Labor Day Highway Traffic Was Back to Normal — Unfortunately

The eastbound ascent to the Eisenhower Tunnel on Labor Day.
The eastbound ascent to the Eisenhower Tunnel on Labor Day. Photo by Deb Roberts
The pandemic has resulted in lighter than usual traffic on much of Colorado's highway system during recent months, but that's all over now. Prior to Labor Day weekend, the Colorado Department of Transportation warned that "the I-70 Mountain Corridor has returned to pre-COVID-19 levels and is exceeding last year’s traffic volumes during some high travel periods," and recommended that folks seeking an end-of-the-summer getaway consider heading in a different direction.

My loved ones and I ignored that advice. A few weeks back, our plan to rendezvous at my wife's family cabin on the Grand Mesa, about 45 minutes from Grand Junction on the Western Slope, was derailed by the temporary closure of Glenwood Canyon because of the Pine Creek fire, which grew to be the largest blaze in recorded state history.

With Glenwood Canyon reopened, albeit with significant lane closures, and the smoke from Pine Creek reported to be dissipating to some degree, we were determined to spend time at the cabin before it had to be shuttered for the winter. But because of the driving conditions, we had to make substantial adjustments to what would have been our usual commuting plan.

click to enlarge A lake on the Grand Mesa reflected a streak from the red sun early on Labor Day. - PHOTO BY MICHAEL ROBERTS
A lake on the Grand Mesa reflected a streak from the red sun early on Labor Day.
Photo by Michael Roberts
We feared that leaving the metro area after work on Friday, September 4, would plunge us into a jam of epic proportions (in fact, the jam started early that day, when an accident closed Interstate 70 for hours). So instead, we woke up very early on Saturday, September 5, departing at 5:40 a.m. — and the scheme worked as hoped. I-70 westbound was wide open beyond the city limits, and when we arrived at Glenwood Canyon a little over two hours later, traffic was flowing, or at least regularly trickling; speeds were around thirty miles per hour, down from the official limit of fifty. We pulled up to the cabin a little after 9 a.m.

The rest of that day and Sunday, September 6, were absolutely blissful: perfect weather and air that could be inhaled and exhaled rather than chewed. But if the experts at CDOT were right, our return to Denver on Labor Day could be absolutely hellish — and delaying our drive until late in the evening wouldn't work, because my wife and I both needed to be back on the job early the next morning. So we rose before the sun again on Monday, September 7, to thoroughly clean the cabin, then loaded our dog into our car in time for a departure at 8:40 a.m.

In the process, we discovered that the smoke and haze had returned to the Grand Mesa, as they would be in Denver and most of the state, turning the sun and its reflection on the surface of a nearby lake a brilliant but rather disturbing red.

We arrived at Glenwood Canyon a little over an hour later, and while the traffic volume was heavier than on Saturday morning, bringing with it considerably more bumper-to-bumper moments, we still managed to avoid hitting anything resembling a parking lot. Moreover, speeds picked up as soon as we emerged from the canyon and remained at typical levels through Vail.

click to enlarge Traffic mostly flowed in Glenwood Canyon on Labor Day despite a lane closure. - PHOTO BY DEB ROBERTS
Traffic mostly flowed in Glenwood Canyon on Labor Day despite a lane closure.
Photo by Deb Roberts
The ascent to the Eisenhower Tunnel was another story. Slowdowns began even before we hit Silverthorne at approximately 10:30 a.m., and once we began the climb in earnest, we were inching forward in fits and starts. On a good day, this part of the highway can be traveled in a matter of minutes. On Labor Day, it took us just shy of an hour.

Our rate of travel the rest of the way into Denver was fairly logy, too. Clogs happened in Georgetown and Idaho Springs, despite the presence of toll lanes near the latter, and we came to a halt again on the final approach into the metro area because of a truck crash on the west side of the highway apparently so fascinating that everyone on the other side of the median had to ease off the gas in order to stare at it. We finally got back home at about 1 p.m., around an hour later than we would have under better circumstances.

At first blush, an extra hour doesn't seem bad. But because of the driving conditions, our commune with nature was shortened by a full day: Friday evening plus the majority of Monday. Such scenarios have become more common in recent years, and despite the pandemic, they're back with a vengeance.
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Michael Roberts has written for Westword since October 1990, serving stints as music editor and media columnist. He currently covers everything from breaking news and politics to sports and stories that defy categorization.
Contact: Michael Roberts