I never actually got to see the city’s namesake lake. Unlike many large cities which directly adjoin their bodies of water, Salt Lake City is not even within sight of its lake. No doubt the lake’s brackish nature has a lot to do with this; as I drove out onto the long Antelope Island Causeway, an odd, salty odor penetrated the car’s cabin. This road is an anomaly; a long, straight suburban artery that hits the edge of the brine flats on the west edge of the Great Salt Lake and simply keeps going. This part of the lake is shallow enough that no difficult bridge building was necessary, simply a long, raised berm made of small rocks that the road sits on top of.


Esme strikes a pose on the Antelope Island Causeway.


The shores of the Great Salt Lake are bleached bright white by a combination of salt and sun.


Looking north from the causeway over the shallows of the eastern lake.

This road leads to the largest island in the Great Salt Lake. Called Antelope Island after its native population of Pronghorn, this 15 mi (24 km) long island separates the rest of the lake from Farmington Bay, a shallow arm of the lake that’s used as a wetland wildlife refuge. I headed up into the hills to see if I could reach the top of the ridge – after all, most of the lake was on the other side, and with a drought ongoing, Farmington Bay was more of a shallow salt flat than a lake. I wanted to see if there was any water left in the ‘Great’ Salt Lake.

The road that I found was a fantastic one, twisting across the eastern flank of the ridge which runs down the center of the island. It’s two lanes, with old, cracked blacktop worn smooth by big 4×4 tires and years of winter scrapings. This island was used as ranchland up until the late 1960s, when it began to be purchased in phases by the state of Utah in the interest of preservation. It’s now one of the largest state parks in the state, encompassing the whole island. These old roads date from before the state takeover, when they were used to access ranchland and mining claims on the island.

Farther down the road, I found a place to park and ascend higher up the ridge. Where this road ended, a trail climbed up the rocks behind the parking lot and into the hills. The end of the road simply meant a change in method; I grabbed a bottle of water and my tripod from the car and set off up the trail for an impromptu hike. The path led up the ridge, snaking around steep ledges and boulders, until it came finally to the top. From the summit, I finally saw it: the rest of the Great Salt Lake! From this summit, I could see as far as Nevada. Later research has said that the exposed rocks at the top of this ridge are some of the oldest on Earth – even older than the ancient rocks at the bottom of the Grand Canyon. It’s easy to see how, with the innumerable twists and folds of eons of pressure and heat inscribing the jagged rock at the summit.

Click to view larger!
A 180° panorama from the top of the ridge. At left (south) is Frary Peak, the highest point on Antelope Island at 6596 ft. (2010 m), nearly 2400 vertical feet from the shoreline below. To the right of the peak are the beaches at White Rock Bay (center) and Bridger Bay. Just above the beach to the right of center (north) are Fremont Island and the Promontory Mountains. Click to view this panorama larger.

Click to view larger!
This 180° view looks east toward the distant peaks of the Wasatch Range. This side of the lake is much drier at the moment, with the shallow salt flats of Farmington Bay on the edges of the remaining lake water. Barely visible at far right at the base of the mountains is Salt Lake City, and in the bottom right corner is the trail I used to come up the ridge. Far below, the lot at the trailhead is visible – Esme looks like a tiny dot from the top! Click to view larger.

I hiked back down the trail to the car, passed by a French-speaking couple on their way up who had come a lot farther than I to see the view. Back at the parking lot below, I checked my watch – taking the hike had been worth it, but had come at the price of almost two hours of daylight. With more than five hours still left to drive, the time had come to leave the island. I packed up and headed back across the causeway to the Interstate. From here, I had to head north, through Ogden and Brigham City to the Idaho state line. I pointed Esme down I-15 until it merged with Interstate 84, which I’d follow all the way to Portland. The race against the daylight was on.


Looking back the way I came – I-84 finally runs into the mountains at the edge of the Great Basin.


A quick pause at the desolate Idaho border before I push on to Boise.

