Improve Cottonwood Pass road?
Glenwood Springs Post Independent
Take a ride up Cottonwood Pass in the summertime and you’ll experience a beautiful drive through outstanding backcountry. Drivers can manage the road with a proper vehicle, equipped with decent clearance, suspension and all-wheel drive.
But the road from Highway 82 south of Glenwood Springs to Gypsum isn’t up to the standards a daily commuter would expect. Drivers are guaranteed to encounter red dirt, loose asphalt, large rocks, deep potholes and tight mountainside curves along the route.
It’s the unknown encounters that present the most danger to drivers. Wildlife, reckless drivers and road-hogging tractor-trailers can make the route hazardous for inexperienced drivers.
Discussions of opening Cottonwood Pass to year-round traffic resurfaced this year because of a record-long closure of Interstate 70 through Glenwood Canyon because of rockslides in February.
Detours on two-lane highways around the I-70 closure can take at least four hours. But making Cottonwood Pass a viable option for wintertime motorists does not simply mean opening the gates year-round.
“I want to be clear that this is not something we have any plans to move forward on anytime soon,” Shailen Bhatt, executive director for the Colorado Department of Transportation, said at a meeting in Glenwood Springs in March. “To build a road, you have to have environmental clearance and you have to have a budget. We don’t have clearance and we don’t have a budget.”
Those who live along the pass and the roads leading up to it have mixed feelings about opening the pass year-round.
Chris Holstlaw has lived along Upper Cattle Creek on the Garfield County side of the pass for three months. He believes there would be certain benefits to opening the pass year-round.
“I’m fine with it being open. It’s a much shorter route to Denver” Holstlaw said. “I don’t know what the road conditions are like in the winter, but as long as it’s safe.”
Holstlaw is familiar with the area and believes that the road is manageable.
“I think it’s easier than Independence Pass,” Holstlaw said.
Wyatt Till also lives below the pass along Cattle Creek Road. He believes that maintenance is key if the road is going to be opened.
“It’s a good idea to keep it open if they would maintain it,” Till said. “It’s not too much traffic, but there is a lot of snow up through the passes. It can be dangerous on winter days.”
Till also knows the area and foresees the potential risks that go along with a year-round opening of Cottonwood Pass.
“Most people are smart enough to know it’s a dangerous road,” Till said. “And it’s difficult if there was an accident to have someone respond quickly.”
Beyond the risks that the road presents, those who live along the actual pass have their own reasons for wanting the road closed.
Many residents along the road value their privacy. They live up in the backcountry because they enjoy the seclusion and don’t wish to be regularly disturbed.
Several residents encountered by a Glenwood Springs Post Independent reporter and photographer did not want their names or pictures published.
Even though they value their privacy, they acknowledged that opening the pass would have its benefits. It likely would boost their property values and could make the commute to and from the valley shorter for them and their guests.
However, for the most part, residents along the road believe the cons outweigh the pros. Some said they have had theft problems from those using the pass. They have reported that those who get stuck on the pass often abuse the hospitality the homeowners provide by breaking into homes or borrowing tools and other gear and never returning them.
Input from residents of the area aside, opening and maintain the pass in the wintertime would be a costly endeavor. Estimates put the price tag between $20 million to $30 million just to bring the road up to standards. That estimate doesn’t include the cost of maintaining the road once it is opened.
Given the amount of traffic that an alternate route could see, making the road a two-lane paved highway would drive the cost even higher than that minimum standard; upward of $66 million.
The debate over whether to open the pass will likely continue so long as closures occur in Glenwood Canyon in the wintertime.
For now, those who call the pass home can continue to enjoy their relative seclusion.
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