PHOTOS: After weeks of bombing and scraping, Colorado’s mountain roads are ready for summer traffic

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National Park Service crew member Arnie Johnson works to clear the snow off the Trail Ridge Road using the two-stage snowblower attachment to the tractor inside Rocky Mountain National Park on May 10 near Estes Park. The highest continuous paved highway in the U.S., connecting Estes Park and Grand Lake, opened on Thursday. (Hugh Carey, The Colorado Sun)

Colorado mountain travelers, start your engines. 

It’s taken weeks for crews to clear the winter’s snowfall from high-country passes, and several connectors are opening in time for Memorial Day drivers.

Snow scrapers across the state have cleared not just the winter’s snow but recent accumulation from spring storms to get roads open by the holiday weekend. On Rocky Mountain National Park’s Trail Ridge Road, which tops out at 12,183 feet, they plowed through drifts as deep as 12 feet. On Highway 82’s Independence Pass between Aspen and Twin Lakes, avalanche teams used explosives to mitigate danger before road-clearing teams began carving through the winter’s bounty earlier this month.

“We didn’t have a lack of storms,” Colorado Department of Transportation spokeswoman Stacia Sellers said, noting a spring storm that dumped 12 heavy inches of snow on Colorado 82 above Aspen. “Also, the snow has had a lot of water in it, which makes it heavy and harder to clear from the roadway. The heavy snow has also meant that sometimes the avalanche danger is too high for crews to be out plowing on the roadway.”

A helicopter deployed by the Colorado Department of Transportation drops explosives to mitigate avalanches above Highway 82 on Independence Pass on May 2 near Twin Lakes. The explosive devices triggered multiple avalanches that swept the highway in part of the process of opening the route over the pass. (Hugh Carey, The Colorado Sun)
The explosive, or turkey bombs, triggers on a large cornice above Highway 82 to set off an avalanche May 2 near Twin Lakes. The cornice in the photo is approximately 50 feet tall, according to Ethan Green, the director of Colorado Avalanche Information Center. (Hugh Carey, The Colorado Sun)
An avalanche flows over Highway 82, triggered by the Colorado Department of Transportation team, in part of the mitigation process on Independence Pass on May 2 near Twin Lakes. (Hugh Carey, The Colorado Sun)

CDOT opened the 12,095-foot Independence Pass to cars on Thursday. Rocky Mountain National Park opened Trail Ridge Road on Thursday as well. Gunnison County Public Works earlier this week announced its crews had cleared the pavement that climbs to 12,126 feet on Cottonwood Pass connecting Gunnison County with Buena Vista and the road opened Thursday. The county did not announce an opening for Kebler Pass, a dirt road that connects Crested Butte with Delta County. (The other Cottonwood Pass between Gypsum and the Roaring Fork Valley opened May 15.)

CDOT expects to have the Mount Evans Highway to the 14,265-foot summit open by Friday, as well as Guanella Pass, which reaches 11,669 feet above Georgetown. 

National Park Service officials encounter tall snow drifts at the Alpine Visitor Center as crews work to clear the Trail Ridge Road inside Rocky Mountain National Park on May 10, near Estes Park. The highest continuous paved highway in the U.S., connecting between Estes Park and Grand Lake, typically opens during Memorial Day weekend. (Hugh Carey, The Colorado Sun)
Lacking spring storms and with above average warming trends, the Trail Ridge Road inside Rocky Mountain National Park saw less snow this spring. (Hugh Carey, The Colorado Sun)
The National Park Service works to clear the snow off the Trail Ridge Road using the two-stage snowblower attachment to the tractor. (Hugh Carey, The Colorado Sun)

“Clearing the road is a sign of spring,” said Rocky Mountain National Park spokeswoman Kyle Patterson, describing the Estes Park locals who pedal and stroll Trail Ridge Road in the weeks before it opens to cars. 

It’s the same for Independence Pass, with Aspen locals flocking to the pavement in the weeks before cars crowd the narrow mountain pass. The annual Ride for the Pass drew more than 125 pedalers on May 20. Dozens of backcountry skiers ride e-bikes up the pass in the weeks before cars, offering rare adventure access. 

“A super great gift we locals have this time of year,” said Mike Tierney, a Roaring Fork Valley legend who races his unicycle up the pass every spring. 

This story first appeared in The Outsider, the premium outdoor newsletter by Jason Blevins. In it, he covers the industry from the inside out, plus the fun side of being outdoors in our beautiful state.

Mount Evans Scenic Byway begins to uncover from the snow May 16 near Idaho Springs. The highest paved road in North America reaches to 14,130 feet above sea level at the summit of Mt. Evans. (Hugh Carey, The Colorado Sun)

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