I-70’s Closure In Glenwood Canyon Mixes Pain And Hope. Some Towns Are Seeing A Boom In Business While Others Suffer

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A wildlife bridge over State Highway 9 on the way to Kremmling. Aug. 4, 2021.
Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite
A wildlife bridge over State Highway 9 on the way to Kremmling. Aug. 4, 2021.

Randy Thornton can see the cars, semitrucks and RVs backed up for blocks from the window of his downtown Kremmling gift shop.

“It’s just busy,” he said. “It’s solid traffic.” 

Many of those cars are the result of the Glenwood Canyon closure of Interstate 70, some 80 miles to the southwest. A mudslide closed the road last week and the Colorado Department of Transportation estimates even a partial reopening could be weeks away. 

Many of the motorists that would be traveling I-70 — likely thousands a day, if this year’s patterns match a similar extended closure last year — are now detouring hundreds of miles away.

A truck drives into Kremmling. Aug. 4, 2021.
Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite
A truck drives into Kremmling. Aug. 4, 2021.

That’s emptying out Glenwood Springs, which would otherwise be in the height of its summer tourism season. But it’s also bringing people and their dollars to new places — and causing some gray hairs along the way. 

CDOT’s recommended detour turns out to be slow going.

With summer RV season still in full swing and lots of semitrailers now on those roads, traffic can get backed up behind slow vehicles. 

"My wife and I got run off the road by somebody trying to pass [a semi],” Thornton said of an incident last week just outside of Kremmling. 

Scott Harmtann and his family from Highlands Ranch were stuck behind trucks on their way to Steamboat Springs earlier this week. 

“You just have to be patient and go with the flow a little bit,” he said from the parking lot of the Kremmling Mercantile, a grocery store and gas station.

Just a few steps away, Alex Pierre was gassing up his big rig carrying a 42,000-pound load from California to Kansas. He said he knows motorists want to go faster, but asked they give truck drivers like him a little grace. 

“It’s so thin,” Pierre said of the relatively narrow roads he’d been driving. “And soft shoulders and all of that. And the wind. It’s so much to deal with, man.” 

He said he didn’t see any signs alerting him of the I-70 closure as he traveled through Utah and western Colorado. (CDOT is recommending big rigs take Interstate 80 through Wyoming if they can.) He said he went too far toward Glenwood Springs, and after being stopped by police had to make a tricky maneuver to turn back toward the detour. 

“I was stuck, like, the whole of yesterday,” he said. “I spent like four hours and a half just to find a way. Because I had no service whatsoever. Even my GPS went down. I had to stop and find a local store to get a map.”

Many of the gas stations along the detour route aren’t equipped to handle semitrucks, Pierre said. He reached Kremmling just before running out of fuel, he said. 

“I was like, ‘Thank God,’” Pierre said. 

The longer drive is costing Pierre and businesses across the state and country both time and money. But other drivers are enjoying it. 

Noah Marijampol was driving from Los Angeles back to his home near New York City in his 1990 Volvo nicknamed “Lola.” He had planned to stick to freeways, but  said he had a grand time touring through the Flat Top mountain range and along the Yampa River instead. 

“It’s been a beautiful detour,” he said. “Steamboat Springs is somewhere I would have never ended up.”

Some Kremmling businesses saw a boost in sales since I-70 through Glenwood shut down last week

"You can definitely tell a lot of people aren't necessarily trying to come this way,” said Madison Jump, a waitress at the Moose Cafe. “They'll ask, 'What town am I in? Where am I?'”

Red Waldron, owner of distillery Blue Valley Spirits, said his small tasting room had already been busy before the closure. 

“We’re starting to get a lot more just stop-in traffic,” he said. “People that we don’t normally see.”

Randy Thornton, the gift shop owner with the view of the main drag, said he hasn’t seen much of a bump in business — yet. 

"Those people are wanting to get somewhere else, which you can understand,” he said. “But maybe they'll remember our little town and someday come back." 

