Driving to “paradise” has always been a challenge, but it’s well worth it. As the road to Aspen has become increasingly difficult to navigate, here’s what we know about road closures, detours and false digital map rerouting to make it a bit more manageable.
If you are driving from the Front Range, be aware that I-70 through Glenwood Canyon is closed in both directions due to massive mudslides. The upper level of the Interstate is seriously damaged and expected to be closed for weeks.
Experts predicted correctly that the 2020 wildfires in Glenwood Canyon would create optimum conditions this summer for mudslides throughout the steep canyon. At first, localized thunderstorms caused some small mudslides that closed the Interstate for hours or days. As the afternoon monsoons began to pop up, the Colorado Department of Transportation (CDOT) began to close the Interstate in anticipation of more mudslides. Finally, a massive mudslide damaged the Interstate causing the protracted closure.
When I-70 is closed during the summer, there are several alternative routes from the Front Range. The most notable is Highway 82 over Independence Pass. This high mountain two-lane highway is often displayed on car navigation systems as the preferred route. Highway 82 is restricted to vehicles less than 35 feet in length. Unfortunately, semi-trailer trucks in the past have tried this route only to get stuck in the narrows where the road is only wide enough for one vehicle at a time. When this happened, Highway 82 would be shut down while the big rigs were dislodged. The Colorado Legislature enacted a $1,300 fine for these vehicles if they tried to navigate the Pass. Pitkin County Sheriff's and State Patrol Officers now are stationed on the Aspen and Twin Lakes sides of the Pass to intercept these vehicles before they create problems.
While Independence Pass has always been known as Aspen’s “back-door” to Denver, it was never intended to carry the traffic that I-70 does. I’ve learned that there will be temporary traffic lights installed in the narrows to keep traffic from clogging up.
Yesterday, I received an alert that Independence Pass was closed due to a mudslide. This sent a chill through my body. With the Pass closed, the only viable route to Denver would be over Cottonwood Pass which goes through Missouri Heights to Gypsum. This route is mostly dirt and gravel and includes a very narrow section that often terrifies first-time drivers.
In the local papers this morning, it was announced that the road closure notification was intentionally false and that it was done to decrease traffic on Independence Pass. I also learned that Cottonwood Pass Road is being improved with gravel and grading to help with the traffic load and those pilot cars are being used to keep the narrow section open.
The primary detour recommended by CDOT is Wolcott north to Steamboat Springs, Hayden, Craig, Rifle, Glenwood Springs to Aspen. This is the route that all large vehicles should take.
Highway 133 is the two-lane road that goes from Carbondale to Hotchkiss and Montrose and Telluride. It also connects Aspen to Crested Butte, Gunnison, and the Front Range via Kebler Pass, another dirt road. It has also been impacted by mud and rock slides and has been closed on and off for the past few weeks. Currently, there are two one-lane sections with traffic lights.
All in all, it has been a very challenging summer for visitors and locals. Fortunately, the airlines have resumed their pre-pandemic service levels.
No one seems to know what the future of the Glenwood Canyon will be. The burn scar is likely to affect the road for several years.
In the meantime, take some additional time to map your route to the Roaring Fork Valley and check with someone local before you assume that the navigation apps are current and correct.
Although getting in and out of Aspen can be challenging at times, there is still no better place to be to enjoy the summer and fall.