Powder hounds found the good stuff over the Martin Luther King Jr. Day weekend. But for many, the freshies came at a cost: hours and hours and hours of delays on the way home. “The snow was probably amazing for those who were able to get to the ski areas and then return,” says Colorado Department of Transportation (CDOT) spokesperson Elise Thatcher. “But it’s very important for travelers to factor in not just the great snow at the ski areas, but also what the roads are going to be like getting there and back.”

Or, in the case of driving conditions over the long weekend, what the parking lot conditions will be like because that’s precisely what the highways became.

Turns out, when you pair accumulation that reached upward of 60 inches on some of the state’s higher mountain passes with an intense rate of snowfall that peaked at around two inches an hour at times, you get a hellish driving environment. Blowing wind, low visibility, icy asphalt, near-whiteout conditions, and heavy holiday traffic all contributed to safety closures on multiple Summit County passes, Cameron Pass, and (you guessed it) I-70 eastbound on both sides of the Eisenhower-Johnson Memorial Tunnel. Jackknifed trucks and stalled-out two-wheel-drive cars created a Frogger-like driving experience (when traffic was actually moving). When it wasn’t, roadsides turned into (rather drafty) bathrooms as stuck skiers did what they had to. Then there was Berthoud Pass, which was shut down by Mother Nature before CDOT had the chance. Snow slides along almost its entire length swallowed up 10 cars—no injuries were reported—and led to a four-day closure on that section of U.S. 40.

Yet another factor contributing to the chaos: the paltry powder so far this season. “When you have the weather, plus a long weekend, plus not much previous snow, people are itching to enjoy it,” says Alejandro Brown, who’s been monitoring the closures (and resulting shenanigans) on I-70 since 2019 with his Instagram account @i70things. He estimates that during the MLK Day weekend, he received about five times the amount of content that he would on a typical winter weekend. “I don’t have notifications on my phone, but if I did, it would have just been nonstop.”

His solution for mitigating the traffic madness? Simple. Follow the traction rules. “It’s a few bad apples,” he says. “What could have been their four-hour commute turns into eight or 10 hours and now everyone is frustrated and upset and grumpy.” As for skiers, they have their own solutions borne out of firsthand experience from that weekend’s snowpocalypse, which they share below.

Editor’s note: These interviews have been edited for length and clarity.

Judd and Nicole Nutting

Time in Colorado: Judd, 30 years; Nicole, 18 years
Personal hell: Eight hours to get from Winter Park to Longmont

Judd: We pulled our three kids out of school an hour early on Friday to drive up to my family’s house in Winter Park for the long weekend. Of course, there was no traffic. It was barely snowing on Berthoud Pass. We didn’t wake up to much snow on Saturday, so we thought, Oh, maybe this snowstorm isn’t going to happen. Sunday, we woke up and had 10 inches. Then we found out there was an avalanche on the pass that buried 10 cars.

Nicole: We got 16 inches Monday morning, and there was this camaraderie on the lifts. Everybody at the resort had been there a few days and was thinking, Well, I’m not going anywhere right now, so I might as well ski. One of our friends kept saying, “This is a unicorn day. This is amazing.” But there were also conversations about how you were going to get home and where you would stay if you couldn’t.

Judd: Monday night we decided to wake up Tuesday and go the long way home through Kremmling and Silverthorne to I-70. Apparently everyone else stranded in Winter Park and Steamboat was thinking the exact same thing that we were: Tuesday is a sunny day. Temps are warmer. Let’s go.

Nicole: We finally stopped for lunch around noon at the first gas station on the edge of Silverthorne. Full sections were empty of food. The bathroom line was out the door. Back in the car, we spent two hours going two miles through town. When we finally got on I-70, the pass up to the Eisenhower Tunnel had numerous cars stalled because the conditions were so slushy. We saw a tow truck pushing a trailer, which was pushing a truck up the pass.

Judd: Once we got through the tunnel, it was smooth sailing, in part because Berthoud Pass was closed and there was no additional traffic from U.S. 40. We were lucky that we had a place to stay while we were stranded, and we got a great ski day out of it. But if you’re asking if the skiing was worth the eight-hour drive with three kids? Still not sure.

Our Proposal for Making it Better: In Silverthorne, the freeway was moving pretty fast, but the lights in town weren’t getting the cars through efficiently. There needed to be something or someone to override the lights.

Rachael Scala Welch

Time in Colorado: 10 years
Personal hell: 33 hours to get from Steamboat Springs to Nederland

Rachael Scala Welch’s ETA to her home in Ned over MLK weekend. Photo courtesy of Rachael Scala Welch

Our hope was to take Cameron Pass back from Steamboat Monday morning so we could do some backcountry skiing, but that was thwarted because CO 14 was closed. Plan B was to take Berthoud Pass, but that was also closed. We had our camper, so we overnighted in Hot Sulphur Springs and soaked Tuesday morning to wait out traffic. It was beautiful… until we saw that the only way to get back home was via I-70. That meant going through the Silverthorne/Summit County/Eisenhower Tunnel disaster that we were trying to avoid the whole time.

I’ve never seen anything that hectic. We walked around Lake Dillon while watching traffic, but realized there was really no other option besides staying another night. And even if we had, there was nowhere to stay. We ended up getting home Tuesday at 5:30 p.m. After this experience, I’ve vowed to backcountry tour only and to stay local for the next holiday weekend during ski season.

My Proposal for Making it Better: MLK weekend highlighted the need for rapid, renewable-energy-powered mass transit from the Front Range to the mountains. That would make travel safer, better for the environment, and it would make visiting and living at our beloved mountain destinations easier. In the meantime, we can carpool and ask our employers for opportunities to ski during the week.

Lauryn Stasiak

Lauryn Stasiak waits in line at Vail on MLK weekend. Photo by Lauryn Stasiak

Time in Colorado: Three years
Personal hell: Eight hours to get from Vail to Arvada

Since I’m a teacher, I usually can’t get work off to go ski, so I typically ski on the weekends. I was planning on going that Sunday, and we heard that Vail was getting two inches of snow the night before. It took us a little bit longer than normal to get there, but traffic wasn’t bad. And the snow was insane. Like, it was two feet of powder! At 2:45 p.m., we thought, Let’s go beat the traffic. When we got to our car, we saw that Vail Pass was closed. We didn’t hear anything about the tunnel being closed, so we drove down to Leadville to get to Copper and had about an hour of delays.

Once we got back onto I-70, it was open roads, and we thought, Sweet! We’re good! Then we pulled up to Silverthorne. That’s when we just saw red, red, red, red, red on the map—and tail lights for what seemed like the next million-and-a-half miles. Google Maps said that the traffic to the tunnel was an hour and 27 minutes, and we thought we could sit there for that. If we had known we were going to be in the traffic from Silverthorne to the tunnel for five hours, we would have pulled over. It was the worst traffic of my life.

My Proposal for Making it Better: I had no service on my phone because there were thousands of people sitting in that traffic using the phone towers. They need more cell towers. And food trucks on the side of the highway.

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