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Northwest Colorado Energy Trail Journeys

Did you know a wealth of natural resources are found in northwest Colorado?

Deep below northwest Colorado’s canyons and rivers, forests and wilderness, mountains and parks, mesas and plateaus—lie geological expanses of fossil fuels and minerals. For centuries, coal, oil, natural gas, and oil shale have lured men to open cut and underground mines, as well as oil and gas fields. When traveling in the region, you are journeying across an energy trail.

Near Rangely, a vast pocket of trapped oil one mile down, ten miles long, and five miles wide makes the area the most productive oil field in Colorado; the world’s largest known source of oil shale is deposited in the Roan Cliff between Rifle and Grand Junction; near Oak Creek a “longwall” or coal cutting machine measuring 1,000-feet wide and more than three miles long, extracts coal with a 36 inch diameter shearer; above North Park 153 wells produce oil and natural gas.

Did you know you can see layers of oil shale from I-70?

When traveling on I-70 look to the west—toward the Roan Cliffs—between Rifle and Parachute and you’ll see a dark brown layer of oil bearing strata called the Mahogany Ledge. Oil extraction of the waxy compound called kerogen in this strata requires that the shale be crushed and heated to 900 degrees Fahrenheit. Oil production averages over 27 gallons of oil per ton of rock.

Did you know a coal seam in Burning Mountain has been smoldering since 1899?

In the Grand Hogback just west of downtown New Castle a coal mine, ignited by methane gas, caught fire in 1899. The underground coal seam is still smoldering. Scars may be seen on the mountainsides where heat is close to the surface, and in winter steam rises in wisps along the seam. In 2002, this seam ignited the Coal Seam Fire which burned 12,000 acres between Glenwood Springs and New Castle.

Did you know oil fields near Rangely have been producing black gold since the early 1900s?

In 1902, a million and a half barrels of oil was produced from shallow wells. A major company, after drilling for two years made the first deep oil discovery, but drilling costs were prohibitive. It wasn’t until the 1930s that technology enabled deep well drilling of more than one mile down—with an average of 100 days—to reach oil. The first of these wells, the Raven-1 site can be visited from Hwy 64.

Douglas Pass Energy Trail:

In the 1930s, technology enabled oilmen to drill over a mile down to oil pockets and open Colorado’s most productive oil field; just south of Douglas Pass look for Green River shale.

Paralleling the Canyon Pintado Journey, this trail traces the story of oil. Ute Indians used oil seeping from the ground for medicinal purposes. Early explorers encountered places where oil mixed with surface water. But it wasn’t until the 1930s that technology enabled oilmen to drill over a mile down to a vast pocket of trapped oil. Measuring ten miles long and five miles wide the deposit of natural gas and oil floating on a reservoir of water makes the area the most productive oil field in Colorado.

Roan Plateau Energy Trail:

It is estimated that 1.8 trillion barrels of oil exists in the waxy compound or kerogen of the shale of the Roan Cliffs—the world’s largest known source.

The world’s largest known source of oil shale was deposited 50 million years ago in a series of intermountain lakes in an area north of Rifle. It is estimated that 1.8 trillion barrels of oil exists within the shale of the Roan Cliff area.

When traveling between Rifle and Parachute on Interstate 70, you’ll see a dark brown layer of an oil bearing strata called the Mahogany Ledge. Oil extraction, from this strata of a waxy compound called “kerogen,” involves a costly process of heating the shale to 900 degrees Fahrenheit.

As you travel north of Rifle on Colorado 13 and west on Colorado 64, you’ll traverse the Roan Plateau where, west of the junction at Rd 122 and Hwy 13, an oil shale reserve lies buried in geological time.

Axial to Yampa River Energy Trail

Starting in the 1870s, coal enticed miners to this region and continues as a way of life today; and in other geological layers oil is pumped from a depth of 2,500 feet.

Traveling north on Colorado 13 to Craig you enter coal mining territory. Here, 65-million years ago, a retreating sea left coal beds in the White River Plateau from Hamilton to Oak Creek. This “black gold” enticed miners to the region beginning in the 1870s. Today coal is mined in the northwest counties of Garfield, Moffat, Routt, and Rio Blanco. Near Oak Creek on Colorado 127, Twentymile Coal is the world’s most productive coal mine in terms of output per man-year. Following US 40 east from Craig to Steamboat Springs, you pass near the Tow Creek Oil Field, which is south of Milner. Oil is pumped from a layer of limestone 2,500 feet deep. Further east, in Steamboat Springs, at depths of 12,000 to 15,000 feet, geothermal activity creates a potential source for alternative energy.

North Park Energy Trail

In the mountains just west of Walden oil was first drilled in 1926—oil fields are still producing oil and natural gas.

Glacial meltwater carved rock terraces and faults, which trapped and collected oil in the North Park basin. In this wide valley, ringed on three sides by mountain ranges, oil was first drilled west of Walden in 1926. Named McCallum Field, this first drill site has accounted for more than half the oil production in North Park. Early in the 21st century, 153 wells throughout the Park region produced 96 thousand barrels of oil and 1.3 billion cubic feet of natural gas.

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