Idaho is one state that had eluded me to this point; a place that I admittedly knew very little about. Besides the ‘Famous Potatoes’ advertised on the state’s license plates, I had no real expectations of this sparsely populated western state. As I sped northwest towards Twin Falls, I encountered miles upon miles of green, lush farmland. Exit after exit came with a disclaimer of ‘NO SERVICES’ as the Interstate connected to remote farm roads with no towns to pass through. The farms along the way weren’t just the agricultural kind, either, every so often huge numbers of wind turbines marked the tops of the hills nearby. Idaho has huge amounts of wind power resources, cultivated since the energy crises of the late 1970s forced a change in policy. The state also boasts one of the U.S.’ few online, commercially viable geothermal power stations, as well as huge amount of hydroelectric power – enough that the energy needs of the state are mostly met by these renewable sources.

Twin Falls was the next stop, a quick break for fuel and an opportunity to photograph the dramatic canyon of the Snake River. I swung off of I-84 and onto two lane highway headed south, and before long I came to the point at which the highway had to cross this huge gorge. In 1976, the original span built here was dismantled in favor of a new, truss arch style crossing: the I.B. Perrine Bridge. At 486 feet (148 m) above the river below, this bridge is a magnet for BASE jumpers – jumps are allowed here with no special permits required. Even Evel Knievel had a crack at the canyon, making it most of the way across in a steam-powered contraption called the ‘Skycycle X-2’ in 1974. I hiked down the hill to the bridge approach to investigate, while over my back, the beginnings of the sunset turned the bridge’s steel an orange hue. The evening colors extended into the canyon itself, contrasting the golden rocks with the blue-green of the Snake River in the gorge.


The Perrine Bridge and part of the Snake River Canyon that it spans. US Highway 91 uses the bridge to enter the city of Twin Falls, named for a series of nearby cascades.


A view from beneath the bridge, revealing the steel structure that supports the weight of four lanes of traffic high above the river.

The sun finally set as I left Twin Falls. Now, all that remained was the 135 mile stretch to Boise, the largest city in Idaho. The smell of wet earth and cows rolled into the cabin as I dropped the window for a moment. The road was arrow straight for the most part, allowing me to take certain liberties with my speed. Another beautiful sunset drive gave me the opportunity to reflect a bit on my location. Many Americans have little regard for what are sometimes pejoratively referred to as ‘flyover states’. These are the states between the massively urbanized coasts, those where America’s agricultural heart lies. Idaho is proud of this rural way of life, with grain elevators being far more common on this road than tall office or residential buildings. Every so often, a peculiar stand of trees would burst out of the fields of wheat, corn, and soy. After seeing a few of these micro forests, it dawned on me: even the trees were being farmed, planted in neat rows and grown for all of the tasty fruit that we find on our grocery shelves. In an age of growing disconnection with the food we eat, this drive was a stark reminder that no matter the distances between us, we are all dependent upon each other in this increasingly globalized world.


As Kerouac would say, I was balling that jack all the way to Boise.

I cruised into Boise well after dark, making my way past the Idaho state capitol building to the west side of town where my accommodations for the night were located. I rarely make stops at motels when traveling, preferring instead to enlist locals as hosts when possible. However, after hiking and driving for the better part of ten hours, I was ready for a break. Beckoning me towards it was the neon beacon of the Cabana Inn, a well-kept relic of the late 1960s just five minutes from the center of Boise. I rang the night bell, and a middle-aged woman appeared from the house behind the office where she and her family live. She was kind, if slightly groggy from the late hour of my arrival, and she handed over the keys to a second-floor room with my name on it. I still needed sustenance, so I left the Cabana to investigate downtown Boise. Near the heart of the city, I wandered into the Bittercreek Ale House, a restaurant with a fabulous beer selection and one of my favorite comfort foods on the menu – poutine. Beer, fries, and cheese curds were just what I needed after a long travel day. Boise was being kind to this newcomer. I returned to my bed satisfied and sleepy with a food coma. Sleep would come soon, and all the better, since I had longer ways to go in the morning.


