Driving scared in Colorado

Driver’s eye view, Mt Evans road

I got a AAA Update in my email this morning that contained something interesting — an article about Colorado’s four scariest roads. Before clicking on the link, I tried to guess what the four might be, and correctly guessed two: Mt Evans and the Oh My God Road. I’d forgotten Pikes Peak, and I’ve never driven the Million Dollar Highway.

I drove to the top of Mt Evans (14,264 ft.) about ten years ago, and I was petrified. By the time I got onto the upper five miles and realized how bad it was getting, it was too late. There was no room to turn around, no shoulder to pull on to. It was a paved road, but there were many stretches with no guard rail of any kind, and in some places much of the outer lane had crumbled away. My only choice was to keep going. After all, other people had driven and were driving the road; if they could do it, so could I. The view from the top made it almost worthwhile, if only there’d been a different way to get back down. But there wasn’t.

The Oh My God Road is well named and self-explanatory. I’ve haven’t actually driven it myself, but I’ve never forgotten the childhood vacation when my dad drove us all down that road. It may not be as scary as I remember, but I spent most of the drive not daring to look out the window and trusting that my dad could do anything, including drive that road.

Racing up Pikes Peak

The Pikes Peak (14,110 ft.) road makes me nervous because much of it has no guard rails and it’s not paved*, but at least it’s very wide and well maintained. Still, it amazes me that professional drivers race up that road every year, drifting and sliding around corners that I navigate with extreme caution while staying as far from the edge as possible.

I’ve always considered myself a good driver, but for someone who has been a flatlander most of her life, these roads are, to say the least, challenging. Their lack of guard rails puzzles me.** I suppose one could argue that drivers can’t admire the view if there are railings; I would argue the driver has no business admiring the view while navigating such roads, but maybe the engineers are catering to passengers. Even so, a simple steel cable isn’t going to obscure that much. On the other hand, looking at that top picture, it’s pretty obvious there simply isn’t room enough to install guard rails.

I’ve had nervous moments on other mountain roads, too. Independence Pass (12,095 ft.) gives me pause. Most of it, as I recall, has low stone rails, but it’s steep, narrow, and full of switchbacks. So much so that trucks aren’t allowed on it at all and RV drivers have to plan very carefully.

Even I-70 westbound from Denver makes me nervous in places. There are some very long, steep grades that I don’t like going down. Everyone is driving 70 mph anyway, and then they just let their vehicles run on the downgrades. Of course there’s always another uphill stretch at the end of the downhill, but you’re likely doing 80-90 mph in heavy traffic with lots of 18-wheelers. The presence of “runaway truck” ramps is cold comfort.

Then there’s the time I was caught up on Trail Ridge Road (max. elev. 12,183 ft.), trying to get back to Estes Park. I ran into what I now know is “graupel,” a sort of soft, pea-sized hail. Slush balls, actually. It covered the road with icy slush and piled up on the windshield. Bad visibility, slick road. And I’d just entered a several-miles-long stretch above timberline that had no guard rails; sliding off the road meant possibly sliding thousands of feet into the valley below. I didn’t get out of the slop until I’d driven up and over the Divide and part way down the far side.

Maybe I’m as timid as I am because I once lost my brakes on a mountain road. Not an adventure I would recommend for the faint of heart. It was miles of steep grade with no place to pull over. I even had time to think about those movies of runaway cars where they slow down by scraping along a guard rail or hillside, although it didn’t come to that. As I neared the bottom and was contemplating the thrill of speeding uncontrollably into busy Boulder suburbs, I came to a side road that sloped up and just managed to make the turn. Where are those runaway truck ramps when you need them? Up is beautiful.

There’s no particular reason out-of-staters should be interested in Colorado’s scary roads, but for those of you curious about the world’s most dangerous roads, the AAA article included a great link to dozens of amazing photos. Check it out. It’ll give you a whole new perspective on that daily commute you grouse about.

______________

*The Pikes Peak road was paved all the way to the summit in 2011.
**I’ve since learned that there are no guard rails because they interfere with the ability of plows to push snow off the roads.



Categories: Society

16 replies

  1. On the other hand, I’m imagining there’s a benefit for drivers who aren’t blessed with multi-laned controlled access, speed limited freeways. My guess is that we’d be better drivers if we had to drive up Pikes Peak to get to work and down it to get back home. Imagine the consequences of learning to handle congestion, scenic distractions, road rage and texting while driving that route. I think you’d become a much better driver. Or a dead one.

  2. Is this fun or what? Notice the difference in steering inputs when he reaches the unpaved section.

    I hope this works.

    • Eek, this really had me grabbing for the armrests when he took off. Needless to say, I’ve not seen that road at that speed! I was disappointed the race ended before he got above timberline though. That’s when it really gets hairy. I was looking at one video earlier today where the driver was above timberline and as he was going into some of the turns, the sun was directly in front of him and he was putting one hand up to shade his eyes. Not exactly the way I’d want to run that road.

  3. Thanks for the shoutout! I wrote the Scary Roads article for AAA Colorado and put together the e-newsletter. There were a bunch of other roads I would have liked to include (Phantom Canyon, especially) but had to just pick four for space reasons. Some of the pictures on the Dark Roasted Blend blog are amazing and it’s hard to know whether to laugh or cry at them.

    Our newsletters were a little sparse on real local travel articles in the past, but I’m writing them full-time now instead of trying to fit it around producing the magazine, so I hope you’ll find some more interesting stories there in future. 🙂

  4. 4WD may be recommended on Phantom Canyon, but I have taken a Kia Rio through it, at night, during late winter and lived to tell the tale. Yes I had some parts near the approach to Victor where I had to dig through, but no biggie. I had a great time. Please save the Darwin Award stuff – Don’t judge Me! LOL!!!

    • Oh, I wouldn’t dream of judging when I haven’t seen the road. I have a Forester now, with AWD, and might be tempted to try it someday, providing there were others around in case I had problems.

  5. Just wanted to let you know that husband has spent the last 30 minutes traveling around your blog and having great fun with the posts and links. He won’t comment, so I’ll just leave a note. (and rip the computer out of his hands.)

  6. We’ve i70 in Colorado 14 of the last 17 yrs can’t go to silverthorn without driving my Evans rocky mtn park and George town train and down to royal gorge from silverthorn down the back road. We stay at days inn across from Dillon beautiful lake . I’ve driven 3 times im73now and usually my brother or son Gwent and does the driving..and I can watch the wild life and beautiful waterfalls and snow covered mtns. We usually go the last week in June . mt. Evans is worth the drive . and summit lake has a bathroom and viewing area mtn goats, yellow bellied marmets At echo lake before going up my Evans there’s a restaurant and gift shop.Sometimes we do mt Evans and George train the same day. We enter rocky mtn park on the right. My mother always

    loved to go with us. You can get a senior pass to get in the national. Parks free. We’ve seen moose. Many elk near alpine visitor center. It’s always cooler the weest side of the mtns.Ill be going again soon and tasking more of the family right through there where my parents took me when I was 12 yrs old, try it you’ll will always go back…..JH from. Is.

    • Most of the places you mention I’ve visited at least once. Up around RMNP is where I’ve spent many, many vacations and I love it, but I really do need to break away and explore other areas, now that I live here. I really was scared going up Mt. Evans, though. Maybe was having a bad day, or the road was in particularly bad condition. You’re so right to encourage taking the kids. That’s how I got mountain fever as a kid; my folks brought me up here every summer.

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