‘Hats off’ to CDOT: I-70 reopening through Glenwood Canyon met with appreciation (w/video)

Traffic uses the eastbound lane of Interstate 70, which reopened to traffic Saturday morning. Debris can be seen filling the river side of the interstate.
Ray K. Erku / Post Independent

Hundreds of thousands of combined man hours, millions in emergency federal funding and 16 days later, the diligent crews deployed by the Colorado Department of Transportation reopened Interstate 70 through Glenwood Canyon on Saturday morning.

“If I could do flips, I would,” Visit Colorado Director of Tourism Lisa Langer said.

Bighorn sheep ewes graze on top of a debris flow near Interstate 70 in Glenwood Canyon.
Ray K. Erku / Post Independent

Good news

Gov. Jared Polis said this past week that he wanted the roadway open by Saturday afternoon, but CDOT crews finished their work hours earlier than expected. Around 7:30 a.m. Saturday, the announcement was made that traffic would open in both directions, with a one-lane stretch both ways near mile marker 123.5.

CDOT officials said mitigation and reconstruction efforts would continue over the next three months, with the goal of being finished by Thanksgiving. The speed limit through the Blue Gulch section between Dotsero and Glenwood Springs where the largest of the recent mud and debris flows occurred is now reduced to 35 mph until that work is completed.

Debris piled right up to the bottom of a railway bridge in Glenwood Canyon.
Ray K. Erku / Post Independent

“Our team has worked tirelessly to get Glenwood Canyon on I-70 opened as soon as possible, and we have made each minute count. I’m thrilled that we are delivering a few hours ahead of schedule. Every moment counts,” Polis said in a Saturday news release. “I want to thank (CDOT Executive Director) Shoshana Lew for her leadership on this effort, as CDOT has worked day and night to safely clear a path. It has been an all-hands-on-deck effort to get the canyon reopened from the mudslides which covered parts of the highway with 15 feet of rock and sludge.”

How the closures began

The stretch of I-70 between Dotsero and Glenwood Springs initially closed July 29, after unprecedented monsoonal rains showered between 2 to 4 inches in about an hour throughout Glenwood Canyon.

This caused substantial debris flows stemming from the Grizzly Creek burn scar to envelope sections of both eastbound and westbound lanes on Interstate 70.

What normally has a flowing current, water from the Colorado River in Glenwood Canyon sits still after debris flows dammed up parts of the river.
Ray K. Erku / Post Independent

Not only did the July 29 rain cause major infrastructural damage, a surge of heavy mud, rock and loose earth initially trapped more than 100 motorists either in the Hanging Lake Tunnels area or in the nearby Bair Ranch exit. Everyone was eventually evacuated by CDOT crews, with the assistance of Colorado Highway Patrol.

Even more rain in the closing days of July brought torrential debris slides down through Blue Gulch, causing significant damage to the roadway and prolonging the closure.

Community impacts

Glenwood Springs’ tourism economy was hard hit as a result.

“We heard mostly from lodges that their reservations dropped by 50%. And then we heard from restaurants that were 25% to 30% down,” Langer said. “And then we started hearing about supply chain issues. Restaurants that expected an order to come in a week, now it’s going to be two weeks.”

Traffic issues ensued on alternate routes, like Cottonwood and Independence passes. Motorists were advised by CDOT to circumvent the Glenwood Canyon closure by heading north from Silverthorne through Steamboat Springs and Craig via U.S. 40 and eventually south to Rifle.

The aftermath of a mudslide beside the westbound lane of Interstate 70 in Glenwood Canyon.
Ray K. Erku / Post Independent

To help boost local business, Langer said Visit Glenwood started offering motorists who bucked up and consciously sacrificed a few more hours by taking the northern detour “cash for gas receipts.” Anyone who produced a receipt from their gas purchase was in exchange given $25 in Glenwood Gold, local currency that can be used at various locations throughout the community.

“We came back up to about 70% occupancy, from where we had dropped to 50% over that first weekend,” Langer said. “Yeah, we really, really did rally pretty well. Communication got out there pretty quick.”

