Snow piles halfway up the Cottonwood Pass sign

Snow piles halfway up the Cottonwood Pass sign May 25, 2015.

Cottonwood Pass is one of several high mountain passes in Colorado that did not open by Memorial Day weekend this year.

Gunnison County has scheduled its opening date for August 12, meaning the pass will not be open as a through-road from Buena Vista to Gunnison and Crested Butte until at least then.

Gunnison County Commissioners voted to push the opening date back from June 22 earlier this week.

Commissioner Roland Martin said that because of high snow levels, combined with continuing snowfall and low temperatures, plow crews haven’t been able to reach the top.

Chaffee County officials said that it would be a while longer before the road was navigable past its seasonal closure gate at the Denny Creek Trailhead to the top of the Continental Divide as well.

The reason, of course, is that the state has seen an exceptional snow year, ending a long-term drought in nearly all of Colorado.

In the Arkansas River Basin, the water equivalent of the snowpack is 225 percent higher than normal in late May, and nearly six times what it was at this point last year, according to data from the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Chaffee County Commissioner Keith Baker said that the upper 2 miles of CR 306 has an average of 10 feet of snow that is as deep as 18 feet in places.

Chaffee County Road and Bridge supervisor Mark Stacy said that, as of late last week, it had snowed on the pass every day of the week.

According to a CDOT news release, Guanella Pass between Georgetown and Grant opened on May 24, but most seasonal openings will be delayed, including Colo. 82 over Independence Pass.

CDOT said that the road between Twin Lakes and Aspen was scheduled to open in early June.

Cottonwood Pass has been closed at the summit since 2017 for an extensive improvement project paid in large part by federal dollars.

In Chaffee County, construction to repave the road for the first time since the 1980s finished late last fall.

According to the initial schedule for the project, Gunnison County was intended to complete its side of the project – paving the dirt road – simultaneously, with Cottonwood Pass opening this past weekend for the first time as the second-highest fully paved road in the country.

After the Gunnison side road is plowed, Martin said, ongoing construction combined with runoff on the road and large vehicles trying to navigate the pass could create hazardous situations.

Vehicles having to stop on the pass for construction is a safety issue, Martin said, with snowmelt potentially washing out the road.

Keeping the pass closed will allow road construction on the Western Slope side to be fully completed more quickly, Martin said.

He said the fact that opening Cottonwood Pass from the Chaffee County side has been delayed made the decision easier.

Aug. 12 is a hard date for opening, Martin said, whether the construction is completed or not.

– Mountain Mail reporter Sam Klomhaus contributed to this report.

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