CDOT talks Cottonwood Pass, prepares motorists for more I-70 closures

Even with improvements, detour through Eagle County 'will not be able to support heavy commercial traffic,’ CDOT says

A steady stream of traffic makes its way over Cottonwood Pass between Glenwood Springs and Gyspum due to the I-70 closure in Glenwood Canyon in August of 2021.
Chelsea Self/Post Independent

The Colorado Department of Transportation this week addressed efforts to create a detour around Glenwood Canyon via Cottonwood Pass in Eagle County.

A bill known as the I-70 Detour Act would require the Secretary of Transportation to study potential Glenwood Canyon alternatives “necessary to offset extended closures associated with Interstate Route 70,” according to the bill text. The I-70 Detour Act was introduced to the U.S. House of Representatives on April 14.

The bill states that alternative routes should be funded so people can detour around I-70 safely and “to ensure the continuation of commerce.”

On Tuesday, however, CDOT Chief Engineer Steve Harelson said continuing I-70’s level of commerce via a Cottonwood Pass detour is not likely.

“The road will likely continue to be a county road and will not be able to support heavy commercial traffic,” Harelson said. “We know there’s also a great deal of interest in the future of Cottonwood Pass. … Our team is working with Eagle and Garfield counties to explore limited improvements within the budget.”

In August 2020, the human-caused Grizzly Creek Fire started on the I-70 median in Glenwood Canyon and quickly spread, forcing the highway to close for two weeks while crews battled the blaze. The fire became the biggest wildland fire to ever burn in the White River National Forest, consuming 32,631 acres.

At the time, the I-70 shutdown was the longest in state history, but the following summer, mudslides in the area where the Grizzly Creek Fire burned caused an even longer shutdown of I-70. The 2020 shutdown occurred from Aug. 10 to Aug. 24; the 2021 shutdown began on July 29 and continued until Aug. 14.

The mudslides required debris removal from four major piles in Glenwood Canyon above the Shoshone Power Plant.

“A total of 206,355 tons of material have been removed since a major material flow last July 29,” CDOT Director Shoshana Lew said on Tuesday.

Crews will continue to remove material for another four weeks, Lew said, depending on weather. CDOT also plans to rebuild damaged sections of the Glenwood Canyon Recreation Path, which runs along I-70 and the Colorado River in Glenwood Canyon.

Rocks and debris pile several feet high in a drainage in Glenwood Canyon near Bair Ranch. Crews have removed more than 200,000 tons of material from the canyon in the last year.
Chelsea Self/Post Independent

Spring shutdowns likely

CDOT will continue to have an I-70 Glenwood Canyon safety protocol in place throughout the spring, summer and fall of 2022.

“Motorists planning to travel on I-70, visit rest areas or use the recreation path in Glenwood Canyon should pay close attention to weather forecasts,” according to CDOT. “If there is rain in the forecast, be prepared for a safety closure of I-70, rest areas and recreation path.”

On Tuesday, Lew reminded motorists that fire season has already begun on Colorado’s Western Slope, as well, referencing the Duck Pond Fire in Gypsum. The Duck Pond Fire also required I-70 to be shut down near the eastern entrance to Glenwood Canyon.

The Duck Pond Fire “brought yet another reminder that we live in a fragile ecosystem,” Lew said. “And the transportation network can be just as fragile when disaster strikes.”

Lew said travelers should have a backup plan in mind for weather conditions which could shut down I-70 in Glenwood Canyon again this spring and summer.

But Cottonwood Pass is not being recommended by CDOT as a viable alternative for motorists.

“If a closure is anticipated to last longer than two hours, CDOT continues to recommend that travelers use the northern alternate route,” according to CDOT.

Cottonwood Pass, which is mostly unpaved with some narrow, one-lane-only sections, required near constant monitoring by Eagle County officials during the Glenwood Canyon closure of 2021, with flaggers allowing one-way traffic only on the narrow part of the dirt road, which becomes especially dangerous during an I-70 shutdown as more cars take to Cottonwood Pass.

But the northern route can be dangerous during spring runoff season, as well. In 2010, when rockfall closed I-70 for four days, a passenger in a car was killed while traveling on the northern detour on Highway 40 near Craig when a rock tumbled off a cliff and landed on the vehicle.

The I-70 Detour Act is currently being reviewed by the U.S. House Subcommittee on Highways and Transit.

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