The Cabana’s vintage neon sign lights up the night in Boise’s west end.

Next time: into Oregon and through the Columbia River Gorge to the Pacific!

Operation Oregon Trail, Part 1

America is the land of the road trip. Since the dawn of the automobile age, Americans have turned to their cars to seek adventure on the open roads of this vast country. Generations of Americans, from the Beats to the Millenials, have made the road trip part of not only their popular culture, but their collective psyche. The experience of driving cross-country has a grip on America’s collective imagination, and for many including myself, the only way to quell the urge is to hit the road.

My previous experience with this phenomenon, my road trip resumé if you will, consists of a multitude of minivan journeys with my family back and forth to Chicago across America’s midwest. Although I’ve been behind the wheel for years, I had yet to drive long distance by myself. My longest stint behind the wheel thus far had been a 500 mile round trip to camp overnight in Colorado’s high country. This was about to change, however. I, too, would take on the journey of a long distance, interstate road trip. Not only that, but I would be doing it for the first time alone.

A few months ago, over a beer in Denver, a friend of mine who was in the process of moving to Oregon told me about a dilemma he faced. He and his girlfriend would be driving two cars, both hers, out to their new home from Colorado. My friend’s car would remain stranded in Denver, to be delivered at a later, unknown date. As an answer to his little problem, I volunteered to drive the Hyundai (which he had named Esmerelda) over 1,400 mi (2250 km) from Denver to McMinnville, the town about 40 minutes from Portland where they would be living. The one-way ticket from Portland would save my friend time and money, and given his dislike of driving long distances, it seemed like an obvious choice. Discussion over a few more tasty beers cemented the idea, and thus the gears of an adventure were set into motion.

The plan I came up with was to drive to the Pacific over three days. My first leg would normally take me north on Interstate 25 to Wyoming, where I would turn west and go over the easy grades of South Pass through the Rocky Mountains. Instead, I decided to punch straight through the spine of the Colorado Rockies, heading up Interstate 70 and over its high passes and deep gorges, across the vast desert of eastern Utah and up Price Canyon to Salt Lake City. Day two would lead me north, past the Great Salt Lake and up to Interstate 84 through the farmlands of southern Idaho to the state’s capitol, Boise. The third and final leg would be from Boise, across the Oregon border and through the Blue Mountains, up the Columbia River Gorge, and down the valley of the Willamette River to McMinnville. At the end of the road, I had most of a day to spend on the shore of the Pacific Ocean before heading back to Denver by air. It’d be a fast four days, but at the end would no doubt be worth it. It’s not often I get the chance to get my feet wet with salt water.

My route through the West to the Pacific. Four days, 1400 miles (2250 km).

One morning in May, the time had finally come to hit the road. I had all my supplies: a backpack full of trail mix and water bottles, some hiking gear in case I found something to climb, and of course my camera. All my gear had to fit in one small pack because of my return flight, so packing light was essential. Also on board were a whole road trip’s worth of WBEZ’s This American Life – my plan for the more tedious miles was to use Esme’s three 10″ subwoofers to boom Ira Glass’ soothing voice all over the western US. Today was the longest of the four, a little over eight hours’ of driving separating me from Salt Lake City. After grabbing one last dose of Denver green chile in burrito form, I headed up the hill on I-70 and into the Rocky Mountains.

The trip up from Denver, through the Eisenhower Tunnel, and over Vail Pass took the better part of two hours. I decided to stop for a bite to eat near the town of Minturn, about ten minutes from Vail on US Highway 24. Just off the highway, I found a pull off which led back to Minturn’s former rail yard. During the height of Colorado’s mining boom, the rails which pass through Minturn carried thousands of tons of ore, coal, and timber every day. Now, the railway line is only used by hikers and locals out walking their bandana-wearing mountain dogs. I decided to take a short hike up the grade myself, and just a few hundred yards from where I parked, I came across an unusual sight.

