Glenwood Springs, Colorado is a fun town. That’s its brand. It aspires to be one of America’s most recreationally-minded small municipalities—really more of a tiny city—and it routinely makes the top 10 lists among various outdoor-centric periodicals, as I covered once before. Sometimes it reaches a bit further, placing on lists of all-around best and most livable towns in the country. Aside from sitting squarely in the middle of one of the fittest and most recreationally-minded states, it offers an abundance of hiking and mountain biking trails, a mountaintop amusement park (reachable by gondola), mineral water soaking pools, a nine-hole golf course, a water park, rafting, and kayaking, as well as a lovingly maintained 19th century hotel near the center of it all.
And, this being Colorado, a ski resort isn’t far—but at twelve miles away, it’s not quite accurate to christen Glenwood Springs a “ski town”; much of its recreation orients itself to the summer weather, abetted by surprisingly mild temperatures considering the high elevation (approximately 8,000 feet above sea level). Then again, for those who crave top-tier skiing, one of the Grand Dames of Colorado Resorts—the City of Aspen—is just an hour’s drive. It also helps that Glenwood Springs is prosperous, though perhaps that’s a self-fulfilling prophecy: it cannot help but be prosperous when it receives so much media coverage on what an attractive place it is. Most who visit seem to agree with the press’s assessment.
Glenwood Springs also lures two appealing, moneyed demographics: white-collar retirees and young families whose jobs don’t tether them to a major city, because none are close by. Denver is over 150 miles to the east; Salt Lake City is more than 300 miles to the west. Unlike many similarly sized Colorado communities (Aspen included), Glenwood Springs is not a former mining encampment resuscitated through ski resort rebranding; no skiing exists within walking distance. Long a frontier outpost whose primary claim to fame was the geothermal activity nearby (hence the hot “springs” of its name), this seat of government to Garfield County has never really faced a prolonged period of economic malaise. For most of the last seventy years, it has enjoyed double-digit rates of population growth from one decennial census to the next—yet it doesn’t yet feel oversized or all that sprawling. How can it? It was 2,500 in 1950—just the right size to have a charming little main street, and the 2020 Census recorded it as just below 10,000 people, still retaining a multi-block commercial district in impeccable condition. As proof of its outdoorsy inclinations, I can’t think of another freestanding municipality (not a suburb of a major city) that is this small, which can still support a branch of the esteemed recreational outfitter REI. But Glenwood Springs can.
On top of all the outdoorsy things to do in the area, Glenwood Springs (as is the case of many recreational tourist nodes) can also support fine dining and boutique shopping. It boasts a downtown teeming with restaurants, breweries, Western wear, and other souvenir shops. And yet it has one odd feature: Colorado Highway (State Route) 82 also forms the primary downtown commercial corridor (Grand Avenue within the city limits), and an upgrade of the bridge to carry more traffic turned it into a strange “stacked” avenue for the primary main street block.
What do I mean? Here’s the view of Grand Avenue from an adjacent pedestrian bridge:
The State Route 82 appears on the left, spanning across both the Colorado River and Interstate 70. It’s hard to conceptualize, but the map below helps. In the photo above, I was standing just a bit south of where the “Glenwood Walking Bridge” label appears on this map.
As I understand it, this highway, which meanders to the northwest on the opposite side of downtown Glenwood Springs, either didn’t yet exist or was of insufficient capacity at the time that various DOTs (Colorado and Federal Highway Administration) determined a road needed to cross both the river and the limited-access highway (I-70). Here’s a better view from the ped bridge again.
The road and bridge serve their intended purpose. But, heading southward into downtown Glenwood Springs, they could not converge at street level until the next block (8th Street), resulting in a highway ramp cutting through the commercial heart of Grand Avenue.
Does this get the point across? It’s a bewildering yet strangely accomplished feat of traffic engineering that clearly inflicts some serious drawbacks to the Glenwood Springs streetscape. The sidewalk of Grand Avenue, fronting the 19th century commercial buildings, is at a different grade than the road itself for that one critical block. Here’s what it looks like on the east side of Grand Avenue, with northbound traffic:
And, continuing, southward, as the two levels begin to converge:
Looking across the busy four-lane highway, the sidewalk on the opposite side is still below street level at this point.
Pivoting northward, here’s what it looks like as the highway stretches into a bridge crossing the river and I-70.
One thing is for certain: it’s a great (albeit expensive) tool for preventing jaywalking. Only at Grand Avenue’s intersection with 8th Street is there a conventional crosswalk, as this Google Street View indicates. And the opposite side of Grand Avenue—the west side, with southbound traffic—offers an identical streetscape:
In both instances, the presence of this upper tier of Grand Avenue—the State Route 82 portion that crosses the Colorado River and I-70 into northern Glenwood Springs—becomes such a barrier that the sidewalks essentially operate as channels, linking pedestrians to entrances to buildings on the one side of the street, but completely impeding visual and physical access to the storefronts on the opposite side. It seems like a recipe for disaster. But clearly it isn’t: against many odds, Glenwood Springs manages to offer an enviable main street experience, despite also functioning as a pedestrian-hostile thoroughfare. (I say “against many odds” instead of “against all odds” because, of course, Glenwood Springs’s proximity to distinct geographic features gives it advantages it would lack if it were a similarity sized town in Kansas—or even eastern Colorado.)
