Alternate routes to Salt Lake City

Thoughts prompted by a curious sign on westbound I-70, west of Denver

This sign is posted just after Lawson (exit 233) and just before Empire (exit 232 to US 40):

First, an interesting technicality: neither I-70 nor US 40 directly serves Salt Lake City (although US 40 did historically). But more to the point: I'd be interested to know why this sign was put up. Was it perhaps at the urging of tourist-related businesses and chamber-of-commerce types in northwest Colorado, who were concerned that I-70 was diverting too much traffic away from their area? What type of traveller is this sign geared towards? I've passed it many times over the years, and because of it I originally assumed that I-70 was the best route between Denver and Salt Lake. But after researching it, the truth is: if you're in Denver and you want to get to Salt Lake fast, then you won't see this sign at all - because the quickest way is to go north to Wyoming and then west on I-80.

OK, but let's say you're already in Empire (in other words, at the junction of I-70 and US 40), and you want to get to Salt Lake - which way should you go? The answer depends what you want: do you want to get there fast? Do you want to travel the least amount of miles? Do you want the most scenic route? Do you mind driving on two-lane highways, or do you want interstates the whole way?

Let's talk about the quickest routes first: this seems counter-intuitive, but more than one of the online driving-directions websites actually suggest going back east to Denver and then north through Cheyenne, as described above. That would definitely be a longer distance, at about 570 miles. But it appeals to those who want to drive interstates the whole way. Estimated drive time would be about 8.5 hours.

Empire CO to Salt Lake City UT via Cheyenne WY:
570 miles 8.5 hours

Of course online directions are sometimes unreliable - particularly in the Mountain West - and the reality is, if you're driving during a time of heavy traffic along the Front Range, that may well negate any time advantages by using this route. Plus, most would consider I-80 through Wyoming to be... well, not a very inspiring drive. So if any of those factors concern you, then what are some other options?

As the sign suggests, you can use I-70 west. But I-70 doesn't directly serve Salt Lake, so what do you do? At Green River UT, you can go north on US 6 through Price to Spanish Fork, then north on I-15 to Salt Lake. The distance from Empire to Salt Lake using this route is about 487 miles, and again it would take an estimated 8.5 hours. For what it's worth, this is the route that most driving-directions sites recommend.

Empire CO to Salt Lake City UT via Price UT:
487 miles 8.5 hours

However, that US 6 cutoff is a 125-mile stretch, mostly along a two-lane highway. If you don't care for two-laners, then another option would be to stay on I-70 west of Green River, exiting instead at Salina. Take US 50 west for only about 30 miles to Scipio, and then you're back on an interstate again - Salt Lake is about 119 miles north from there on I-15. In terms of distance, this is another long option - about 570 miles from Empire - but since it's nearly all interstate, you could still get to Salt Lake in about 8.5 hours.

Empire CO to Salt Lake City UT via Salina UT:
570 miles 8.5 hours

All right, then what about this "alternate route" - US 40? Well, the first thing you should consider is that - if you follow the sign - you'd go over Berthoud Pass (which I consider to be one of the most difficult paved highway passes in Colorado, despite recent improvements). Plus - even if you're concerned only with the shortest road mileage to Salt Lake - US 40 is still not the best option from Empire. Empire to Kremmling via US 40 (over Berthoud and through Granby) is 73 miles, but Empire to Kremmling via I-70 and CO hwy. 9 (through the Tunnel and Silverthorne) is only 64 miles.

Either way (US 40 or CO 9), you'd be on a two-laner for nearly the entire journey to Salt Lake (you'd connect with I-80 near Park City, about 20 miles east of the capital). Plus you'd have to slow down through several towns along the way. Although the distance would be less - about 450 miles - these other factors make it likely that it would still take at least an extra hour to get to Salt Lake using this route.

Empire CO to Salt Lake City UT via Granby CO:
460 miles 10 hours
Empire CO to Salt Lake City UT via Silverthorne CO:
450 miles 9.5 hours

So now you know why I ask: what's the purpose of the sign shown above? Greg Wimpey wrote to suggest the possibility that it was posted back when I-70 was under construction through Glenwood Canyon. That may be true: Steve Walden wrote to tell me he believes the original sign was erected in 1989, and I-70 was completed through Glenwood in 1992. But then why route traffic over Berthoud rather than through the Tunnel? Perhaps because a sign describing how to get to Salt Lake using hwy. 9 and US 40 would be impractically verbose? Speaking of the Tunnel, Greg also suggests another possibility: maybe the intention is to consider US 40 an alternate route when Tunnel traffic is heavy. I'd say that may be true if your destination is Kremmling or Steamboat - but not if you're headed for Salt Lake.

Regardless, I-70 has been complete for about 20 years now. So for the majority of travellers (who just want to reach their destination fast) this sign is misleading. Even for those who simply want the shortest distance, it's still misleading. The only type of traveller I can think of who would want to use US 40 to Salt Lake are those who don't have time constraints and who don't care about the shortest mileage... but who do want the most scenic route.

Now, don't get me wrong: scenic driving is a perfectly legitimate form of travel. So what am I saying? Only this: shouldn't the wording on this sign be changed a bit? For example, how about this:

[Obviously that's a mashup of the photo at the top of this page, which was taken in 2001. I have a few other photos of this sign, from 2007, 2010, and 2012. If you look carefully, you'll notice the sign was replaced sometime between 2007 and 2010.]