Those long stretches of lonesome roads that most of us recall when we think about driving across the states west of us, came back into sharp view as we spent two days driving to Colorado this past week. All of the most direct routes from Minnesota to that mountainous state include at least some miles, and often a lot of them, wheeling across Nebraska. The flat lands along the Platte River and Interstate Highway 80 are what comes to mind when for most folks as they think about that journey. We’ve done that route a few times before and explored some other routes that help to make the trip seem a bit more interesting. The long stretches of two-lane road though the scenic Sand Hills in northern and central Nebraska actually make the east–west trip seem to go faster than the I-80 raceway. Even along that Platte River route, taking U.S. 30 through the many small towns and some of the larger cities along the original transcontinental Union Pacific Railroad route, although slower, is much more interesting and seems to go faster than the freeway just to the south. This time we chose a hilly route south of Sioux City, Iowa down to the Platte River and southwesterly to an overnight stay in Grand Island.
The next morning we headed a bit west and then further south, to a route along the southern tier of Nebraska counties. Elmo and Julie Volstad found this U.S. Hwy. 34 route to be a more scenic and relaxing ride on their twice-yearly trips to see kids and grandkids in southwestern Colorado. Hilly and wide, U.S. 34 was about as busy as Hwy. 67 and with 10 to 12 miles between towns and we made good time driving westward. There’s lots of irrigated cropland along the way and small feedlots at many of the farms. The shallow Republican River eventually gives way to the high plains as the route crosses into northeastern Colorado. The farms become ranches and those irrigated fields give way to grazing land, sage brush and dusty cow towns separated by huge feedlots holding thousands of cattle.
The rolling hills and 4,000 feet elevation along the route allows you to see almost forever in all directions. After driving west of the Colorado border a hundred miles or so, the outline of the state’s signature easternmost mountain peaks comes into view. It takes a good while longer, and a trip though the sprawling Denver metro area, to finally bring those incredible mountains into full view. Denver’s choking traffic gives you some extra time to stare at the foothills and rising peaks behind them but eventually you climb and climb and the mountain grades rise sharply. It’s all so very different than the high plains an hour or two earlier and that seems to make it all the better. Our destination was the idyllic setting of the high elevation mountain town of Aspen, a full 200 miles of mountains and canyons to the west. All the highway routes west of Denver, including the busy Interstate 70, have spectacular scenery. Rushing rivers along the way turn to small but fast creeks as you climb toward the continental divide. The downhill grades between mountain passes cause your brakes to beg for mercy but soon get relief when you’re once again climbing toward another mountain pass. There are 96 mountains in the United States that reach 14,000 feet or higher. 53 of those mountain peaks are in Colorado.
We traveled between several of those “14-ers” east of Aspen on the narrow winding highway that travels over Independence Pass at 12,095 feet. That high elevation air is thin enough to make breathing a bit of a chore for most folks and maybe more so to those of us used to the 890 feet to 1,050 feet elevations of Yellow Medicine and Chippewa Counties. Even the 7,900 foot elevation in Aspen was noticeable when we were walking or riding bike around the town. The three-story stairway to our place for the week was enough to make you want to sit down as soon as you got through the door. The ear-popping ride up and over the mountain passes on the way back east were just as fun. Our return trip was a winding route through Leadville, CO and eventually back onto the inevitable I-70 for about 60 miles back into Denver at the foothills and back onto the high plains.
We joined the race on I-80 across Nebraska until 600 miles finally seemed like enough for the day and we made an overnight stay at a motel in the busy city of Kearney, from where this column originates. The remaining 400 miles will be a more of leisurely ride through the lush green farm fields and past the many cow yards of eastern Nebraska. Although the trip itself often seems as interesting as the destination, somehow our route back across those high plains and along the Platte River didn’t seem as fascinating as it was on the way west. I guess it’s hard to forget about those incredible mountains. That said, we’ll plan to visit with you some more about this adventure and the things we saw and heard next week. __________