Located in the southern Gore Range at an elevation of 10,662 feet, Vail Pass has been the site of periodic human occupations for at least 8,000 years. The prehistoric camp probably served as a high-altitude base when the growing population of nearby Native American groups caused them to expand their area of resource use. In 1940 a paved highway was completed over the pass, which was named for state highway engineer Charles Vail. In the late 1970s that route was upgraded to Interstate 70.
Vail Pass Camp is a large and well-studied high-elevation prehistoric camp. Located near the present-day Vail Pass rest area about 220 yards west of Interstate 70, the site preserves more than seventy archaeological features representing at least nine separate periods of occupation. Archaeologists have uncovered forty-eight fire hearths, a stone circle and a stone semicircle, fragments of two pots, several bone concentrations, and dozens of projectile points, end scrapers, and knives.
The earliest occupation of Vail Pass Camp dates to between 6400 and 5800 BCE, in the Early Archaic period (6650–3800 BCE). The most recent was probably a Ute camp that dates to the mid-1700s CE. In between it was occupied dozens of times, with an apparent peak in frequency during the Late Archaic period (1250–100 BCE). Intensive use continued during subsequent occupations until the Protohistoric period (1540–late 1800s CE). Surviving evidence indicates that the habitations at Vail Pass were open camps, with the inhabitants commonly using lightweight shelters that have not survived. Because the site is uninhabitable for much of the year, it would have been used only from late spring through early fall.
The pattern of dates at the site suggests that it was used by small hunting groups for several generations at a time. There seem to be two large gaps in the site’s use: 5500–3700 BCE and 2900–2000 BCE. Changes in the site’s use could have been based on either environmental shifts, such as neoglacial cooling during the Middle Archaic period, or the internal dynamics of nearby cultural groups.
The tools found at the site indicate that it was used primarily for hunting and processing game. There is little variation in the types of tools discovered at the site, suggesting that different groups in different periods adapted to the harsh mountain environment in similar ways. Fragments of pots, which would have been hard to carry, indicate that occupations at the site lasted at least a few days, maybe even several weeks. Most tools at the site are multifunctional and show evidence of extensive use, indicating that the groups who camped in the area probably brought tools with them and reused them until they broke.
After Anglo-Americans began to settle in Colorado and explore the mountains in the 1800s, they occasionally stumbled upon the prehistoric remnants at Vail Pass Camp. In 1887, for example, T.D.A. Cockerell—a founder of the University of Colorado Museum in Boulder—camped near the pass while on a trip through the Rocky Mountains. He identified a variety of projectile points and pottery sherds in the area.
Although it is now an important landmark along Interstate 70, before the 1930s Vail Pass lay in the middle of a seemingly impenetrable mass of mountains. No railroad route went anywhere near there, and the earliest automobile roads west from Denver turned either north to Steamboat Springs or south to Leadville to avoid going through the Gore Range.
The Vail Pass area started to become less remote in the 1920s, when boosters in Red Cliff and other mountain towns began to push the State Highway Department to construct a “Holy Cross Trail” along roughly the same path that I-70 would later follow. Designed to deliver pilgrims to Red Cliff as a base for visiting nearby Mount of the Holy Cross, the route was supposed to provide a more direct route by going over Shrine Pass (near present-day Vail Pass) instead of curving south toward Leadville.
The State Highway Department endorsed the Holy Cross Trail but never made it a priority for funding. In 1931 a dirt road was built to Red Cliff via Shrine Pass, but it was never paved. In 1940 Vail Pass finally came into being when the state used Public Works Administration funding to construct a paved road over the pass between West Ten Mile Creek and Black Gore Creek. This two-lane road became the route of US 6 through the mountains. It also gained a reputation as one of the state’s trickiest drives, with long straightaways suddenly giving way to dangerous turns. Most traffic headed west from Denver continued to follow US 40 through Steamboat Springs to Utah.
Despite being less popular than US 40, the relatively direct US 6 route was selected in 1960 as the path I-70 would take through the mountains. Initially, interstate planners hoped to eliminate Vail Pass from the route and save ten miles for motorists by blasting a tunnel under the Gore Range near Red Buffalo Pass. This would have required removing land from the Gore Range-Eagles Nest Primitive Area (later Wilderness), however, and public protests in the late 1960s caused officials to abandon the plan and stick with the Vail Pass route.
The plan for I-70 over Vail Pass was subject to years of studies, public comment, and redesigns. It was during this period, in November 1974, that the Vail Pass Camp archaeological site was first tested by Bill Briggs, Curtis Martin, and Doug Dykeman during a survey of the area. The Federal Highway Administration and the Colorado Department of Highways provided funding for a thorough excavation conducted over twelve weeks from August to October 1975. A comprehensive report about the site and the excavation was published in 1981.
Meanwhile, the interstate over Vail Pass was completed in 1978. With its east and west lanes divided by a large natural median and the road elevated on a viaduct in some places to avoid carving into unstable slopes and stream beds, the Vail Pass portion of I-70 looks distinctly different from the rock-blasted interstate corridor farther east. At the summit of the pass, right next to the location of Vail Pass Camp, an exit provides access to a rest area, the dirt Shrine Pass Road, and two fishing lakes that were built on Black Gore Creek just north of the pass. Early plans called for the rest area to include an interpretive display about the archaeological site, but the display was never developed.
Aside from its continued use as a major transportation corridor, Vail Pass has become a popular site for year-round recreation. During the summer cyclists can follow the paved Vail Pass bike path between Copper Mountain and Vail; for several miles near Vail the path runs along the route of old US 6. Vail Pass can also be used as a trailhead for hiking and is home to fishing at the two Black Lakes, which are stocked with trout. In the winter the pass is a major access point for the 55,000-acre Vail Pass Winter Recreation Area, which contains more than 100 miles of backcountry trails for snowmobiling, skiing, snowboarding, and snowshoeing.