Virus, bathrooms cloud Independence Pass opening date |

Virus, bathrooms cloud Independence Pass opening date

The summit sign for Independence Pass sticks up from the snow.
Karin Teague/Courtesy photo

Add the opening of Independence Pass to the ever-growing list of events clouded by the coronavirus.

The opening of the back road out of Aspen might happen May 21, on schedule, but probably not. It also might happen June 1, though that has yet to be decided and is contingent on several different agencies coming to agreement.

“We just don’t know,” Brian Pettet, Pitkin County public works director, said Wednesday. “Everybody’s speculating at this point.”

The annual opening of Highway 82 over Independence Pass signifies the official start of summer and represents freedom from the long months of winter confinement for many Aspen and Pitkin County residents. The traditional Independence Pass opening day is the Thursday before Memorial Day, which this year falls on May 21. Colorado Department of Transportation crews are on track to meet that opening date, though they will wait to open the road to traffic until a date approved by Pitkin County, Lake County and other agencies, Elise Thatcher, CDOT spokeswoman, said Wednesday.

Pitkin County and Lake County have issued orders asking second-homeowners and visitors to stay away, while lodging in both counties is shut down until at least the end of May. Pitkin County public health authorities have not indicated when lodging and short-term rentals might be allowed to resume, though they’ve said it will be done slowly and conservatively and probably not for at least a couple of months.

So if lodging on both sides of the Pass is closed, that portion of Highway 82 likely will be quieter than the standard steady stream of tourists, said Karin Teague, executive director of the Independence Pass Foundation.

“That said, people might be just ready to get out of their town and get up into the mountains after the lockdown,” she said.

Still, the main concern is the U.S. Forest Service bathrooms at the 12,095-foot summit of the Pass, said Teague and Pettet.

The Rocky Mountain Region of the Forest Service has closed all developed recreation sites in Colorado, Wyoming, Nebraska, South Dakota and Kansas until May 31. The Indy Pass bathrooms, as well as the popular Maroon Bells Recreation Area, are included in those closures.

Teague said that if it was just a few drivers coming over the Pass, officials could probably live with the 10-day lag in the summit bathroom-opening schedule. But this was an above-average snow year, and it’s steep and deep right now at the top of Independence Pass with about 104% of normal snowpack, she said.

And that means backcountry skiers, Teague said.

In a good snow year, the parking lot at the top after the Pass opens will be full, with cars parked along both sides of the road. In a year like this, when ski resorts closed a month early and people have been cooped up inside, it could attract even more people who didn’t have the benefit of access to ski mountains and skinning like Aspen-area residents, she said.

It only makes sense to delay opening Independence Pass until those bathrooms are unlocked June 1, Pettet said.

“People are gonna need to go,” he said. “And it’s not the kind of environment where we want people to just do their thing.”

Otherwise, Teague said CDOT crews have already cleared the road past the ghost town of Independence.

“It’s early but CDOT is making fast work of that road,” she said Wednesday.

Avalanche activity along the road was nothing like last year, when numerous slides came down on to the highway on both sides of the Pass, Teague said.

The Twin Lakes side of the Pass generally sees more avalanche activity than the Aspen side, and that was the case this year, said Ethan Greene, director of the Colorado Avalanche Information Center. A decent-sized slide hit the highway just above the La Plata Peak road on that side, while two slides within 3 miles of the summit hit the highway on the Pitkin side, he said.

“It was nothing like we saw last year,” Greene said.

A final decision on the opening of Independence Pass will be made by Pitkin County and Lake County commissioners, in consultation with the Forest Service and the Independence Pass Foundation in the next month.

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