Cottonwood consternations: Residents weigh in on plans to improve route that serves as de facto I-70 alternate during Glenwood Canyon closures
Josh and Alison White found the perfect out-of-the-way place to call home along the upper section of Cattle Creek Road, straddling the Garfield/Eagle county line on the west side of Cottonwood Pass.
“We moved here for the peace and quiet,” Alison said during an open house meeting in Glenwood Springs last week to gather input for potential pass improvements.
But in the seven years since they moved into their dream home, things have changed — drastically.
The rural passage between the Roaring Fork Valley and Gypsum in the Eagle Valley has been discovered — not only by locals looking for a more direct route to and from Costco and other destinations, but by Interstate 70 travelers stonewalled by the all-too-frequent Glenwood Canyon closures in recent years.
The latter scenario has come about mostly by accident.
For years, the 12-mile-long stretch of I-70 has been prone to rockfalls and vehicle crashes that tend to close the highway for long periods of time throughout the year, but most often in the winter when Cottonwood Pass is closed.
Then came the Grizzly Creek Fire in August 2020, followed by the massive mud and debris flows after heavy rains pounded the burn scar last summer.
Both events resulted in weeks-long closures of I-70 through the canyon, and now every time the National Weather Service issues a flash flood warning for the area, the highway closes again.
The result is a flood of traffic headed over Cottonwood Pass, as cross-state motorists and locals alike ignore the Colorado Department of Transportation’s (CDOT) advice to take the northern detour route via U.S. Highway 40 and a series of state highways, and turn instead to their GPS devices or knowledge of the area roads.
While locals know what to expect when taking the Cottonwood route, for the most part, what Google Maps won’t tell travelers is that what looks like a direct alternate route around the I-70 closure is actually a narrow, hilly, windy, mostly dirt and chip-seal road that passes through ranches and right in front of numerous residences.
Like the Whites’.
“It would be nice if I-70 could be fixed, so it’s reliable like it used to be,” Josh White said of the unstable slopes and drainages above the roadway that are still prone to mudflows.
“Investing a bunch of money in an alternate route that’s not that great of an option seems like a bad idea.”
While not opposed to some basic safety improvements, like softening some of the curves and widening some of the narrow spots, White and most of his neighbors would just as soon keep the series of county roads leading over Cottonwood Pass as a rural route, for local traffic only.
Using some of the federal funds that were allocated toward improving alternatives to I-70 during Glenwood Canyon closures, CDOT agreed to partner with the neighboring counties to look at Cottonwood Pass upgrades.
Collectively, the counties have identified 14 areas along the route, running from Garfield County 100 (Catherine Store Road) on the west and on the Eagle County side that need to be improved to accommodate increasing traffic levels.
“CDOT is getting involved because we know that traffic is increasing on Cottonwood Pass, and that it is an undesignated detour route,” said Karen Berdoulay, resident engineer for CDOT who helped facilitate the July 19 meeting in Glenwood Springs, and a followup one in Gypsum on July 20.
In doing that, the department is using what’s called a Context Sensitive Solutions Process that seeks to involve those most impacted by any transportation corridor projects.
That process is aimed at preserving the unique character of the rural route, while making basic safety improvements that acknowledge current traffic levels and are meant to prevent accidents and other conflicts, she said.
“What we’re hearing from people are some concerns about changing the character of the road to the point that traffic just flocks to Cottonwood Pass and speeds increase much higher,” Berdoulay said.
“We want to reassure people that we are really just focusing on these 14 areas, and not trying to change the character of the overall road,” she said.
That includes things like not paving the sections that aren’t already paved and not increasing speed limits but at the same time making some basic safety improvements, she said.
“We do know that traffic numbers do go up whenever we close I-70,” Berdoulay said. “But we want it to mostly be used for locals, and we’re never going to designate Cottonwood Pass as a detour for I-70. It’s nowhere near the standards it needs to be for something like that.”
Already, Cottonwood Pass is restricted to vehicles no longer than 45 feet, which excludes semi-tractor trailers, but not other types of commercial trucks. When I-70 is closed, that restriction drops to 35 feet.
“That’s not going to change with this project,” she said.
For Garfield County’s part, after assessing the various county roads that provide access to Cottonwood Pass, county commissioners decided to designate Catherine Store Road east of Carbondale (County Road 100) as the primary access point.
That’s somewhat removed from the usual, more direct route via Cattle Creek Road (County Road 113) that GPS systems tend to point out.
The reasoning is that the Catherine Store intersection with Colorado Highway 82 already has a traffic control signal and, with some basic upgrades, could accommodate more traffic.
Cattle Creek, on the other hand, has one of the most dangerous highway intersections in the entire county, with no traffic light and an awkward mix of two county roads, including County Road 110, and a frontage road all coming together at Highway 82.
“I don’t think the county is looking seriously at Cattle Creek, and what could be done there,” said Davis Farrar, a resident of Missouri Heights just off the Catherine Store route, who is a former Carbondale town manager and has a planning consulting business.
“That’s a significant deficiency in the county road system,” he said.
When it comes to the various county roads that criss-cross Missouri Heights and Spring Valley, “locals know how to distribute themselves based on where they’re going,” Farrar said.
Out-of-area travelers, on the other hand, often get lost and confused about which route to take to get to Cottonwood, he said. And satellite navigating systems tend to send them to the most direct route, which is Cattle Creek, not Catherine Store Road.
“If there’s money to be had aside from county funds, they should really look at Cattle Creek,” Farrar said.
Taking traffic counts on those various roads would also help inform the process, he said.
Garfield County does have traffic counts from 2019, but they were done before the canyon was closed and only reflect local traffic, the county’s Road and Bridge supervisor, Wyatt Keesbery, said. But that does provide a baseline, he said.
In 2019, the average daily traffic was 1,240 average daily trips (ADT) on Catherine Store Road north of Highway 82; 330 ADT on the upper portion of Cattle Creek Road; 345 ADT on Red Canyon (115) Road; and 2,135 ADT on the CMC (114) Road, which is the main route to the Colorado Mountain College Spring Valley campus and several larger residential subdivisions and apartment complexes.
Erin Bassett, who lives just off Cattle Creek Road, agrees intersection improvements at the Highway 82 intersection should be top priority on the Garfield County side.
“I don’t think it’s going to work,” she said of attempts to direct traffic to the Catherine Store intersection, instead. “People will go wherever they want to go.”
As for the influx of traffic whenever I-70 closes, Bassett said she’d just as soon see Cottonwood Pass closed anytime I-70 closes to prevent the impacts on residents of the area.
“We’ve never had this issue before,” said the 30-year resident of the rural road. “There have always been people who knew about Cottonwood Pass and drove over instead of going to I-70, but I think it should just be for locals.”
If Cottonwood is designated as more than a local route when I-70 closes, that should be backed up by a greater police presence and enforcement of speeding and other violations, Bassett said.
Another Cattle Creek resident said he often takes matters into his own hands whenever the interstate traffic starts flowing past his house.
“We get all these people using Cottonwood as a bypass, throwing lit cigarettes and other crap out their windows, driving 40 miles per hour and trying to pass people,” Neal Pollack, another longtime resident on Cattle Creek Road, said.
“I never want to see that again, and sometimes I stand out there and share my thoughts with them,” he said. “When they talk about improvements, improvement for whom? I own property up there, and it doesn’t improve it, it depreciates it. I’m against it, period.”
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