High above Minturn, a rock formation called the ‘Lionshead’ used to loom over the valley. One night in March of 2013, a huge chunk of rock broke free from the Lionshead, the result of natural geologic forces – eons of weathering and thermal expansion finally caused a crack large and deep enough to give way. With a tremendous crash that must have shaken the surrounding valley, the bus-sized rock tumbled down the side of the hill and smashed into the railway bed at the bottom. The boulder hit with such force that it dug itself a crater nearly five feet (1.5 m) deep and snapped the steel rails of the Tennessee Pass line like toothpicks. The wide shelf created by the railroad grade stopped the boulder just short of continuing its fall – directly into a few houses just down the hill!


Minturn resident George and his wife Claudia examine what he called ‘The Heart of the Lion’ along the abandoned railway grade just above this small mountain town.

I’ve lived in Colorado for the better part of my 27 years, and even though I’ve managed to see a fair amount of my home state, the sheer beauty of the Rocky Mountains never ceases to make me gawk. Interstate 70 is the largest, most direct transport corridor in the western half of the state, and it passes through some of the most scenic parts of the Colorado Rockies. Its designers took such pains that parts of this route weren’t completed until the 1990s, well after the Interstate Highway System was finished in the rest of the U.S. The civil engineering that went into this route is staggering; one only has to leave I-70 for mountain back roads for a few minutes to realize how hard a road must have been to build to accommodate four full lanes of 70 mph (110 km/h) traffic through some of the roughest terrain Earth has to offer. As I drove west, the character of the mountains themselves changed as well, with the craggy granite peaks of the central Rockies giving way to the reddish sandstone and limestone of the Western Slope.


Westbound through Eagle County, high in the Rockies.


About to pass through the Hanging Lake Tunnel in Glenwood Canyon.


A mountain storm brews just west of Rifle, CO.

The shadows cast by the flat-topped mountains of western Colorado began to get longer across the highway as I pushed across the spine of North America. Western Colorado is a constantly changing landscape; from the cutting action of the Colorado River, still digging deeper into its gorges, to the innumerable fracking rigs now dotting the landscape in the never ending search for natural gas deposits. Thanks to my detour to the Heart of the Lion, I was growing short on time, and I knew I still had the vast desert of eastern Utah to cross before finally stopping for the night in Salt Lake City. I put the Colorado Rockies in my rear view and ran for the border.

By the time I reached Grand Junction, the sun had set and the last rays of light were struggling to poke over the horizon. I paused briefly, taking a walk down by the Colorado River, swollen from the torrent of spring snowmelt coming from the high Rockies. This city of roughly 60,000 people is the last major settlement for roughly 250 miles. Despite the occasional wildfire, Junction has managed to reinvent itself from a former railroad town full of wild west ranchers into the cultural center of its region. It boasts a four-year university, two newspapers, and the mind-bending terrain of nearby Colorado National Monument.

I made my first fuel stop before leaving town, brimming the tank before continuing across the immense desert of eastern Utah. I have some experience with this route, but this time, I would be the driver for the crossing. Also, with the last daylight now snuffed out, I would have to make the entire 250 mile (400 km) drive in the dark. This drive is not one to be taken lightly – the nearest town of any size was 70 miles (112 km) away, across some of the most remote landscape on the planet. With one last look across the border of my native realm to the wildlands beyond, I set off across the desert to Salt Lake City.

The desert is a strange place, especially after the sun goes down. I found out quickly that with no moon out, one gets the impression of driving through an endless tunnel. The desert at night is, to put it bluntly, very dark. Impossibly dark. So incredibly pitch dark that when I pulled off of the road and turned my lights off, the only thing I could think to compare it to was being inside a mountain – cave darkness. A thin layer of overcast blocked out even the starlight, but with no manmade light coming from the ground to reflect, even the clouds were swallowed up by the warm desert night.

