The infamous section of Interstate 70 that connects Denver with a variety of ski resorts is well known for heavy traffic. Whether you live in Colorado or just came to visit for a ski vacation, most people who’ve stepped foot in this state have heard stories about the fabled highway. There are a number of reasons travelers heading west of the Eisenhower tunnel can experience longer than expected drive times to reach their destination.
The portion of I-70 that stretches from Denver to Eagle County serving the resorts of Vail, Keystone, Breckenridge, A Basin, Copper and beyond is no ordinary highway. This is a windy, multi-lane interstate that literally passes through enormous mountains at high altitudes with lots of truck traffic.
For this reason, for many of the winter months, the road conditions leading to and from the Eisenhower Tunnel and Vail Pass are very poor, making drivers reduce their speeds and sometimes causing serious accidents. The weather in Colorado seems to be getting more volatile in recent years and during winter months conditions can be somewhat unpredictable.
Drivers Unfamiliar with Winter Conditions
If you grew up or lived a significant portion of your life in Colorado then you are somewhat familiar with driving in snow. Traffic delays and causes of accidents on I-70 are often caused by drivers novice to winter conditions.
The state they come from might rarely see snow, so they are unaware of how to react to sliding on ice or low visibility in blizzard like conditions. As Colorado has developed into a major ski tourism destination the number of drivers that aren’t used to the often harrowing conditions is increasing.
While the stretch of I-70 from Georgetown to Eisenhower Tunnel and ultimately Vail Pass has always been a fairly dangerous and frustrating stretch of highway, the recent population growth and increased traffic moving through the state has made things even worse. Denver now ranks as one of the top cities to move to in the US, attracting people from all over the country.
The unemployment rate is falling as the economy improves, it is one of the healthiest cities in the country, and there are a plethora of fantastic outdoor activities to enjoy. Just a quick look at the amount of cranes dotting the Denver skyline and you can see the influx of new apartment buildings going up to support the population growth.
While more people coming to Colorado is good for business and makes it an exciting place to be, Interstate 70 is suffering. What used to be a 2 hour drive to and from a ski resort like Vail can often be doubled due to the huge number of new Coloradans wanting to hit the slopes.
The recent expansions to the twin tunnels on I-70 to 3 lanes has assisted with the congestion up to the US Hwy 40 turn off. However, beyond that point there are few realistic options to expand the ski highway, so for now people will just have to get used to sitting in their cars, driving early mornings/late nights to try and avoid the masses, or exit I-70 at US Hwy 40 and head to Winter Park.
Eisenhower Tunnel Choke Point
One of the worst choke points for slow traffic conditions on I-70 is the Eisenhower Tunnel. At this location traffic is reduced to two lanes and drivers are forced to reduce their speed while passing through the tunnel. This tunnel literally passes through the continental divide, so it’s not uncommon for weather conditions to be drastically different on each side of the mountain. Both east and westbound traffic suffer at this major congestion point because most of the ski resorts are west of the tunnel when you are heading from Denver.
The Winter Park Alternative
As Vail Resorts continues to expand their empire of buying up ski resorts from Colorado to Japan, traditionally many tourists and locals will purchase the EPIC ski pass and spend the majority of their time skiing Keystone, Breckenridge, A-Basin, Vail and Beaver Creek. The problem is that all of these resorts are west of the Eisenhower tunnel on I-70 so the popularity of these mountains is contributing to the horrendous congestion at this choke point.
As this problem continues to grow and day trip skiers find themselves sitting in their cars longer than they are on the slopes, many Colorado skiers are seeking alternative mountains. For people who grew up on the Front Range, Winter Park has been the best kept secret among Coloradans. I-70’s problem coupled with Winter Park’s drastically improved ski area since Intrawest took over operations has become a great option for those seeking a convenient mountain recreational experience. T
he skiing is comparable to all the other major resorts, but the drive is much easier. For people who choose to make Winter Park their winter destination for a second home or just a day of skiing, they never need to deal with the dreaded Eisenhower tunnel choke point or Vail Pass. The short portion of I-70 between Denver and US Highway 40 (the exit for Winter Park) before the Interstate climbs up to the Eisenhower Tunnel is benefited by the latest improvements to I-70 resulting in shorter drive times on this stretch.
The beautiful 24 mile drive on US Hwy 40 from I-70 to Winter Park seldom experiences delays, making Winter Park the easiest of all major Colorado resorts to access from the front range.
I-70 Traffic Resources
Comparing I-70 Traffic to Vail vs Winter Park
If you compare the drive times of Winter Park to that of Vail on a Friday you can definitely see the impact of the range of drive time traveling to Vail could take you over traveling to Winter Park.
Click on the links below to explore the travel times and routes for yourself:
Fun Facts About I-70
- It wasn’t until 1961 that the interstate showed up on Colorado maps!
- The highest point point of I-70 is a tthe Eisenhower tunnel at 11,155 feet making it the highest vehicular tunnel in the US.
- One month into the new Eisenhower Tunnel it carried its one-millionth vehicle.
- The first bore of a major highway tunnel through the continental divide on what is today’s I-70 began in 1968. Completed in 1973, this was the current westbound bore of I-70, named the Eisenhower Memorial Tunnel. Its contract, for $54.14 million, was the larges single federal aid highway contract ever awarded in the United States up until that time.