Snow starting Thursday could complicate holiday travel plans

A Colorado Department of Transportation plow truck clears the way on U.S. Highway 40 at Rabbit Ears Pass earlier this winter.
John F. Russell/Steamboat Pilot & Today

About 1.7 million Coloradans will drive over the holidays with many of them headed to mountain towns like Steamboat, just as a series of winter storms is expected to complicate their commute.

In an outlook for upcoming holiday travel issued Wednesday, Dec. 22, the National Weather Service in Grand Junction warned motorists the top of Rabbit Ears Pass could see 14 to 18 inches of snow between Thursday, Dec. 23 — when snow is expected to start falling — and Saturday, Dec. 25, morning.

“Travel to the High Country, of course, is always a little bit more difficult,” said Skyler McKinley, regional director of public affairs for AAA Colorado. “(Thursday) is one of the worst travel days of the entire year in terms of traffic volume.”

McKinley said about 32% more Coloradans will travel over the holidays than did last year, putting 2021 close to pre-pandemic travel levels in 2019.

Between 14 and 18 inches of snow are expected on Rabbit Ears Pass between Thursday and Saturday morning.
Courtesy/National Weather Service in Grand Junction

In light of the weather, McKinley said drivers should be aware of Colorado’s traction law, especially on Interstate 70 through the mountains where it is always in effect from September to May.

On Tuesday, Dec. 21, the Colorado Department of Transportation explained that traffic I-70 is expected to pick back up this year, likely getting closer to the 290,000 drivers who traveled the interstate from Dec. 20-26 in 2019.

When looking at travel counts, lift ticket numbers and plane ticket sales, McKinley said Coloradans will generally stay within the state with many of them flocking to the outdoor playgrounds on the Western Slope.

“We see that in Routt County. We see that in Summit County. We see that in Eagle County this time of year. There is always that surge of tourists,” McKinley said.

When to travel between Dec. 23 and Jan. 2

Thursday, Dec. 23 – Worst Time: noon-6 p.m. | Best time: After 7 p.m.

Friday, Dec. 24 – Worst Time: 2-6 p.m. | Best time: Before 1 p.m.

Saturday, Dec. 25 – Minimal congestion expected

Sunday, Dec. 26 – Worst Time: 1-7 p.m. | Best time: Before noon

Monday, Dec. 27 – Worst Time: 5-6 p.m. | Best time: Before 1 p.m.

Tuesday, Dec. 28 – Worst time: 1-7 p.m. | Best time: Before noon

Wednesday, Dec. 29 – Worst time: 1-7 p.m. | Best time: Before 11 a.m.

Thursday, Dec. 30 – Worst time: 1-7 p.m. | Best time: Before noon

Friday, Dec. 31 – Worst time: 2-4 p.m. | Best time: Before 1 p.m., after 5 p.m.

Saturday, Jan. 1 – Minimal congestion expected

Sunday, Jan. 2 – Worst time: 2-6 p.m. | Best time: Before 1 p.m.

Source: AAA Colorado

The weather service predicts storms will cause limited impacts across much of the western half of the state with more severe effects at elevations above 9,000 feet. The most severe weather is expected Thursday evening into Friday.

“(Rabbit Ears Pass) is going to have very difficult or maybe even impossible travel at times between Thursday night and Friday morning, just because of heavy snowfall and blowing snow,” said local meteorologist Mike Weissbluth, who runs the forecasting website

The weather also coincides with some especially busy days at Yampa Valley Regional Airport, but Airport Director Kevin Booth said conditions have rarely required them to close the runway.

In the handful of times Booth has had to close the runway in his seven years as director, the closure has typically been short.

“We wouldn’t cancel flights or close the airport, we just wait until the visibility comes up, and we can safely go back out there,” Booth said. “It’s almost never that bad, and it usually involves a snow squall.”

Visibility would likely need to drop well below a quarter-mile for Booth to close the runway, but if it does get to that point, the airlines likely would have already grounded planes based on their own visibility metrics.

As little as a quarter-inch of snow will result in them firing up the plows at the airport, and Booth said the airport is fully staffed in these roles. Ideally, they would plow the runway between each plane landing or taking off when it is snowing.

Booth suggested people departing from Hayden have their ground transportation organized beforehand and to error on the side of being early rather than cutting it close.

“Give yourself plenty of time; we’ve got services here,” Booth said, noting that masks are required in the terminal. “Just plan ahead, get here early and make all your ground transportation arraignments ahead of time.”

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