Independence Pass: more than just scenery
June 6, 2011
ASPEN – Travelers who make the winding climb over Independence Pass, southeast of Aspen, undoubtedly notice its scenery. Some of the route’s many historic and natural attributes, however, aren’t quite as obvious, and the average traveler isn’t likely to know the road they may consider harrowing today is nothing like the rough wagon road that cut across the Continental Divide in 1882.
They may not even understand the significance of the Continental Divide, which separates the watersheds that flow west to the Pacific Ocean from the river systems that drain into the Atlantic Ocean.
A project focused on informing travelers about the 40-mile segment between Aspen and Twin Lakes – part of the Top of the Rockies National Scenic and Historic Byway – as well as improving safety and recreational access, and potential upgrades at the 12,095-foot summit, will be the focus of a public open house from 5-7 p.m. Wednesday in Aspen’s Rio Grande meeting room (next to the library plaza). Interested citizens are invited to give their input.
A consulting team, working with the U.S. Forest Service and the byway’s board of directors, will host the gathering, following a session with byway and Forest Service representatives from 1-4 p.m.
Highway 82 over Independence Pass was added to the Top of the Rockies byway in 2007. Until then, the scenic byway officially ended west of Twin Lakes, shortly before what is arguably its most scenic stretch, an omission that long irked some local officials.
Plans for the corridor, which came with its scenic byway status, are now being updated, and a master plan for the summit is part of the effort.
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Interpretive signs that could better inform the traveler about the features they’re seeing, from the route’s mining history to the multiple peaks that jut skyward at the summit and the high-altitude flora and fauna, are under consideration, said Sheri Sanzone of Bluegreen, a local planning and landscape architecture studio.
“There are a lot of opportunities for people to learn more about what they’re seeing,” she said.
A proliferation of signs, though, may not be the result of ongoing deliberations. It’s now possible to create a cell phone app that travelers can download in advance to access point-by-point information along the way.
“Now the trend in interpretive planning, especially along byways, is to do it as virtually as possible,” Sanzone said.
Currently, there are interpretive signs at the ghost town of Independence, a once-thriving mining town near the summit, and along the Braille Trail, a short loop closer to Aspen. The latter offers a series of stations that provide information, in Braille and in print, about the local flora, fauna and geological formations.
There is little at the summit, or anywhere else, however, to inform travelers about the history of the road, which connected the mining centers of Aspen and Leadville more than a century ago and wasn’t paved until 1967.
“It definitely doesn’t have what it should have in the way of interpretive materials,” said Mark Fuller, a member of the byway’s board and executive director of the Independence Pass Foundation.
The summit is particularly lacking, he noted, though it’s a popular stopping point and boasts a short walkway to an overlook where visitors can take in breathtaking views.
“That is a tremendous wasted opportunity,” Fuller said. “I’d like to see some sort of informational kiosk on both ends – where you are, what you’re seeing, what you will look at and why you should care – and something at the summit.”
The planning will also focus on safety issues, Fuller noted. Some vehicle pullouts could be eliminated, and others could be enlarged. He does not envision a proposal to widen narrow lanes, or create passing lanes, though. Aside from the costs and difficult construction associated with such an undertaking, Fuller suspects the local populace wouldn’t stand for it. The narrow stretches and serpentine route are part of the pass’ charm.
“They (the consultants) know what kind of resistance there would be to that,” Fuller said.
Highway 82 over Independence Pass is open only about five months of the year. It reopened May 26 after a colossal effort by Colorado Department of Transportation crews to clear the snow. It remains open until early November unless the weather forces an earlier closure.
Go to http://www.topoftherockiesbyway.org for more on the Top of the Rockies scenic byway and the planning effort.