But so much focus on the upper-tier of the Grand Avenue/SR 82 streetscape runs the risk of overlooking downtown Glenwood Springs’s secret weapon: the lower tier. The photo below (featured a second time) is the most effective one I took that captures both levels, again standing from the elevated vantage point of the pedestrian bridge that runs immediately parallel to the SR 82 bridge.
It’s probably the best angle available to show the complexity of the streetscape. Just out of view in the lower-right corner is Grand Avenue’s intersection with 7th Street, most likely in the original configuration from when settlers and surveyors platted the town in 1883. Most compelling of all, however, is the treatment of the space directly under the bridge.
It’s fully activated: lights, furnishings, potted plants. It’s essentially a plaza that helps build a linkage to compensate for the schism created by the huge overhead bridge. The improvement physically and psychologically extends the al fresco dining space that services the restaurants at the Grand/7th intersection.
It may be the single most effective pedestrian node in the entire city. Even as one approaches the point where upper-tier and lower-tier begin to converse, it achieves a sort of atmospheric grotto appearance, like a theme park cavern. I could see the City hosting live music performances here.
It’s clean and supremely inviting—a huge contrast between the typical space under a bridge or overpass. These areas, routinely neglected in most urban areas, have turned into fertile ground for burgeoning homeless encampments, and while a small town like Glenwood Springs might seem immune to such a condition, its proximity to I-70 would still make it a popular overnight spot for hitchhikers or other drifters. But not if it’s a space for families to congregate.
Most important for Glenwood Springs’s growing prestige, these improvements under the bridge are relatively recent. Here’s a Google Street View of the Bethel Plaza site from October 2012. It was just an underpass, dingy and forgotten—the residual space subservient to the infrastructure overhead. It served as a tiny lot for a few cars, Meanwhile, the now fully-pedestrianized paths on each side of Grand Avenue—linking the 7th Street level with the bridge—were vehicular access ramps with tiny sidewalks. The configuration was less inviting for just about everyone (except, no doubt, for homeless en route to a bigger city). The improvements not just beautified a typically forlorn space, they created superior opportunities for pedestrians to stroll along Grand Avenue, for neighboring restaurants to host outdoor seating, or for retailers to offer “teaser” displays of their merchandise.
The only losers here were cars, but if motorists need to get from 7th Street to 8th Street—or to Grand Avenue so that they can cross the river and I-70—they can just take one of the parallel streets to Grand (Copper Avenue or Grand Avenue) and they’ll be there in thirty seconds. It’s a small municipality and all the affected roads outside of Grand Avenue are local in scale and carrying capacity; therefore, rerouting this traffic is unlikely to reduce the Level of Service (LOS). It’s a very minor inconvenience.
The unsavory space under the bridge isn’t the only feature at this intersection to receive a massive face lift in the last few years.
Here’s a view of the Glenwood Springs walking bridge that served as a vantage point for snapping many of the previous photos. It runs mostly parallel to the path of State Route 82, critically linking the south side of Glenwood Springs with the north. And while South Glenwood Springs comprises the majority of the town’s population and urbanized area (including its downtown), it’s North Glenwood Springs that features the hot springs, swimming pools, water park, gondola, and the Hotel Colorado—in other words, the fun stuff. So it’s essential that the downtown maintain a visible, safe pedestrian linkage with the recreational amenities…which it has, courtesy of improvements concurrent to the Bethel Park space.
As this October 2012 Google Street view shows, Glenwood Springs has long had a pedestrian bridge linking downtown to the hotels, the bulk of which are on the north side of town. But the previous bridge was small, narrow, unaesthetic, and showing its age. The improvements from the last few years rerouted SR 82 so that it veers to the northwest; and the widened ped bridge claims the old right-of-way (ROW) that SR 82 formerly occupied, when it moved in a more due-north trajectory prior to around 2016.
The photo above, taken from 7th Street directly across from Bethel Plaza, shows how the two bridges parallel one another: vehicular bridge (SR 81) on the left, Glenwood Springs Walking Bridge on the right. Here’s a few from the other side of 7th Street, where the SR 81 bridge veers in a northwesterly direction after crossing the river and freeway.
By taking the space claimed by the vacated SR 82 bridge ROW, the pedestrian bridge now features viewing gazebos and elevators on either endpoint, maximizing its tourist-friendliness and rendering it completely wheelchair compatible. North and South Glenwood Springs are better connected than ever.
It’s completely reasonable to assert that all these improvements are the byproduct of a municipality and state flush with cash after enjoying considerable population growth in the last few decades, with most of it coming from an affluent population having decided that Colorado is the place to be…the place to retire. Home prices across much of the state have surged, and Glenwood Springs is no exception. A historically rugged, blue-collar state that was decidedly down-and-out in the mid-20th century after mining collapsed has now morphed into one of the nation’s wealthiest states, filled with vacation homes owned by the elite. Places like Aspen have re-emerged from the brink of devolving into ghost town status. Such is the nature of shifting economic priorities, which inevitably align with the popular will as it translates to demand for certain places, products, and experiences over others. Glenwood Springs represents the intersection of multiple tiers of “yes” votes: yes to small-town feel, yes to walkability, yes to summer fun, yes to beautiful vistas. This yes votes kept taking place despite the town’s distance from an international airport; nobody ever gave it much of a “no” vote while Aspen was hemorrhaging population. Humans are fickle. They can shun a formerly beloved sport like golf or racquetball at the same time that they choose to hang out under a bridge in a once-obscure mountain town. Awkward analogy, I know—but the point still stands.