I finally found an oasis in the black, a cluster of lights shouting out into the night called Green River. With Salt Lake City still more than three hours away and the clock just past midnight, my body needed fuel to push through the fatigue I was now feeling. At this hour, the only restaurant open for business was a truck stop diner, that most noble of rural American kitchens.


A shining beacon in the night.

I ambled in amongst the late-night crowd; some locals that looked like they’d been there every night for weeks (for all I know, maybe they had been), a few bleary-eyed truckers working on piles of pancakes and eggs before hitting the road again. The lone waitress, Bridget, looked as if she had been there since the sun was high in the sky. For everyone in the diner, this was a strange sort of halfway point, and it seemed like everyone had the air of people in transit from one place to the next. After a few cups of coffee and a burger, I was ready to once again head out. Now, however, I would be leaving the hypnotizing arrow straightness of I-70 for the twists and bends of U.S. Highway 6, a two-lane road which would cut more than 60 miles off of my route to Salt Lake. I drove out of Green River with CCR on the stereo, past a lonely State Patrolman, and up the road towards Price.

In the daytime, the scenery outside the car would be distractingly beautiful. This route skirts the edge of a 250 mile (320 km) long desert mountain range called the Book Cliffs. These sandstone cliffs stretch all the way from the rim of a canyon near Grand Junction, and in the night, I had caught up to them again where they were finally cut into by the Price River. It is these weird and wonderful landforms, towering over the flatter earth below them, that gives this place its sort of stereotypical old west atmosphere. The terrain here also helps give this highway a fearsome reputation as one of the deadliest roads in the U.S. I was confident, though, after honing my driving skill for years in the mountains of Colorado. After a little more gas, I drove out of Price and settled in for the last stretch to my hostel bed in Salt Lake.

In the night, driving with the windows down, it was hard not to feel alone on this desolate road. I passed through the entrance to Price Canyon at what must have been near 1:30 A.M., Ira Glass’ voice bouncing off the canyon walls as I drove headlong into the twists and turns of the old highway. The desert darkness was back again, but now it allowed my high-beam headlights to occasionally illuminate a tantalizing edge of canyon wall. Though this route carries huge volumes of traffic during the daytime, at night it was nearly unused. Only the occasional big rig passed me by, a few cars trailing behind waiting to make a risky pass in the dark. After what seemed like hours, I emerged from the mountains, the last of the steep ridges giving way immediately to a strange sight: a small wind farm, turbine blades swaying ghostly white in the city lights that now stretched away from the mountains. I was close now; with Highway 6 behind me, I drove north on Interstate 15. The highway slowly grew from four lanes to six, then to eight as I passed through the fringes of Salt Lake’s urban sprawl. It was now early, nearly 3.30 A.M., and at this hour I had the interstate all to myself. I drove faster than I should have the rest of the way, taking a bit of a liberty on the huge, empty I-15 in the interest of sleeping as soon as possible. Around 4, I finally rolled down the off-ramp into downtown Salt Lake City, exhausted but elated to have finally made it. Sleep would be mine!


Finally! Early-morning arrival at the Avenues Hostel.

Next time: The Great Salt Lake (it really is salty) and a fast drive through the expanses of southern Idaho.

tunnel vision

The cliffs surrounding Manitou Springs, Colorado echoed with yelped curses and the unmistakable *swoosh* of heavy objects sliding down a bed of rocks. In this case, the objects in question were myself and two brave friends, and the streams of profanity came from our somewhat hasty descent down the cliff. Our backsides bore the brunt of the assault, but despite some shredded pants and a few cuts we made it down intact. Whatever, the climb had been worth it. It looked steeper from the bottom anyway.

About halfway up the canyon wall lies part of a neglected route once used to ascend into the heart of the Rockies. A drive up scenic Highway 24 doesn’t even give clues; the deep red hillsides showing no trace of the path carved into their steep faces. This is no ordinary hiking trail, however. It is on no official map, and though it lies very close to one of Colorado’s largest tourism destinations, even most residents have no knowledge of its existence. We had just ventured into what formerly comprised a section of the Colorado Midland Railway – a series of tunnels, blasted and hand-carved out of the Rocky Mountains.


