Vail passes: Historical peaks and passes | VailDaily.com
YOUR AD HERE »

Vail passes: Historical peaks and passes

Rick Spitzer
Vail, CO Colorado
Rick Spitzer/Special to the Vail DailyThe Gore Range and Vail ski area viewed from Vail Mountain.
ALL |

VAIL, Colorado –Vail Pass lies on I-70, 10 miles east of the town of Vail and Vail Mountain Ski Resort. From the top of Vail Pass, a person can see the slopes of Copper Mountain Resort, but not those of Vail. A bike path, which offers a great ride for both the leisurely and serious bicyclist, crosses the pass and connects Copper Mountain and Vail. A large rest area and parking area at the summit offers respite for the car traveler and the bicyclist. Snowmobilers and crosscountry skiers also use the pass as a trailhead for winter activities.

To the west and north of the summit of Vail Pass extends the beautiful Gore Range. Very little of the overall range can be seen from the highway or from the town of Vail. A short trip along the Shrine Pass road provides the most spectacular view of the entire range –take exit 190 off I-70 and go west for 2 miles.

Choosing a Pass



In September 1939, the State Highway Department paved a route over what was then called Black Gore Pass. This was the first highway through the area. At this time, they renamed the pass Vail Pass in honor of Charles Vail, chief engineer for the department.

When they were planning the route, Vail favored a crossing over Red Buffalo Pass, a location north of Vail Pass that would allow the road to be nearly 11 miles shorter. However, Red Buffalo Pass is located in the Gore Range-Eagles Nest Primitive Area of the Arapaho and White River National Forests, and therefore protected from new highway construction. In 1941, Congress did approve reducing the size of the primitive area, established in 1933, to accommodate the construction of US 6 over Vail Pass. In the 1960s, when federal and state highway planners evaluated routes for a new interstate highway system intended to connect major cities of the United States, US 6 over Vail Pass received the nod for the link between Denver and Grand Junction.



In September 1939, the State Highway Department paved a route over what was then called Black Gore Pass. This was the first highway through the area. At this time, they renamed the pass Vail Pass in honor of Charles Vail, chief engineer for the department.

When they were planning the route, Vail favored a crossing over Red Buffalo Pass, a location north of Vail Pass that would allow the road to be nearly 11 miles shorter. However, Red Buffalo Pass is located in the Gore Range-Eagles Nest Primitive Area of the Arapaho and White River National Forests, and therefore protected from new highway construction. In 1941, Congress did approve reducing the size of the primitive area, established in 1933, to accommodate the construction of US 6 over Vail Pass. In the 1960s, when federal and state highway planners evaluated routes for a new interstate highway system intended to connect major cities of the United States, US 6 over Vail Pass received the nod for the link between Denver and Grand Junction.

Sir St. George Gore, the infamous Anglo-Irish baronet, was one of the first white men to pass through this area. Jim Bridger, a famous mountain man, led Gore on a hunting expedition in 1854. Bridger, Gore, and 28 others worked their way to the Colorado River in what is now Grand County near Kremmling. American Indians and white settlers did not like Gore because it was said his party killed 2,000 buffalo, 1,600 elk and deer, and 100 bears – an extravagant slaughter.



Some consider the Gore Range to be the most rugged mountain range in Colorado. It is dominated more by dense ridges than high peaks. The separate ridges in the range include: Zodiac Spires, Rockinghorse Ridge, Ripsaw Ridge, and the Grand Traverse. Visitors to the town of Vail can view the Grand Traverse from main street, called Gore Creek Drive. Another beautiful vantage point for the Gore Range, winter or summer, is from the top of virtually any point in the Vail ski area.

The Gore Range is not as popular with climbers and hikers as other ranges in Colorado for many reasons:

• No point in the range exceeds the 14,000-foot mark.

• No mining roads penetrate the range, so most peaks can only be accessed via a very long approach.

• Private property on the east side makes access difficult, and the trails are often poorly defined.

In addition, it is difficult to brag about conquering a peak in this range because few of them even have names, and many are difficult to identify on a map. In 1932, the Colorado Mountain Club attempted to address this problem by using letters to mark the summits in one part of the range. Though this lettering system frustrated hikers, it is still used, and has expanded to encompass more peaks in the range.

In the late 1800s, the surge in the exploration, mining, and settlement of the West drew attention to the problems of not having a standardized naming process. In 1890 President Benjamin Harrison signed an executive order that established the United States Board on Geographic Names. He gave the board authority to resolve all issues related to geographic names.

Today the board includes representatives of many federal agencies. The board asserts its own principles, policies and procedures governing the application and use of geographic names. They manage information on more than 2.5 million physical, cultural, and geographic features in the United States and its territories. Their records include the names of natural features, populated places, civil and governmental divisions, areas and regions, and cultural features such as mines, churches, schools, cemeteries, hospitals, dams, airports, and shopping centers.

The Geographic Names Information System (GNIS) is the federal standard for geographic nomenclature, maintained in a database called The National Geographic Names Database. The United States Geological Survey maintains this database. The GNIS Web site at http://geonames. usgs.gov/pls/gnispublic has a searchable data base that includes almost 2 million features grouped by many different categories. Each record contains the official or primary name, a term identifying the kind of feature, the location of the feature by state, county and geographic coordinates, the base series map on which the feature is located, the elevation if appropriate, variant names, and spellings. Still, confusion remains! There are two Mount Evans in Colorado and dozens of Bear Lakes. One of the board’s operating principles for naming features involves the search for present-day local usage. To do this it works with state and local governments as well as the general public. Place names usually originate from or are influenced by common usage and spoken language.

Many geographic names are binomial – they have two parts, one is specific and the other is generic, as in Vail Pass. The specific part identifies the particular place, feature, or area, while the generic part usually identifies a single topographic feature such as mountain, river or pass. An individual can apply to have a feature added to the database or changed, but the public as a whole has input into the final decision made by the board. An individual cannot simply submit a random name or have a place named after them or a friend. The name must have some significance to the area, have some historical context, and be acceptable to the public. Studying the place names of features near a geographic area reveals much about the history of an area.

Many of Colorado’s features carry the names of individuals who were important to its history. Mountains like Pikes Peak, Longs Peak and Mount Powell, and features like Gore Pass and Estes Park are good examples. Lone Eagle Peak honors Charles Lindbergh. Named features also honor events, like the unofficial peak that was renamed Columbia Point to honor the crew of the space shuttle Columbia. Columbia Point is located on the east side of Kit Carson Mountain in the Sangre De Cristos. On the northwest shoulder of the same mountain is Challenger Point, a peak named to honor the space shuttle Challenger. Both shuttles were destroyed in accidents that claimed the lives of their entire crews.

E-mail comments about this article to spitzerphoto@me.com or visit http://www.spitzerphoto.com.

Rick Spitzer is the author of “Colorado Mountain Passes: the States Most Accessible High Country Roadways,” which is for sale at The Bookworm of Edwards for $21.95. Parts of the book were serialized in the Vail Daily this summer. This is the last column we’ll be printing from this series this fall. Check back in the early summer to read more from “Colorado Mountain Passes.”


Support Local Journalism