Anticipating good news Saturday, Glenwood Caverns spokesperson Sarah O’Connor-Guffey said the canyon reopening offered local businesses a new hope.

“We are hopeful to see how the one-lane reopening in the canyon goes. It’s the perfect time for families to come see us for last-minute vacations right before the school year starts,” she said in an email Friday. “We’ve been seeing lower admission rates since the canyon was closed so to be able to get as many guests to Glenwood Springs for a soak or a day full of fun at the park will not just benefit us, but the rest of our community too.”

Debris fills a large swath of land just north of Interstate 70 in Glenwood Canyon.
Ray K. Erku / Post Independent

Glenwood Springs Mayor Jonathan Godes said the closure had a trickle-down effect throughout the community in both relation to commerce and critical access for traffic.

“People have doctors on either side of the canyon, people commute to work on either side of the canyon, people commute to work on either side of the canyon,” he said. “We are more interrelated with our Vail Valley brethren than we probably have ever been economically in the history of Glenwood Springs.”

A debris flow south of Interstate 70 above the Union Pacific Railroad in Glenwood Canyon.
Ray K. Erku / Post Independent

When Godes joined U.S. Rep. Lauren Boebert and Garfield County Commissioner Tom Jankovsky on a tour of the canyon on Wednesday, he said it was like CDOT “moved mountains.”

“The ripped-out tension cables … Blue Gulch is like Blue Canyon now,” he said. “The redirected river that is really narrow and has some pretty interesting rapids and spots. … Those are all incredibly interesting, and I think they would be to anybody.”

A truck drives on newly reopened Interstate 70 in Glenwood Canyon.
Ray K. Erku / Post Independent

More work to be done

Yet even as the road reopens to traffic, it’s still a long way before it will be back to normal in the canyon. CDOT Chief Engineer Stephen Harelson estimated in Aug. 8 letters sent to the U.S. Federal Highway Administration, which include assessment surveys and requests for funding, that I-70 has so far sustained an estimated $116 million in infrastructural damages. Final estimations won’t be available until eight to 10 weeks from now.

Harelson stated that “at least 19 separate debris flow events” have been recorded in Glenwood Canyon between June 26 and Aug. 3. Meanwhile, flash flood warnings alone caused CDOT officials to close I-70 in Glenwood Canyon 12 times between June 26 and July 28.

The railing of the eastbound lane of Interstate 70 near Grizzly Creek in Glenwood Canyon covered in mud.
Ray K. Erku / Post Independent

In addition to mitigation and repair efforts on I-70, CDOT said alternate routes such as Cottonwood Pass will also likely require $50 million for improvements to withstand heavier traffic while also providing resiliency when the canyon is closed.

“We know that the longer-term repairs will take time and that, as we battle new challenges to our infrastructure with climate change, alternative routes for the I-70 corridor become more urgent,” Polis stated in Saturday’s news release. “Our administration is focused on the short-, medium- and long-term response and recovery from this incident.”

Traffic once again flowing both ways on Interstate 70 in Glenwood Canyon.
Ray K. Erku / Post Independent

Harelson stated that in addition to the immediate roadway damage, the debris flows have severely impacted the Colorado River.

“There are approximately five locations where debris flows have severely obstructed the river flow at this time,” he writes. “At several locations, the debris deposited in the river has created riverwide obstructions raising the river water level over the multi-use recreational path and threatening the eastbound I-70 retaining walls and multi-use recreational path with increased scour and damage.”

Signs thanking the Colorado Department of Transportation and their mitigation efforts in relation to Interstate 70 posted near the main Glenwood Springs exit.
Ray K. Erku / Post Independent

But on Saturday, the challenges to come felt a little lighter — and more so served as a reminder of CDOT’s hard work to reopen the road.

“I mean, they worked shifts like you can’t believe. I have a friend who works for CDOT — he was working 12 hour shifts,” Langer said. “They were working ’til they dropped, basically, and hats off to CDOT.”

Some CDOT workers out on Interstate 70 in Glenwood Canyon.
Ray K. Erku / Post Independent

Reporter Ray K. Erku can be reached at 612-423-5273 or

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