The canyon closure's has led to tourism dropping 50 percent in Glenwood Springs

That number holds true for Glenwood Caverns Adventure Park, a family destination so high above town it’s only accessible by gondola. General Manager Nancy Heard explained that attendance had been strong this summer — until last week, that is.

“It's a very big bite out of our business, and as well as, I'm sure, the whole town,” she said. 

Stina Sieg/CPR News
Glenwood Caverns Adventure Park, and all of Glenwood Springs, is not only dealing with the closure of I-70 in the canyon. Many map phone apps incorrectly tell visitors coming from the west that they must also detour for several hours. To be clear: I-70 eastbound is open through Rifle and can take traffic directly to the Roaring Fork Valley.

She was sitting in a sort of lookout tower at the amusement park, with a view of the many folds of green mountains surrounding the town. In 2020, the threat of COVID-19 closed the park for three months. Later that same year, the fire burning dangerously close forced an additional two-week closure. This was supposed to be the summer when things would get back to normal.

The thought makes Heard laugh now.

“We almost made it through, you know?” she said. “We almost made it to Labor Day and then this happens.”

The problem is not just a long detour for drivers from the east, including Denver. Many online maps incorrectly tell drivers from the west that I-70 is closed in Rifle and that they, too, have to detour for hours. To be clear, this is not true, and people can continue on from Rifle to Glenwood and the rest of the Roaring Fork Valley, despite the fact that no signs tell them this. 

Some drivers have also found themselves directed onto a labyrinth of tiny, unimproved roads as their map apps go haywire. Lydia Gonzalez, visiting from Santa Fe, experienced that when she typed her cabin’s address into Google maps.

“They say I have to go back two hours and a half to go around,” she said, smiling at the absurdity. 

The actual drive time was 15 minutes.

Stina Sieg/CPR News
Susan Anderson, half of the Harmony Sisters, has a regular gig at Glenwood Caverns Adventure Park. The park’s attendance has been cut in half by the I-70 closure in nearby Glenwood Canyon, making it quiet enough that Anderson didn’t even need a mic for her recent performance right by the gondola.

Even with dead-wrong directions and road closures, people are still making it to Glenwood — but not as many

Down in town, several busloads a day depart Glenwood Adventure Company to go rafting. As Victor Simon, from Louisiana, waited with his family for their trip, he said, yeah, they did hear about the mudslides.

“But we were like, ‘Well, we’re going, no matter what. We’ll see what happens,’” he explained.

“We were going to make it an adventure,” added his mother, Phyllis, in a rich southern drawl. “We really were.”

So far, it has been an adventure — even the detour it took to get there.

“I love it here,” she went on. “It’s so beautiful.” 

Stina Sieg/CPR News
The closure of Interstate 70 in Glenwood Canyon has been hurting businesses in nearby Glenwood Springs. At Glenwood Caverns Adventure Park, attendance dropped about 50 percent after mudslides blocked the road Thursday night.

Outfit owner Ken Murphy is banking on that awe. Since the canyon closed, he’s lost about 70 percent of his booked reservations. He hopes that will change as he’s able to talk potential customers through the situation. Murphy, whose livelihood has depended on the canyon in one way or another for decades, explained that he hopes its closure will give his community a chance to market all its other great amenities. 

“There's other things to do, other hikes to do, other rafting trips to do,” he said, “so that's what sets us apart from other areas.”

While an indefinite canyon closure isn’t what anyone wanted, Murphy and the rest of the local business community were bracing for it, always aware these slides could happen. 

Heard, with Glenwood Caverns Adventure Park, solemnly joked that the Grizzly Creek fire was the “gift that just keeps giving.” 

And as devastating as this is, she sees these smaller crowds as a draw and invites people to come see the “silver lining” for themselves. 

“And we'll welcome you with open arms,” she said.

Stina Sieg/CPR News
People walk on Grand Avenue in Glenwood Springs. The city has seen a drop in visitors since mudslides closed I-70 in Glenwood Canyon.