Midland Tunnel #8 in the year 1900. Below, next to Fountain Creek, is the dirt trail up Ute Pass that would eventually become Highway 24. (DPL Western History)

Back in 1883, the fledgling city of Colorado Springs had only a few thousand people within it. One of these residents was a man named H.D. Fisher, manager of a sawmill about 25 miles from the city, near what is now Woodland Park. Mr. Fisher had a problem: his lumber had a long way to go to get to his hometown. Though a logging railway had been built at the site to transport logs, the finished product still had to be hauled overland on rough trails to the Springs, where the railroad could finally take over. Fisher reckoned that if he had the money, he could link the two railways with his own, with the aim of eventually extending the tracks to Leadville – the epicenter of an incredibly rich mining region. The thick stacks of cash he sought were soon found in a man named John J. Hagerman. Hagerman had made his fortune in mining back east, and his ill health drove him to move to Colorado Springs the year prior. Fisher and his associates made Hagerman the chairman of their fledgling railroad, and with money in the bank, construction started in earnest. The route they chose led east from the Springs, over Ute Pass, and north along the Arkansas River to Leadville. This is some of the roughest country in the west, with 14000 foot peaks and deep valleys to wind around and through. Also, the banks of the Arkansas River that led to Leadville were already occupied by the Rio Grande Railway – a direct competitor to the Midland. These factors combined meant that the Midland needed to be creative with its real estate – the railroad turned to tunneling as a solution to its woes.


A Midland steam locomotive pulls a full load through Tunnel #7 near Manitou Springs in April of 1935. (DPL Western History)


Modern day Tunnel #7 peeks out from behind a hill as storm clouds start to gather. The above photo appears to have been taken from just above the bushes at far left.

As the line left Colorado Springs for the mountains to the west, it followed the steep, narrow canyon carved out by Fountain Creek. The banks of the creek above Manitou Springs proved too narrow to accommodate more than the existing dirt trail up Ute Pass, so to push the railway up to Woodland Park, the company’s engineers decided to dig. A series of eight tunnels were carved into the red rocks of the canyon, moving the railway through the most narrow parts. When the company finally went under in 1949 under the name ‘Midland Terminal Railway’, the tracks were simply pulled and the tunnels left to nature. Today, they are not on any tourist map, no signs point to them as historical relics, not even a marked trail to acknowledge their existence. When I asked a few Manitou residents about them, even they didn’t know of the tunnels in the hills. My friends and I had driven more than 100 miles for the chance to find them. All I knew was their rough location from a dusty book in the Denver Public Library’s stacks, but that was enough.

Before the evening’s butt-slide down the steep, jagged slope, we first had to ascend. I had tried this climb a few weeks prior on a scouting mission, and ended up having to come down hastily – and in near darkness. This cloudy June afternoon, we came slightly better prepared. As myself and my friends Evan and Ann struggled to keep traction on the constantly shifting surface, we were forced to grab for anything we could use to haul ourselves up. Finally, we reached the level of the rail bed – a shelf about six to eight feet wide more than thirty feet above the bottom of the canyon.


Ann pauses on the former Colorado Midland rail bed after the climb up. 100 years ago, you’d see this stunning view from a train coming down Ute Pass into Manitou Springs. Tunnel #7 is on the left, and Tunnel #6 is on the right. Click this panoramic image to view larger.


Evan and Ann pause before entering one of the tunnels above Manitou Springs.

We spent several hours exploring the westernmost tunnels, retracing the old route from one end of the rock shelf to the other. After the tunnels fell into disuse, the closest two to Manitou Springs as well as part of a third suffered collapses. The rest, however, have weathered the years in much better shape. The intervening years had allowed nature to take over some parts of the shelf until it scarcely looked like it could have been big enough to accommodate the steam locomotives that once chugged through this canyon. Unlike many of Colorado’s mountain railways, the Midland was built to standard railway gauge of 4′ 8.5″ – meaning that the shelf had to accommodate large main line trains. The remaining tunnels are in very good shape, good enough that an impromptu homeless encampment had sprung up in one of them. Upon closer inspection, we even found 100 year old coal soot still clinging to the ceilings.


