Truckers, You Are Not Down Yet

Unnerving highway signs on eastbound I-70 approaching Denver

Photo credits: me

If you've ever descended from the mountains into Denver on Interstate 70, you may have noticed the series of attention-grabbing signs intended for drivers of trucks and heavy vehicles. When I was a kid, I remember reading those signs with wide-eyed wonder, and they prompted discussions with my father about why this was such a dangerous stretch of highway. The signs are still intriguing to me, partly because - instead of being written with typical, bland, highway sign verbiage - it's as if they were designed and written by an actual trucker, using jargon intended to clearly get the message across to other truckers.


All shots below are from eastbound I-70; this first one is just east of exit 241 (the east Idaho Springs interchange) approaching the twin tunnel.*

* Note: not "Tunnel" with a capital T; when locals say "The Tunnel", they're referring to the twin bores under the Continental Divide west of here - the Eisenhower and Johnson tunnels.

November 2002

It's interesting that already at this point truckers are being prepared for the upcoming descent - because in 2 or 3 miles the freeway climbs out of Clear Creek Canyon, and traffic must ascend Floyd Hill - which is one of the steepest uphill grades on eastbound I-70.

East of the Floyd Hill summit (near exit 247) there are some short descents and ascents which may lull some drivers into a false sense of safety. So after exit 248, we're presented with this friendly reminder:

November 2002

After exit 253 (Chief Hosa), the grade is slightly uphill to exit 254 (Genesee Bridge, visible in the distance below). But the signs don't let you forget what's coming:

November 2002

From here east, just about every warning sign is posted on both sides of the road. The Genesee Bridge is actually located on a minor pass (that's part of the reason there's such a good view from there - click here for photos and more details). So east of there, it's virtually all downhill into Denver. Just past the bridge, the final descent begins:

November 2002

That's the onramp from exit 254 at right. From there on a clear day (which is becoming increasingly rare), you can see the Denver metro area spread out in the distance. And on a clear night, the city lights are beautiful from this point. But don't spend too much time gawking: with some cars doing 80 mph (or even 90) and weaving between the more sensible drivers and the wide loads crawling along at 35, it can be a serious white-knuckle stretch.

At this point - while it is a down grade - it's not too steep yet. But don't fall asleep:

November 2002

That's at about milepost 255. I don't have photos of the next two sets of signs, just past this point: one alerts truckers to a runaway truck ramp about a mile distant, and the other set warns of a 6% down grade. That's because east of exit 256 (Lookout Mountain), the freeway enters what's known as Mount Vernon Canyon. On the overpass which serves that interchange, there's a sign rimmed with yellow flashers:

November 2002

Things are getting pretty serious now. Below is another perspective, taken while in motion:

June 2004

The upcoming set of signs say "Runaway Truck Ramp - Right 3/4 mile", and the one in the distance marks the entrance to the truck ramp approach. Below is a close-up view:

June 2004

2000 feet might as well be 2000 miles if your brakes are failing at this point... because just ahead is a fairly sharp curve to the right, and then there's an even tighter one back to the left. That second bend is known to long-time residents as "Deadman's Curve". Yeah, I know there are lots of those, but this one definitely deserved its moniker. Vehicles would go zipping down there, and if they couldn't make the turn they'd crash through the guardrail and find themselves freefalling into the canyon below. That's the situation that prompted all these signs in the first place. Also, Deadman's Curve was straightened out somewhat, and the truck ramp was added (I'm guessing this was in about 1980).

It's technically not a truck "ramp" though - it's on the same grade as the through lanes. It's actually a half-mile strip of deep gravel, ending in a series of big yellow barrels. I can't imagine how fast a truck would have to be going to plow through all that sand and actually hit those barrels. (Matt Salek informed me that barrels are typically filled with sand, and that truck ramps are usually designed assuming a 90-mph terminal velocity.)

Anyway, for those drivers who don't have to make use of the runaway truck ramp, there's one more warning sign:

November 2002

That's posted right next to the truck ramp (at far right, you can see the aforementioned gravel strip and yellow barrels).

One would hope that all these ominous signs would serve as a wake-up to all motorists, not just truckers. Yet it was on this very stretch that somebody in front of me once lost control of their suv. Apparently the driver wasn't looking at the road, and he started to creep out of his lane. Upon realizing his error, he over-corrected, and the top-heavy vehicle tipped up on two wheels. Then I think he locked up the brakes, because the tires started screeching and smoking, and the car began bouncing back and forth between the left and right wheels. I was able to move past him, but in my rearview mirror I saw that the car had spun around the wrong direction and come to a stop. After his initial relief at not flipping over, I wonder how he felt upon realizing he was stopped the wrong way on a freeway... with a horde of unsuspecting traffic rounding the corner and speeding right at him down a 6% grade?

Below is another perspective, which perhaps does a better job of showing the steep grade that still remains:

June 2004

Not far from there is another set of 6% grade signs. Then the road makes a curve back to the left, cuts through the Hogback (visible at far right in the photo above), and deposits traffic into suburban Denver. No more steep grades to worry about. But the crazed drivers are another story...