Travel

Glenwood Canyon Detour Mess on Cottonwood Pass and More

A Garfield County Sheriff's Office photo of a Greyhound Bus that bottomed out on Coffee Pot Springs Road.
A Garfield County Sheriff's Office photo of a Greyhound Bus that bottomed out on Coffee Pot Springs Road. Garfield County Sheriff's Office
The indefinite closure of Interstate 70 through Glenwood Canyon owing to mudslides from the 2020 Grizzly Creek fire burn scar has caused chaos on Independence Pass; even with truckers banned, it's often experiencing traffic volume seven times higher than the average at this time of year.

Independence Pass isn't the only route that's been overwhelmed as a result of the ongoing Glenwood Canyon shutdown. On August 6, law enforcement officials had to rescue passengers whose Greyhound bus was damaged trying to navigate Coffee Pot Springs Road in White River National Forest. Meanwhile, Cottonwood Pass is so overrun by drivers trying to pick up a little time that county personnel have set up checkpoints to warn how difficult the route can be.

The headline on the Garfield County Sheriff's Office release about the bus incident — "What Can Happen When Following GPS" — suggests both a sense of humor and a feeling of exasperation. Shortly after 6 p.m. on August 6, the GCSO was "notified that a Greyhound bus was struck approximately 22.5 miles up the Coffee Pot Springs Road," the release states. "There were 21 people on board, including at least one elderly female with heart conditions."

The route is described as "a dirt-and-gravel road used to access the White River National Forest wilderness area. The road is generally traveled by four-wheel drive and all-terrain vehicles and is not an alternative route around Glenwood Canyon."

The Greyhound's driver can confirm that. The vehicle's oil pan was ripped open, creating a fluid spill that required a cleanup from a crew trained in handling hazardous materials.

The elderly woman and the rest of the passengers were transported out of the area with the assistance of Garfield County Search and Rescue members. But while the GCSO noted that "catastrophe was avoided," the department added that "travelers are advised not to follow GPS mapping in an attempt to circumvent the I-70 closure through Glenwood Canyon. Backcountry roads are unpredictable and can be treacherous or deadly for the unprepared traveler."

That's also true of Cottonwood Pass (no, not the Cottonwood Pass between Buena Vista and Crested Butte, but the one southeast of Glenwood Springs), a significant part of which is unpaved. But plenty of drivers have tried using it to get around the Glenwood Canyon closure anyhow, and that's caused headaches for officials, as is made clear by this report from the Aspen Times. In the words of Eagle County Manager Jeff Shroll, "It is not a safe road for that much use. For the most part, we tell people not to use it unless it is absolutely necessary."

Because so many drivers are ignoring this advice, Eagle County has stationed staffers at either end of Cottonwood, as well as at what's known as the Blue Hill/Narrows area, to stop truckers and other vehicles considered oversized. The expenditure is considerable, but as Shroll told the Times, "We have to do it. It is a safety issue. There is too much traffic on Cottonwood Pass to let that section go by itself."

If anything, the situation on Independence Pass is even worse. According to a spokesperson for the Colorado Department of Transportation, around 1,000 vehicles per day typically use the pass — but since the closure of I-70 through Glenwood Canyon, that total has risen to between 7,000 and 9,000 vehicles daily.

CDOT recommends that westbound motorists from metro Denver exit I-70 at exit 205 (Silverthorne) and travel north on Colorado Highway 9 toward Kremmling, at which point they'll head west on U.S. Highway 40 and then south on Colorado 13 before returning to westbound I-70 at exit 90 in Rifle. Eastbound travelers are advised to take the same route in reverse.
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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