Glenwood Canyon to Reopen Saturday, Polis Says

Governor Jared Polis toured Glenwood Canyon early on August 11.
Governor Jared Polis toured Glenwood Canyon early on August 11.
Just a day after Colorado Department of Transportation spokesperson Elise Thatcher explained why engineers didn't yet know when Interstate 70 through Glenwood Canyon would reopen, Governor Jared Polis has announced that this portion of highway will be accessible again as of the afternoon of Saturday, August 14.

However, CDOT's latest update about work in the canyon suggests that when that time comes, traffic may be limited to one lane in either direction.

Since slowdowns could still be considerable until all lanes are restored, plenty of drivers may continue to seek out alternative courses beyond the so-called northern route endorsed by the department — and Thatcher says such routes can be more time-consuming and even more dangerous than the alternative road more traveled.

"By choosing an unofficial, unrecommended detour, drivers risk spending hours more on their trip, likely ending up in an unsafe location that's not designed for passenger or detour traffic," Thatcher says. "And in these remote areas where people can end up accidentally, there's usually not cell service. So finding a new route, especially if, God forbid, you need emergency help, is very challenging. It can really create a rough day."

There have been plenty of rough days over the past two weeks for big riggers who've tried to travel over Independence Pass, only to learn that the twisty, tricky byway has been closed to semi-truck traffic. And then there's Cottonwood Pass — the Cottonwood Pass southeast of Glenwood Springs, not the scenic drive between Buena Vista and Almont that's entirely paved.

The number of closure-avoiding drivers who've tried to take the Cottonwood Pass in Eagle County despite its unsuitability has caused an incredible suck on local resources. "They've literally had members of their road-and-bridges department out there working as flag crews," Thatcher points out. "It's just incredible what they've done."

More federal dollars will come flooding into the canyon soon. The Federal Highway Administration has announced that it will make available $11.6 million, or 10 percent of Colorado's total request for assistance, through a quick-release process.

In the meantime, CDOT crews are continuing to remove debris from the portion of the canyon east of Hanging Lake Tunnel, as well as an eight-foot-by-twelve-foot box culvert at Ty Gulch. Additionally, workers concentrating on the western end of the canyon are making a pad for sixty of what are described as "super sacks" — bags of bedding sand that are intended to help prevent possible future mudslides from wreaking as much havoc as their predecessors have. And as Thatcher has pointed out, more rain is in the forecast for the area.
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A Glenwood Canyon crew filling up a "super sack" — a bag of bedding sand intended to protect against future debris flows.
CDOT's engineering teams have now had a chance to assess roadway damage in the hardest-hit areas, including one at milepost 123.5, and feel that one westbound lane can be reopened after further debris is removed and temporary barriers, rockfall protection and other roadway safety devices are installed. These experts believe that one eastbound lane can be reopened after around 100 feet of roadway embankment and temporary asphalt pavement, as well as safety devices, are put in place.
Until then, drivers will have to continue finding other ways to travel from Denver to Grand Junction, and vice versa. 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.

According to Thatcher, there have been only a few backups along this route, usually outside communities such as Steamboat Springs. Otherwise, traffic has been flowing smoothly — but the detour will still result in delays.

"Two to four hours of additional travel time is understandably frustrating," she acknowledges. "But we would not recommend other alternate routes, because they aren't the safest and most reliable."

As for the planned Saturday reopening, Polis issued this statement: "Clearing and ultimately re-opening the I-70 corridor through Glenwood Springs is our top transportation priority. This corridor plays a vital role in our state’s economy and for many Coloradans traveling to get to work, school and homes along the western slope. CDOT and State Emergency Operations have made tremendous progress in cleaning up and removing tons of mud and debris that have completely blocked off access to this roadway. As the state recovers from this incident and reopens this corridor Saturday afternoon, we will continue to need strong federal partners in the Biden administration and our federal delegation."

This post has been updated to include Governor Polis's announcement that I-70 will reopen through Glenwood Canyon on Saturday, August 14.
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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.
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