Crossing the canyon
GLENWOOD SPRINGS – It used to be a long and winding road, and now it – or at least part of it – is one of the most unique bike trails in the nation. Dennis Painter of Clovis, Calif. certainly thought so when he rented a bike and set off down the Glenwood Canyon Bike Trail to the Hanging Lake rest area to take advantage of the scenery and warm weather. “It’s beautiful,” he said. “It’s absolutely gorgeous. If I lived here, I’d be on it all the time.”Indeed, many Glenwood Springs residents and throngs of tourists spend lots of time hiking, biking, jogging, inline skating and doing other things on the Glenwood Canyon Bike Trail, which has officially opened for the spring. While the trail has proven to be a very popular recreation attraction luring more than 1.5 million people to its pavement each summer, it also has quite a story to tell: The trail has been carved out of more than a century of transportation history in Glenwood Canyon. There is almost no crime along on the path which also is known for its bighorn sheep and the possibility of being submerged in spring floods.
“I can’t even recall a time when we’ve had a crime out there,” Garfield County Sheriff Lou Vallario said. “It’s the safest place in Garfield County.”The bike trail is also the access point to one of the busiest areas in the White River National Forest, under whose jurisdiction most the canyon is managed. On any summer day, there could be between 300 and 500 people hiking from the bike trail to Hanging Lake high above the canyon floor, forest spokeswoman Kristi Ponozzo said. Other trails, including the Grizzly Creek and No Name trails, that penetrate north into the forest from the bike trail see fewer people, she said. Both of those trails serve as gateways into the southern Flat Tops for adventurous hikers who are willing to backpack more than 20 miles into the forest. But if you’re thinking about a jog along the bike path and the Colorado River swelling with snowmelt has you seeing orange cones and “trail closed” signs thwarting your exercise plans, don’t fret too much, said Les Stanton, a foreman with the Colorado Department of Transportation. Runoff hasn’t closed the bike trail in five years, he said. But if the river beats the odds this year, the most flood-prone section of the trail is between Shoshone and Hanging Lake.
Many people have stories to tell about experiences in Glenwood Canyon, but perhaps none are more colorful than the story of the bike trail itself. Turn back the clock two decades when Interstate 70 was being gouged out of Glenwood Canyon’s walls and traffic was relegated to a dangerous two-lane ribbon of asphalt replete with sketchy curves and 60 narrow turnouts that provided rafters access to the Colorado River. That two lane strip – U.S. Highway 6, which in its glory days from 1937 to 1964 stretched from Provincetown, Mass. to Long Beach, Calif. – was notorious for automotive e carnage and slow traffic. “When I moved here in 1975, I rode my bike out (into) Glenwood Canyon on the old two-lane and almost got killed,” said Ralph Trapani, an avid cyclist and retired state transportation engineer.Trapani knows Glenwood Canyon intimately because he was the man in charge of figuring out how to squeeze a superhighway between the canyon’s narrow walls back in the 1970s, when the project was in its infancy. After guiding the highway to its completion in 1992, he retired from the agency four years ago. Trapani’s near-death experience wasn’t exactly the Eureka! moment that became the inspiration for the bike trail, but it became undeniable proof that the canyon that would soon host part of the first, highest and fourth longest interstate highway in the country would need more than a freeway to satisfy the needs of the community.
From day one – which was sometime back in the 1950s, he said – a bike path was part of the plans for the I-70 project. In fact, without the bike path, the freeway would be in a precarious position, especially during floods. Generally built above the 100-year flood plain, the bike trail serves as a critical structural component of I-70, whose retaining walls have shallow foundations and are just resting on rock, Trapani said. The bike path is a cap atop a rock berm that protects the freeway retaining wall foundations from being scoured away during a flood. Over the years, there was tremendous squabbling about the width of the trail, Trapani said. Some thought that the trail should be 10-feet wide, while others though it should be 12. After concern that a wide trail would work against the need to narrow I-70 to the minimum standard for an interstate highway, that state finally compromised and built the trail eight-feet wide, except near Hanging Lake and around the Horseshoe Bend near No Name, where the trail follows the old U.S. 6 roadbed and is at least 12 feet wide. Since the beginning of the project in 1980, the bike path has opened in segments. Though I-70 was completed in 1992, Trapani said it took until 1994 to finish the bike path because rest area construction at Hanging Lake continued well beyond the dedication of the interstate.
If you look closely, the bike trail is a storybook of the history of Glenwood Canyon. The stretch circumnavigating the No Name tunnels was part of U.S. 6 until the tunnels opened in the 1960s, and the “zig zag” bridge over Grizzly Creek was the old 1930s-era U.S. 6 bridge reconfigured for the bike trail. The state reused the old bridge, reinforcing it and constructing a new bridge decking, Trapani said. Another critical element to the path is its maintenance – a real challenge for spring cleaning crews, Trapani said. The trail is closed for the winter because of ice and chemical runoff from I-70. Originally, Trapani said, clearing ice off the bike path involved using massive amounts of expensive traction sand that would sometimes get several feet deep in places along the trail. The sand proved to be too expensive and environmentally damaging, so the state cut back on its use of sand. Today, a crew of seven people spends about two weeks readying the trail for spring, using Ice Slicer or another melting agent to clear away the ice, but most ends up melting on its own, said Dwayne Gaymon, state transportation foreman. Crews also repair any concrete damage on the trail, and sweep it clean of debris. Twelve years after the trail was completed and millions of hikes, jogs and bike rides later, Trapani said the final trail and the superhighway above it are modern marvels. “I just think that being able to construct a modern four-lane highway and literally improve the natural environment is the success story of the project,” he said. “We’ve got a safe four-lane highway through there now, but we’ve also got a way for people to ride their bike and walk through. The project is successful because it enhanced life in general.”Vail, Colorado