Cottonwood Pass is open for the season, but it’s still not a good I-70 detour 

Nathaniel Minor/CPR News
A truck reaches the intersection of Cattle Creek Road and Highway 82, one outlet of Cottonwood Pass in the Roaring Fork Valley on July 20, 2022.

A winding mountain pass that has been eyed as a potential detour for Interstate 70 during Glenwood Canyon closures is open for the season.

Cottonwood Pass is a partially paved seasonal county road that links the Roaring Fork Valley with Gypsum. Typically, it’s quiet and mostly used by nearby residents. Eagle County spokesperson Justin Patrick also described it as an “important thoroughfare” during I-70 closures for essential workers like teachers and nurses.

Patrick has also seen the semi-primitive route taken over by hundreds of lumbering cows during local cattle drives.

The problems come when the roadway, which opened Monday, swells with large numbers of out-of-town drivers who use Cottonwood Pass as an unsanctioned shortcut around I-70 closures. 

The uptick in traffic can be dangerous for motorists and frustrating for the people who live along the 15.5-mile route. 

“It’s not designed to handle high volumes of traffic,” Patrick said. 

The question of whether to improve the road has been in the air for years and was revisited in 2021 during the long closures on I-70 due to mudslides from nearby wildfire burn scars channeled waves of dangerous debris into Glenwood Canyon. The mudslides snarled traffic and in one instance even stranded more than 100 motorists, who were forced to spend the night in their vehicles until the roadway was clear. 

Eagle County officials estimated that adding basic safety measures to Cottonwood Pass, including widening the lanes and adding more guardrails, would cost more than $10 million. Those improvements were never made.

In 2022, Republican U.S. Rep. Lauren Boebert introduced legislation that would require the federal government to make recommendations to improve the pass, but that measure went nowhere.

The cost is the biggest roadblock to long-term solutions. One analysis from Eagle County drawn up in 2010 estimated large-scale safety improvements could cost upwards of $60 million — a price tag that would be much higher more than a decade later. A recent study by the Colorado Department of Transportation found that improving a single small section of the roadway would cost roughly the same in today’s dollars.

In March, Boebert’s office touted a federal grant the congresswoman helped secure to aid the state with the extensive project, but the $1.5 million funding stream is a tiny fraction of what’s needed.

Hart Van Denburg/CPR News
Traffic coming west down Floyd Hill on Interstate 70, Friday, Jan. 13, 2023.

While state transportation officials have not unveiled concrete plans for improving Cottonwood Pass, the agency’s report on the issue in 2023 identified 14 sites along the roadway that needed improvements. The agency said it did not consider large-scale paving or widening due to “mixed support” from local stakeholders, many of whom worry that improvements would lead to more congestion. 

The agency ended its report by saying it "would continue seeking federal grants and work to secure funding for the project, and collaborating with local governments on both short- and long-term improvements," but did not commit to a concrete roadmap.

Local officials agree that even if improvements were made, it would never become a route fit for heavy use or commercial truck traffic due to the road’s steep grades and hairpin turns. As longtime Garfield County Commissioner John Martin put in 2021, the road “just can’t be” a commercial route. “The sheriff’s office would run out of tow trucks.”

That likely won’t stop Colorado drivers from wondering if and when they may be able to use an improved Cottonwood Pass as a state-approved way around Glenwood Canyon closures.

With the southern alternative route, which goes through Gunnison, closed due to urgent bridge repairs on U.S. Highway 50, the only official I-70 detour takes drivers through Steamboat Springs — and adds hours to that trip.