Aspen offseason: Independence Pass will remain gated as long as I-70 is closed for Grizzly Creek Fire
Pitkin County Sheriff's Office has had 75 contacts with semis trying to use Indy Pass as detour
The Aspen Times
Aspen might have a bit of an offseason feel to it the next few days as Independence Pass will remain closed indefinitely after the traffic continued to build Wednesday with cars and semi-trucks trying to find another way around the Interstate 70 closure.
Since the Grizzly Creek Fire started early Monday afternoon in the Glenwood Canyon, motorists and truckers have been trying to get across Colorado in anyway possible. By Wednesday morning, Pitkin County and state officials had had enough of trying to direct the Highway 82 traffic, which had built on the pass and backed up through Aspen and downvalley to the airport.
Once the Indy Pass closure was made official and word got out, the backups quickly dissipated.
“It went from looking like Times Square on Main Street to pretty much Aspen in offseason,” Pitkin County Sheriff Joe DiSalvo said Wednesday afternoon. “I can’t believe the way cutting off that pass stopped everything. I know it’s going to affect our business community, but it’s the right thing to do.”
For those trying to get to Denver from Aspen, a roughly 275-mile route will take nearly eight hours connecting to Highway 50 to the south via Highway 133 out of Carbondale then Highway 92 from Hotchkiss, if you trust Google maps.
Desperate motorists using traffic and map apps even started trying to go up the Frying Pan Road outside of Basalt in an attempt to get to Eagle going around Basalt Mountain. That area also jammed up Wednesday. And Cottonwood Pass, which goes from south of Glenwood Springs to Gypsum, remains closed because of a semi-truck that rolled off the narrow, dirt section early Tuesday morning.
The Independence Pass closure also applies to cyclists, hikers and motorcycles, DiSalvo said. He added campers on the pass can remain and they will be let out at the gates on either side when they come off the pass.
“Right now, the pass is closed to everything: bikes, hikers, cars, motorcycles. The only thing it’s open to is those people going to Leadville who live in Leadville or campers who are up there to get down,” DiSalvo said in the afternoon. “It’s not the most responsible thing to open that as a bicycle racetrack right now.”
The Indy Pass closure will run concurrently with the closure of I-70 and what happens with the Grizzly Creek Fire, officials said Wednesday at the Pitkin County commissioners meeting.
Highway 82, which runs from Glenwood Springs to Twins Lakes south of Leadville, is closed from east of Aspen at the winter closure gate to where it comes in at Highway 24, law enforcement and Colorado Department of Transportation officials said. That’s about a 40-mile stretch over the pass, which tops out at 12,095 feet and has narrow sections on both sides.
The Pitkin County Sheriff’s Office had 75 contacts with semis since I-70 was closed Monday, and that’s probably not all the semis that attempted to drive the pass, officials said Wednesday. As a result of safety concerns presented by that truck traffic, the Sheriff’s Office contacted CDOT and the Governor’s Office.
DiSalvo said he talked briefly with Gov. Jared Polis and the agency about perhaps platooning or metering cars going over in groups of 100 or 200, but it would have caused even bigger backups and headaches.
“Obviously, it will reopen if there’s a need for an emergency evacuation of our community,” county manager Jon Peacock said Wednesday at the Pitkin County commissioners meeting.
CDOT said in its announcement that the “combination of heavy traffic, the narrow width of the highway in several locations and vehicle length restrictions are creating unsafe travel conditions. Multiple vehicles towing trailers became stuck on the pass and forced closures on the road.”
Highway 82 was closed eastbound twice Wednesday morning east of Aspen because of semis trying to go up Independence Pass.
According to an alert sent just after 10:15 a.m. by Pitkin County, a semi was having mechanical issues and had the eastbound road closed. About an hour before that the road was closed eastbound because a semi jackknifed near Northstar area and the road reopened for a bit before the stalled semi shut it down again.
The traffic backups coming into Aspen at times Wednesday started before the airport and continued solid into town. Traffic had eased by the afternoon as the closure was put in place.
By early Wednesday afternoon, semis were being turned around at the roundabout west of Aspen to head back down valley.
“This is gonna complicate a lot of people’s lives,” Pitkin County Board Chair Steve Child said.
Interstate 70 has been closed between mile point 116 (Glenwood Springs) and 140 (Gypsum) since the Grizzly Creek Fire started Monday. It has burned more than 3,300 acres as of Wednesday’s update. As of Wednesday evening, there was no estimated time for the interstate to reopen.
The Pitkin County Sheriff’s Office had a deputy stationed on Highway 82 starting Tuesday morning near truck turnaround spot about 5 miles east of Aspen. Vehicles longer than 35 feet are not allowed on the pass at any time and face up to $1,125 in fines.
Pitkin County sheriff’s deputies wrote six $1,100-plus tickets Monday and two more early Tuesday to truckers who defied the warnings. Those trucks drove past the winter closure gate into the restricted area.
Some looking for another way Wednesday tried going up the Fryingpan Valley and into Eagle via the Frying Pan Road outside of Basalt and connecting with the Eagle-Thomasville Road. That too gets narrow and is not paved in some section up the valley.
Monroe Dodd, who lives in Meredith, said they were driving down the valley Wednesday and the traffic on Frying Pan Road was building up high.
“We were coming down from the Frying Pan Road from almost the very end where the pavement ends, we started seeing lots of traffic,” Dodd said. “Then we started see lots of traffic that looks like moving-van sized vehicles, then U-Hauls. Then we got to the Diamond J (about mile marker 26), and people were turning around. I guess they got the message.
“But people up that high were probably reading something off their Google maps or something that says try the Hagerman Pass.”
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“There are parts of (Grizzly Creek Fire) that got 8 inches of snow in the recent weeks, but we still have activity on warm days,” a Forest Service spokesman said. “We’ll probably need some kind of season-ending weather event, like a big rain or snow to put it completely out.”