Glenwood Canyon I-70 closure looks to be a record

Scott N. Miller
Vail Daily
A truck driver Monday slipped through the Interstate 70 closure at Gypsum, heading up the off-ramp, then swerving through cones at the westbound on-ramp. The driver was pulled over about a mile west of the interchange.
Scott N. Miller |

Unlike baseball, which keeps statistics on virtually every aspect of the game, tracking highway closures is mostly a matter of web searching and memory. But the current closure of Interstate 70 in Glenwood Canyon is the longest in anyone’s memory.

The Grizzly Creek Fire sparked on Aug. 10. Tuesday marks the seventh full day that the highway has been closed, with no firm plans to reopen the road as active fire continues to burn on both sides of the canyon.

The previous “record,” Colorado Department of Transportation officials indicated at the time — at least since I-70 was completed through Glenwood Canyon in 1992 — was a six-day closure in February 2016 following a massive rockslide west of the Hanging Lake Tunnels.

The I-70 mountain corridor from Morrison to Glenwood Springs closes down from time to time, usually due to rockslides, avalanches or weather. But those closures usually don’t last long.

“We’d usually tell guests, ‘They’ll get it open in an hour or two,’” said Rob LeVine, former general manager of the Antlers Lodge in Vail. LeVine noted the closures due to avalanches in the winter of 2018-19, but even those closures were relatively short-lived.

A string of storms in March of 2003 created what was then called a “record” closure of the highway through the mountains at that time. The highway was closed, off and on in spots from Morrison through Glenwood Springs several days beginning March 18 that year.

Plenty of rockslides

Late winter and early spring generally brings rockslides to the high country. Given the topography of Glenwood Canyon, the interstate there is particularly prone to falling rocks.

A big rockfall in 2004 closed the highway for a time, and the westbound lanes for a few weeks. That rockfall punched “van-sized” holes in the road deck of the westbound lanes. Both eastbound and westbound lanes were closed for more than 24 hours.

Roughly the same thing happened in 2016, resulting in the six-day closure and months of traffic controls; then again in 2019, and in March of this year, which resulted in shorter closures.

The canyon isn’t the only area where rockfalls can strike. Transportation officials are aware of the most common slide zones, and the highway will occasionally close for blasting work. Still, a large slide in the spring of 2019 closed the interstate just east of Copper Mountain for a while.

Again in 2003, runoff from a heavy winter in early June caused a culvert to collapse under the highway on Vail Pass. That sinkhole closed the interstate for a while, but the eastbound lanes soon carried two-way traffic during the few weeks it took to repair the westbound lanes.

Margaret Bowes is the director of the I-70 Coalition, a nonprofit alliance of several local government and business interests.

Bowes recalls the February 2016 rockfall in the canyon, which closed I-70 through that stretch for six days and resulted in several months of highway repairs, rockfall mitigation and traffic delays, including guided one-way traffic and then a head-to-head configuration when only one side of the interstate was usable for weeks on end. That summer brought extensive work to protect against further rockfall.

Still, Bowes added, the interstate “is almost always open,” adding that rockfall, avalanches and other natural closures seem to be more frequent in recent years.

No easy detours

As motorists, and particularly truckers are learning, there are no easy detours.

The current recommended detour is the southern route, which takes trucks to U.S. Highway 50 at Poncha Springs on the eastern side. That highway takes motorists over Monarch Pass and through Gunnison and Montrose before rejoining I-70 at Grand Junction — and vice versa headed east.

A northern route takes U.S. Highway 40 over Berthoud Pass, and through Steamboat Springs. Due to construction on state Highway 13 between Rifle and Meeker, transportation officials are working to steer trucks away from that route. The current recommended northern detour takes traffic west nearly to Rangely, then south to Loma, west of Grand Junction.

The detour was apparently too much for one trucker Monday morning. A semi tractor-trailer rig hauling a westbound load for Amazon eased up the highway off-ramp Monday, then swerved back onto the interstate on-ramp. The driver made it about a mile before being pulled over by the Colorado State Patrol.

The closure has also made travel difficult for those who live and work on different sides of the canyon.

Eagle County Sheriff James van Beek Monday said that 20 or more of his officers and office employees live west of Glenwood Canyon. Those employees get through over Cottonwood Pass, which is now closed to other traffic, van Beek said.

The current closure is most likely a record; one that’s being set anew every hour.

Vail Daily Business Editor Scott Miller can be reached at Glenwood Springs Post Independent Senior Reporter and Managing Editor John Stroud contributed to this report.