Route-Planning, Safety Tips for Winter Driving in the Rockies

If you’re new to Colorado, winter driving in the Centennial State might seem daunting. You might not have much experience with mountains, and that weekend expedition to hit the slopes can seem a little intimidating for the uninitiated.

We’re here to tell you that winter driving skills are winter driving skills, whether you’re from Boston, Chicago, Michigan’s Upper Peninsula or Denver. You just have to keep a few safety tips in mind. (We’re going to trust you already have appropriate winter tires and understand the Colorado Chain Law.)

Plan Your Route 

Several major roads close for the entire season, from roughly October to May, according to the Colorado Department of Transportation. These include U.S. Highway 34 through Rocky Mountain National Park, SH 82 over Independence Pass (one of this writer’s favorite trips), Gunnison County Road 12 over Kebler Pass, Chaffee CR 306 over Cottonwood Pass and Park County Road 62 / Clear Creek County Road 381 over Guanella Pass (another beloved favorite).

In order to plan your route, you’ll need to look at a map. For example, if you live in the foothills southwest of Denver, you can’t scoot over Guanella Pass to reach Georgetown and head up to Loveland Basin Ski Area. You’ll have to drive through Evergreen to Interstate 70 and then head west. And Aspen? I-70 all the way, baby — no cutting across Independence Pass. See what we mean?

Other short-term closures in the mountains and on Colorado’s eastern plains may take place in the event of a major winter storm, ice or drifting snow. Areas of concern include Mount Vernon Canyon between Golden and Idaho Springs, the Eisenhower Tunnel area and Vail Pass. Colorado residents who tune into the Denver news stations during the winter months are accustomed to hearing about closures in these hot spots starting as early as October and occurring as late as May or even June. Since the closures happen due to specific weather events, they fortunately don’t last long.

Then, there are avalanches. While the CDOT regularly monitors and controls 278 of 522 known avalanche paths, snow slides can indeed close major roadways. If the CDOT must close a road due to avalanche danger, electronic signs on the roads will show the closures. Additionally, drivers can sign up for the state’s text or email alerts to stay up-to-date on road closings.

The Colorado DOT website’s COTrip is another outstanding resource, particularly if inclement weather strikes when you’re already on a trip. Just make sure to have your smartphone handy—you can also call 511 or (303) 639-1111 for information.

Practice Safe Driving Skills

Matt E. Salek, highways-and-byways buff and longtime Colorado resident, has compiled Colorado Highway Quick Facts, a lengthy discussion about safe driving in the Centennial State. We’ve gleaned a few particularly important final tips from the guide and from the CDOT.

  • Check local weather conditions before you go.
  • CDOT recommends giving the snowplows plenty of room. In fact, give everyone plenty of room, and use longer following distances if conditions are poor.
  • Don’t use cruise control in winter driving conditions, CDOT says.
  • Slow down. Even treated roads can be slippery, the CDOT notes, and as anyone with winter-driving experience will tell you, four-wheel drive and anti-lock brakes do not guarantee your safety.
  • Great advice from Salek: If you feel frightened or overwhelmed, find the nearest exit or simply pull over. There’s no shame in being prudent.

The Colorado Rockies are spectacularly beautiful during the winter months, and there’s no reason to avoid driving the mountain highways—provided that you plan the best route based on current conditions, remain vigilant behind the wheel and always remember that it’s better to arrive late than risk an accident or getting stuck in the high country. If you do all three, countless winter adventures await!

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