The west portal of the 211-foot-long Tunnel #7.


A Midland locomotive pulls a load of empty cars through a Manitou tunnel in July of 1939. By this time, the dirt road at the bottom of the canyon had been widened and paved as US Highway 24. (DPL Western History)


Inside Tunnel #6.

By the time the sun was setting, thick, dark rain clouds were closing in. We decided to make a retreat to the car, and in the dying light, we made our graceful butt-slides down the steep slope covered in jagged loose sandstone and gravel. Dirtier and a bit torn up we made our way back to the car and loaded up. With the rain moving in, we realized this part of the canyon was not a smart place to be. Only a few weeks later, a huge mudslide caused by flash flooding charged down the canyon with the force of a flood of concrete, trapping dozens of cars in the muck. Shortly after that, yet another flash flood caused millions of dollars in damage to Manitou’s downtown. Thankfully, this evening we had only a dramatic sky to worry about.

A few weeks later, I went with a friend to go check out another group of tunnels about 80 miles deeper into the mountains, near the town of Buena Vista. Here, the tunnels were built because the banks of the Arkansas River were already occupied by a rival railroad – leaving the Midland the task of using what little real estate they had efficiently. Rather than winding back and forth across the river on bridges to dodge rock outcroppings until the valley opened, the Midland bored a series of four short tunnels, making the route north to Leadville a straight shot.


A train and its mustached crew pauses for a photo in front of one of the Buena Vista tunnels sometime in the 1890s. (DPL Western History)

This part of the line was actually abandoned before the Manitou portion, in the years following World War I. The Midland, like all other American railroads, was placed under the wartime control of the US Railroad Adminstration (USRA). The USRA decided that all traffic crossing western Colorado would be routed onto the Midland’s line, and for a few years the business outlook was good for a railroad which had just emerged from bankruptcy. Then, just as quickly, the government yanked almost all of the traffic away from the Midland when it became apparent that the line’s facilities and equipment could not hand the overwhelming volume. Adding to their woes, the dizzyingly high passes to the west of Leadville required constant maintenance and snow clearing in the winter, sapping the railroad’s cash flow and stalling their trains in feet of ice. In 1918, the year the war ended, all of the Colorado Midland west of the town of Divide was abandoned and pulled up for scrap – more than 3/4 of the railroad’s mileage. Unlike the Manitou tunnels, which remained in use for another 31 years, these tunnels were converted and repurposed with the rise of the automobile.


A car stops before heading through the Buena Vista tunnels in June of 1943. (DPL Western History)


Our expedition vehicle next to the tunnels in the modern day. Pullouts at each end allow cars to wait as the tunnels are only wide enough for one lane of traffic.


Inside the Buena Vista tunnels. All four are visible in this photo, bored so closely together that trains were occasionally long enough to be in all four at once!

Today, rather than the *chug-chug* of steam trains, only the rumble of tires on gravel resonates through the tunnels. The county owns the right-of-way now, keeping the old route plowed in the winter so backcountry enthusiasts and cross-country skiiers can access National Forest land. It’s well used, too; in our short time exploring the tunnels, dozens of jeeps and a few ATVs passed through one at a time.


We hold for a moment at the northernmost tunnel, waiting for traffic to clear as a storm rolls in.

I find it fascinating that these relics of Colorado history have remained in such good condition as they reach well over 100 years old. The most crucial tunnels to the Midland, at the top of Hagerman Pass, both collapsed by 1940. Another set remains passable, on a back road in a place called Elevenmile Canyon. With a few feet of snow on the road now, though, they’ll stay hidden until the melting of summer for a visit. Just a few more months to wait.