The Great American Outdoors Act (GAOA) was enacted in 2020 and is the single largest investment in public lands in U.S. History. GAOA funding provides federal land management agencies with critical resources to address deferred maintenance on our public lands. Through this funding, the National Forest Foundation has partnered with the U.S. Forest Service to plan, design, and implement projects that address overdue and much-needed maintenance on the Grand Mesa, Uncompahgre, and Gunnison National Forests.  

The Alpine Tunnel opened in 1882, east of the Town of Gunnison, Colorado. At the time, it was the highest railroad tunnel in the world at 11,523 feet in elevation and provided infrastructure for the Denver, South Park, and Pacific Railroad to cross the Continental Divide – the first of its kind. However, the railroad line was abandoned in 1910 due to damage to the tunnel's interior.

Palisade Wall in the early 1880s.

After the railroad was no longer operable, the old railbed became popular for off-roading. People from around the world visit the Alpine Tunnel to view the historic railroad route and the magnificent high elevation engineering it took to construct such a line. Users can drive several mountain passes in the area, making it a great day trip to see Colorado's Rocky Mountain high country.

In 1996, the 'Alpine Tunnel Historic District' was added to the National Register of Historic Places due to its significance as North America's highest and longest narrow gauge railroad tunnel and the first railroad tunnel of any type to pierce the Continental Divide.

Train on the railroad in 1889.

Site visit in 2022.

The Grand Mesa, Uncompahgre and Gunnison (GMUG) National Forests manage the land and historic site. For safety concerns, the GMUG National Forests had to close a section of the Alpine Tunnel Road in 2016 due to an avalanche that caused significant damage to the Palisade Wall - a 430 ft long 30 ft tall retaining wall built with hand-cut, dry-stacked stones.

Following the passage of the Great American Outdoors Act (GAOA) in 2020, the GMUG saw an opportunity to submit the Alpine Tunnel project as a priority as resource limitations previously constrained an agency response to repair the Palisade Wall and open the Alpine Tunnel Road. GAOA focuses on reducing deferred maintenance and improving infrastructure to improve the conditions for visitor experiences and the resiliency of our nation's forests. The GMUG was awarded funds for the project and the NFF became involved to add capacity, support planning, and coordinate implementation.

Photos from a site visit in 2022.

The first phase of work occurred in the summer of 2022. Working with regional contractors, the vertical rock walls above the Palisade Wall were scaled to improve safety on site. In early 2023, NFF and GMUG National Forests will complete designs with a firm that specializes in historic masonry designs. The designs will guide reconstruction that is anticipated to start in 2023 and take two field seasons to complete.

"It will be a great accomplishment for everyone involved when the public can again access this historic area via the Alpine Tunnel Road across the historic Palisades."

-Marcus Trusty, Executive Director of CORE, the daily project presence during the rock scaling phase of the Alpine Tunnel project.

The NFF will continue to be and is excited to stay involved in the coordination of all phases of work to reopen access along the Palisade Wall and to the Alpine Tunnel.

The historic photos used in this blog post were sourced from: Helmers, Dow. Historic Alpine Tunnel. Denver: Sage Books, 1963.

National Forest Foundation