What to expect for mountain travel on I-70 this Thanksgiving week
Past trends show vehicle traffic at the Eisenhower-Johnson Memorial Tunnels will swell the day before Thanksgiving. Winter weather is also expected at the end of the week.
Travel to and from the mountains on Interstate 70 is expected to swell this week in the lead up to Thanksgiving and in the days following it.
Data points from the Colorado Department of Transportation show that in both 2021 and 2022, more than 267,000 vehicles were recorded at the Eisenhower-Johnson Memorial Tunnels the week of Thanksgiving, Monday through Sunday.
The heaviest traffic days were Wednesday, the day before the holiday, as well as Saturday and Sunday, when tunnel traffic rose to between 41,000 and 45,000 cars. By comparison, Thursday — Thanksgiving Day — was lighter at around 27,000 cars in both 2021 and 2022.
Nationwide, this Thanksgiving week is projected to be the third busiest since 2000, according to AAA Colorado spokesperson Skyler McKinley.
“We anticipate about 55.4 million travelers will be hitting the roads and taking to the skies,” McKinley said. “A majority, 49 million, will be road trippers.”
According to AAA data, that represents a roughly 2% increase in drivers and a 6.6% increase in airline passengers compared to last year. McKinley said some of those increases could be attributed to the COVID-19 pandemic’s impact on travel trends.
“If the COVID-19 pandemic were a high schooler, it would be entering its senior year. We have been talking about pent-up travel demand since the pandemic, and it is still soaring to new heights,” he said.
“Many folks who have the money to travel are also in positions where they have some leverage from remote work,” McKinley added.
This year has continued to see sustained demand for travel despite the higher costs of gas because of inflation and routine travel disruptions at airports. As McKinley put it, “There’s every reason not to travel and folks are traveling.”
While a winter storm this past weekend brought several inches of snow to Summit County and the surrounding central mountain region, weather is expected to dry up on Tuesday and Wednesday.
According to National Weather Service meteorologist Zach Hiris, temperature highs in valley areas could reach above 40 degrees on Wednesday with bright, sunny weather. But heading into Thursday afternoon and evening, temperatures will cool and snow is expected to return.
“The window for heaviest snow and accumulation would be late Thursday into Friday night,” Hiris said, adding that there could also be a chance for flurries into Saturday morning.
“For people who are traveling to the mountains this week — just be prepared. These storms, even when it’s just a few inches, if you’re not prepared for it, can make travel a real headache,” he said.
McKinley said it is crucial for drivers to ensure they have the right equipment for the right conditions. That includes a four- or all-wheel drive vehicle or adequate snow tires or chains that can offer good traction.
“If you’re driving on I-70 in bad conditions, slow down,” McKinley said. “Four-wheel drive does not mean four-wheel stop.”
McKinley said AAA tow trucks routinely deal with drivers who require assistance simply because they were driving too fast. He added that drivers should take note of current state laws that require motorists to move over or slow down to 20 miles per hour below the speed limit if they encounter any vehicle at the roadside with its hazards flashing.
That could include roadside assistance vehicles such as AAA tow trucks, state patrol and first responders.
“We will be assisting motorists on the roadside throughout the travel period including on I-70 where it can be really, really dicey for our guys,” McKinley said. “Especially in winter weather, especially at a time of year when we see increased traffic, you can save a life by just doing one of those two things — moving over and slowing down.”
Information on I-70 traffic and conditions is available at GoI70.com while information on traffic and conditions for roads across the state is available at COTrip.org. Weather updates, including travel advisories, can be found at Weather.gov/Denver.
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