Snow is expected to welcome last-minute holiday travelers on Interstate 70 through the High Country, and more people are expected to be on the roads this year as Thanksgiving approaches.
About 951,000 Colorado residents plan to travel more than 50 miles this year, according to AAA Colorado, a 2.8% increase from last year and just 7,000 fewer than the record set in Colorado in 2019.
The holiday forecast shows the highest rate of travel since the pandemic, according to AAA, with more than 54.6 million Americans seeking flights, hotels and gas to see family Thursday.
“Travel is returning from the pandemic,” league spokeswoman Skylar McKinley said in a statement. In the face of soaring gas prices, other inflationary pressures, and a volatile economy, travel spending is still at its highest level since the pandemic began. AAA expects busy roads and long lines at the airport, so give yourself extra time and be as flexible as possible with your travel plans.”
A blizzard is approaching
Although it’s still too early to predict the exact impact of Wednesday’s blizzard, OpenSnow meteorologists say up to two inches of snow could accumulate at higher elevations on I-70 by Thursday morning.
National Weather Service meteorologist Bernie Meir shared the same forecast Monday evening, advising anyone anticipating travel on Wednesday to monitor road conditions.
“We feel some uncertainty about this system,” Meir said. “Just a couple of inches can make things look sticky, and if you slide a little to the east, you might miss us too. It’s not a big storm, but I’ll be careful if you’re traveling, especially if the roads are bad.”
The bulk of the precipitation is expected to fall late Wednesday afternoon into Wednesday evening with a return to mild, dry weather Thursday and into the weekend, OpenSnow meteorologist Sam Colentine says.
The elevations are expected to receive the most snow, including Vail Pass, Hoosier Pass, and elevations over 9,000 feet.
“Right now we’re looking at a few inches across the higher passes and maybe less than an inch if there’s anything at lower elevations in the valleys,” Meir explained.
While clear skies and moderate temperatures are expected to form on Thursday and continue into Saturday, clouds may wander until midday on Thursday.
“This system is cold, so it is possible that you will wake up on Thursday morning and there may be light dust on the roads,” Meir said. “It can make her a slick spot during the morning hours.”
Summit County is subject to hazardous weather Tuesday through Sunday due to the forecast, so meteorologists are warning drivers to stay alert throughout the holiday.
“Heavy traffic along I-70 westbound will also be a concern on Wednesday, so plan to give yourself additional travel time,” Collentine wrote in its latest I-70 forecast.
Best times to drive on I-70
The Wednesday before Thanksgiving has historically seen the most traffic through the Eisenhower-Johnson Memorial Tunnels on I-70, and Saturday typically ranks second, according to Colorado Department of Transportation data.
But in 2021, Saturday saw the highest total for tunnel travel with nearly 27,000 cars traveling east and more than 18,352 people traveling west. Traffic peaked between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m. on Saturday, and more than 2,000 vehicles traveled through the tunnel every hour during that time frame. Although Sunday saw lower totals than Saturday, there is a difference of only 2,000 vehicles.
On Wednesday, travelers can expect the highest traffic in the same time frame. Traffic will be heaviest on the western lanes of I-70 and a little less for those looking to head east. For those traveling west, traffic began arriving at more than 1,000 vehicles per hour through the tunnel around 7 am and traffic remained high until around 7 pm
Generally, the best time to travel in Thanksgiving week is before 10 a.m. and after 6 p.m., when fewer than 1,000 cars are expected to pass through the tunnel, according to a 2021 CDOT data review.
Thursday is the slowest day for traffic historically, and there are 10,000 fewer drivers on I-70 Friday than there are on Saturday.
In 2021, Monday saw about half as many passengers on I-70 compared to Saturday and Sunday’s totals.