Driving Through Glenwood Canyon Still a Crapshoot

A look at a lane closure and debris piles as seen from eastbound I-70 through Glenwood Canyon on September 6.
A look at a lane closure and debris piles as seen from eastbound I-70 through Glenwood Canyon on September 6. Photo by Deb Roberts
The problems with Interstate 70 through Glenwood Canyon are no longer making daily headlines. But they're far from over, as evidenced by yet another closure over Labor Day weekend — one that struck mere hours after I passed through the area on a visit to Colorado's Western Slope.

Driving the canyon is still a crapshoot, and even when traffic is moving, it's clear how easily the situation could go to hell again.

Mudslides have shut down access to I-70 numerous times over the summer, with the most serious closure stretching from late July until August 14. And even when the road through Glenwood Canyon is open, parts are limited to one lane in either direction. Yet my wife and I were willing to risk delays and detours in order to spend Labor Day weekend at her family's cabin on the Grand Mesa, about 45 minutes from Grand Junction.

In the days leading up to our departure, the weather held; while the westbound lanes of I-70 through the canyon were closed for a while on September 1, the reason was a crash and resulting materials spill, not a gully washer. We headed out early on September 3, reaching Glenwood Canyon at about 11 a.m. We were surprised to discover that the lane closure on the westbound part of the interstate was only about half a mile long, and the extra time added was extremely minimal — a minute or less.

That changed a few hours later. At 4:15 p.m., the Colorado Department of Transportation issued yet another closure over a flash-flood warning in the area of the Grizzly Creek burn scar. Fortunately, no deluge occurred, and the highway was reopened at 6:30 p.m. — but not before delaying thousands of travelers for another extended period of time.

When we left the Grand Mesa before 9 a.m. yesterday, September 6, the skies were sunny, giving us at least a modicum of confidence that another canyon shutdown wasn't looming — and the eastbound route, marked by a considerably longer single-lane section, afforded us a much better look at the damage that remains from the slides. Even though CDOT crews have worked overtime to remove tons of debris, mountains of rock and timber are still piled between the roadway and the Colorado River. The marks left by this stuff on medians, barriers and other portions of the highway are obvious, and while potential structural issues are less clear, much work remains before lanes will be open in both directions.

The slowdowns on our eastbound drive were no big deal, particularly compared to the hour or so of extra time it took us to travel between Vail and the Eisenhower Tunnel because of Labor Day volume. As a result, the headlines out of Glenwood Springs over the weekend were not about traffic, but a tragedy on a ride at the Glenwood Caverns Adventure Park that resulted in the death of a child.

But with the start of fall just two weeks away, the prospect of more rain and even snow hangs over Interstate 70 through Glenwood Canyon. 
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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