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Vehicles take a detour on Cottonwood Pass Road on June 27, 2021, near Gypsum after I-70 through Glenwood Canyon was closed. (Hugh Carey, The Colorado Sun)

Lana Jeffryes has lived on the Garfield County side of Cottonwood Pass for more than 25 years. Her family’s quiet winter ended Wednesday as the narrow, unpaved mountain road opened for traffic for the summer.

And when Interstate 70 closes through Glenwood Canyon again this summer — as it did many times last summer as debris from the 2020 Grizzly Creek fire poured onto the roadway during historic deluges — Jeffryes expects another summer of city-like gridlock on the county road that serves as de facto detour for drivers avoiding a four-hour formal bypass around the canyon.

This story first appeared in The Outsider, the premium outdoor newsletter by Jason Blevins.

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As federal and state officials consider options for improving Cottonwood Pass, Jeffryes and her neighbors fear wider lanes and paving may forever alter their bucolic mountain valley straddling the Eagle-Garfield county line. 

“If it was paved, I think people would drive even faster. We have already seen many accidents,” she said. “People have no respect for the folks who live up here. We have seen trash, burning cigarettes thrown out on the road and on private property. I totally understand an alternative route, but I don’t think Cottonwood Pass is the answer.”

Ever since construction began on a dozen miles of Interstate 70 winding through Glenwood Canyon in 1982, people have been talking about detours and alternate routes around the gorge. 

And in those 40 years, no one has actually come up with a decent plan. But there’s always been talk of opening up the lonely stretch of dirt road traversing Cottonwood Pass between Gypsum and the Roaring Fork Valley. Every time the highway closes through Glenwood Canyon, Cottonwood Pass clogs with cars. (A traffic study by Garfield County in 2018 showed about 421 daily cars during the summer months atop Cottonwood Pass. When Glenwood Canyon closes, that daily count can climb to more than 5,000.)

But the narrow mountain pass — this is not the paved Cottonwood Pass between Taylor Reservoir and Buena Vista that is open only in summer — is not suitable for trucks or commercial traffic. And it likely never will be. But that’s not stopping state and federal transportation officials from talking about how they can improve the Cottonwood Pass roadway. And the federal and state ideas are not aligned.

The proposed I-70 Detour Act requires the federal transportation secretary to come up with recommendations for improving the unpaved road over Cottonwood Pass between Gypsum and Colorado 82, which is Garfield County Road 113 to the west and Eagle County Road 10A to the east. The legislation, proposed by U.S. Rep. Lauren Boebert — a Garfield County Republican — would help “ensure the continuation of commerce.” Counties in Rep. Boebert’s district in western and northwest Colorado are weary of interstate closures that route truck traffic through their communities. 

But that federal plan is not likely to push commercial truck traffic over Cottonwood Pass, as local residents and state officials lobby to keep the route rural, local and quiet. 

Any improvements, according to Colorado Department of Transportation Director Shoshana Lew, could include more paving, but only enough to make it “a safe detour.”

When a federal interstate closes, official detours largely follow federal or state highways, not county roads. So when Glenwood Canyon shuts down, traffic is routed to the north, following a nearly 200-mile route along Colorado 13 through Rifle, U.S. 40 through Steamboat Springs and Colorado 9 through Silverthorne. The detour adds four hours to the trip — on a good day.

A vehicle lays off Cottonwood Pass Road as a result of a rollover on June 28, 2021 during a closure of I-70 in Glenwood Canyon. (Hugh Carey, The Colorado Sun)

Cottonwood Pass is maintained by Garfield County to the west and Eagle County to the east. CDOT is only considering improvements to Cottonwood Pass Road that both Garfield and Eagle counties “are comfortable with,” Lew told The Colorado Sun during an online conversation discussing challenges on the I-70 mountain corridor. 

CDOT has some federal cash to start surveying possible places it could expand Cottonwood Pass as well as improvement on the notorious Blue Hill stretch of the pass, which narrows to a single lane on the side of an unstable cliff. When Glenwood Canyon closes, Blue Hill is typically staffed by state troopers helping drivers navigate the sketchy stretch.

CDOT has come up with a six-step process — they call it the I-70 Mountain Corridor Context Sensitive Solutions — to craft and scope improvements on Cottonwood Pass and come up with specific construction details by the end of February 2023. 

Lew said her department’s early plans include leaving Cottonwood Pass under the control of the two counties. Her vision is “a streamlined, paved route big enough for safe access, but not interstate quality.”

“We would not take that route and turn it into another interstate,” she said. 

Colorado National Guard specialists work to close Cottonwood Pass in Colorado on Monday, Aug. 9, 2021, to recover a vehicle that had gone off the road. Gov. Jared Polis issued a disaster declaration on Friday, Aug. 6, 2021 for Glenwood Canyon following mudslides that have closed Interstate 70 since July 29, 2021. (Chelsea Self/Glenwood Springs Post Independent via AP)

Karen Moculeski leads the Keep Missouri Heights Rural group that is wading into the Cottonwood Pass discussion. Her group of residents from the pastoral communities of ranches and homes atop the pass is pushing county leaders and CDOT to incorporate resident concerns in any study looking at improvements to the road. 

“No one is saying that the highway closure in Glenwood is not an issue. We are simply asking if money should be better spent to fix Glenwood Canyon,” Moculeski said. “We are not necessarily taking a viewpoint or position right now other than to say residents need to be heard now, now later after CDOT finishes its study or survey.”

Eagle County “is a little concerned” by the federal proposal by Boebert, county commissioner Kathy Chandler-Henry said. 

Eagle County commissioners met Monday with Garfield County commissioners in Glenwood Springs to discuss Cottonwood Pass and improvements. 

Eagle County has identified about six areas where turns could be widened and surfaces improved to increase safety. Garfield has about eight locations on its side where it’s identified possible safety improvements. Garfield County’s board of commissioners last month signed a letter supporting Boebert’s I-70 detour bill but Commissioner John Martin said that means “we are supportive of finding an alternative.”

Garfield and Eagle counties plan to hold public meetings — so does CDOT — to consider local concerns when it comes to Cottonwood Pass. Both counties agree that the road should remain under county control but both are hoping that state or federal funds can help with the improvements as well as staffing when Glenwood Canyon is closed. 

“We are hoping some of the federal infrastructure dollars could come our way to fix that road,” Chandler-Henry said. “Our road and bridge department thinks it could take care of a few spots without huge dollars. We think the big fix should be to make Glenwood Canyon bombproof.”

Jason Blevins lives in Eagle with his wife, daughters and a dog named Gravy. Topic expertise: Western Slope, public lands, outdoors, ski industry, mountain business, housing, interesting things Location: Eagle, CO Newsletter: The...