Proposed updates to Cottonwood Pass still hitting speed bumps with locals

CDOT holds open house in Glenwood Springs addressing contentious alternate route through Eagle, Garfield counties

Garfield County local Wewer Keohane points to a CDOT exhibit displayed during an open house at Glenwood Springs Community Center on Wednesday.
Ray K Erku/Post Independent

Wednesday morning perhaps began befittingly when a semi-trailer truck jackknifed into the median just before South Canyon, leading to yet another temporary closure of Interstate 70 in Glenwood Springs.


Later that day, the Colorado Department of Transportation held an open house at the Glenwood Springs Community Center to highlight its proposal to make 14 major safety updates to Cottonwood Pass.

Motorists have for years now used this road of dirt, chip seal, and deteriorating asphalt to circumvent I-70 every time it closes in Glenwood Canyon. That, or they head north toward Steamboat Springs, which tacks on about another five hours to their trip. Cottonwood Pass, open just in summer, instead snakes through rugged terrain between Gypsum in Eagle County and sections of Colorado Highway 82 in Garfield County.

CDOT numbers from summer 2021, the same timeframe major debris flows in Glenwood Canyon shut down I-70 for weeks, show the pass received an average of 400 vehicles per day (That was when the canyon was open). When the canyon closed, however, that number flared up to an average of 3,700 vehicles per day on the pass.

When the pass reaches Garfield County, it branches out to three routes motorists can take to reach Highway 82: Red Canyon Road (which turns into Spring Valley Road), Cattle Creek Road, and Catherine Store Road — the latter being the widest and likely safest of the three.

Amid people’s murmurs as they shuffled past CDOT displays showing what’s intended for the pass, Garfield County local Wewer Keohane, who lives on Cattle Creek Road, was worried this would lead to even more motorists using this byway.

“I do not want people coming down Cattle Creek Road,” she said. “We want speed bumps at least or gates or whatever. We’re just so afraid people aren’t going to go to Catherine Store.

“They’re going to keep coming down because of Google or whatever.”

Online platforms like Google Maps have turned into a hot button issue for many locals in Eagle and Garfield counties. These “map apps” send motorists to secondary routes like Cottonwood Pass when the canyon closes, leading people unfamiliar with the alternate route getting outright stuck.

Things got so bad in 2021 that Gov. Jared Polis made an emergency declaration and the Army National Guard was deployed to conduct traffic control along Cottonwood Pass.

“I think it will be great what they do to Catherine Store Road, if people will use it,” Keohane said of proposed improvements.

Sites on Cottonwood Pass in which CDOT is proposing to update for safety.
Ray K. Erku/Post Independent

About 56 driveways and 100 families live on Cattle Creek Road, said Erin Bassett, another local resident of that area.

“We know, as people that live on that road, if you get off of I-70 and you can’t go any further and you look at your GPS, you’re going to turn up Cattle Creek,” she said. “You’re not gonna go 10 miles around the corner to Catherine’s Store — why would you do that?

“But they’re not addressing Cattle Creek at all.”

She also spoke to the speeds motorists are traveling when they’re on Cattle Creek Road.

“They don’t know where they’re going,” she said. “They’re turning up this road where there’s people, dogs, kids, and they’re doing 70 miles an hour to get to where they want to go as fast as possible.”

CDOT Program Engineer Karen Berdoulay said CDOT is working with Eagle and Garfield counties to develop a concept level design for these safety improvements on Cottonwood Pass. 

Though Cottonwood Pass is technically a county road, CDOT feels it has a role in bolstering this alternate route because traffic increases on it in “the order of 850%” when Glenwood Canyon closes, she said.

“There’s numerous sections that are really narrow. It might be confusing because people might think that it’s wide enough that they can have one car go each direction, and they end up side-swiping each other,” she said. “Other instances, there’s really tight curves that just don’t meet driver expectations.

“They don’t realize the next curve down the road is much, much tighter, and they’re not expecting it, and they’re not ready for it, and they cause a crash.”

Berdoulay said if all goes accordingly and safety measures and updates are approved — this includes approval from Garfield and Eagle counties — the project would cost about $75 million. Most of the identified spots eyed for updates have cost estimations between $200,000-$4 million. 

An area called Blue Hill — the most challenging section, Berdoulay said — would be $60 million.

“I’ve heard so many different stories from residents about something that happened in front of their house,” she said. “Other people are also very nervous about the speeds they’re already seeing, and they’re nervous that if we make improvements that people will just drive faster. 

“That’s why, in some of these areas, we’re not trying to meet county standards. We’re really trying to find this balance of meeting driver expectations and reducing crash issues but not necessarily making the smoothest curve that you could possibly make.”

Longtime Carbondale resident Dan Bullock quietly toured the CDOT exhibits on Wednesday. Not only did he say improvements to Cottonwood Pass are needed, but he also said he likes taking it in the summer because it’s scenic, and it “only takes 10 minutes longer” than taking Highway 82 from I-70.

Carbondale resident Dan Bullock analyzes CDOT plans to make improvements to Cottonwood Pass on Wednesday.
Ray K. Erku/Post Independent

But he also spoke of the winter and all the crashes that have occurred in Glenwood Canyon over the past few months and how these nasty occurrences could be better prevented.

“I just don’t think there’s enough speed-limit enforcement,” he said. “Quadruple the fines, fine them $10,000, just make them slow down. And that’s not just the truckers — that’s regular people.

“I’m an old guy, OK. I look at it like this: (Glenwood Canyon) doesn’t need to be open all the time. They should close it down under some snow conditions,” he said. “Just close it.”

According to CDOT, it plans to finalize the concept design for Cottonwood Pass improvements by April.

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