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Cottonwood Pass: The secret, but unsafe shortcut around I-70 shutdown

County leaders working to improve the road
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Posted at 6:50 PM, Aug 03, 2021

EAGLE COUNTY, Colo. — The mudslides on I-70 in Glenwood Canyon mean the interstate could be shut down for weeks or even months.

The Colorado Department of Transportation's detour adds hours to the drive. Contact Denver7 found out there is a secret shortcut that's not on Google maps, but CDOT says it's too dangerous for a detour. Locals call it a lifeline.

When I-70 shut down, traffic came to a screeching halt, except for those who know the shortcut. Three times a day, John Harris takes the detour and says there's a reason it doesn't pop up on a map search.

Parts of the road aren't paved, several stretches are narrow with steep drop-offs and some sections are steep. But taking Cottonwood Pass carves hours off the detour from Glenwood Springs to Gypsum.

Jeff Shroll, the Eagle County manager, said Cottonwood Pass is a lifeline for locals.

"That can be teachers, doctors, construction workers," Shroll said. "It's it's an important connectivity between our two valleys that really rely on each other economically."

With more frequent closures of Glenwood Canyon, traffic has increased on the winding mountain pass, and it's not just locals.

"When the canyon is closed, we'll see more traffic in a day than we do in a summertime," said John Harris, the Eagle County Roads and Bridges director. "Then we take it off of Google Maps and Apple Maps, and as you can tell, there's a lot of people that [still] find it."

Safety is the main concern for Eagle County, which is why they have crews stopping traffic for one-way metering in the steepest, one-lane section of the road, called Blue Hill, during peak traffic times. Meanwhile, crews have set up 24/7 checkpoints on the road to keep off commercial traffic and trucks.

Eagle County has been making improvements to mark the edges of the road and strengthen the surface, but it would cost at least $50 million to widen and pave the road for year-round traffic.

But they have seen roll-offs, accidents and even drivers stopping in the middle of the road because they're too scared to continue.

"It's frightening. It's not for the faint of heart or people not used to mountain driving," Shroll said.

For years, people have called for improvements to make the road an alternate route to I-70.

"I-70 is one of six East-West interstates in the entire country. When it's closed, it affects national commerce," said Mike Gamba, a civil engineer, former Glenwood Springs mayor and longtime advocate for improving Cottonwood Pass. "It doesn't need to be an interstate highway. It doesn't even necessarily need to be a state highway. It needs to be a functional, two-lane, paved, all-weather road."

On Monday, CDOT leaders said improving Cottonwood Pass is a long-term conversation, but for people in this region, it has become the most efficient short-term solution: saving jobs and time, but not entirely safe.

"It certainly can be a dangerous road," Shroll said. "It's not a long-term alternative, that's for sure."

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