Snow is expected to greet last-minute vacationers on Interstate 70 through the High Country, and more people are expected to be on the roads this year as Thanksgiving approaches.
According to AAA Colorado, about 951,000 Colorado residents intend to run more than 50 miles this year, up 2.8% from last year and just 7,000 fewer than Colorado’s 2019 record.
The vacation forecast shows the highest rate of travel since the pandemic, according to the AAA, with more than 54.6 million Americans searching for flights, hotels and gas to see family on Thursday, Nov. 24.
“Travel is roaring back from the pandemic,” AAA spokesman Skyler McKinley said in a statement. “Against high gas prices, other inflationary pressures and a shaky economy, travel spending was still at its highest level since the pandemic began. AAA anticipates busy roads and long airport lines, so give yourself plenty of time and be as flexible as possible with your travel plans.”
blizzard is approaching
Although it’s early to predict the exact impact of Wednesday’s snowstorm, OpenSnow meteorologists say up to 2 inches of snow could accumulate at higher elevations on I-70 by Thursday morning.
National Weather Service meteorologist Bernie Meir shared the same forecast on Monday evening, November 21, advising anyone expected to travel Wednesday to monitor road conditions.
“We look a little uncertain with this system,” Meir said. “Just a few inches could smooth things out, and if it slides a bit to the east, it could also miss us.” It’s not a big storm but I would be careful when traveling especially when the roads are bad.”
OpenSnow meteorologist Sam Collentine said much of the precipitation is expected to fall late Wednesday afternoon through Wednesday evening, with a return to mild and dry weather on Thursday and into the weekend. Higher elevations are expected to receive the most snow, including Vail Pass, Hoosier Pass and elevations over 9,000 feet.
“Right now we’re seeing a few inches through the higher passes and probably less than an inch, if that, at lower elevations in the valleys,” Meir explained.
While clear skies and mild temperatures are expected on Thursday and will last through Saturday, clouds could linger through Thursday noon.
“This system is cool, so it’s possible that you wake up on Thursday morning and the streets are slightly dusty,” Meir said. “That could make it smooth in the morning hours.”
Summit County is under dangerous weather prospects due to Tuesday through Sunday’s forecast, so forecasters are warning drivers to remain cautious throughout the holiday.
“Heavy traffic along westbound I-70 will also be an issue Wednesday, so plan to allow for 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 usually comes second, according to data from the Colorado Department of Transportation.
But in 2021, Saturday saw the highest number of journeys through the tunnels, with nearly 27,000 cars heading east and more than 18,352 people heading west. Traffic peaked between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m. that Saturday, with more than 2,000 vehicles passing through the tunnel every hour during that period. Although Sunday’s totals were lower than Saturday’s, there is only a difference of around 2,000 vehicles.
Travelers can expect the highest traffic for around the same period on Wednesday. Traffic will be heaviest on the westbound lanes of I-70 and slightly less for those traveling east. For those heading west, traffic began pounding more than 1,000 vehicles an hour through the tunnel around 7 a.m. and traffic remained high until around 7 p.m
In general, the best time to travel during Thanksgiving week is before 10 a.m. and after 6 p.m., when a review of 2021 CDOT data predicts fewer than 1,000 cars will pass through the tunnel.
Thursday is historically the slowest day for traffic, and there are 10,000 fewer drivers on I-70 on Friday than Saturday.
In 2021, I-70 recorded about half the travelers on Monday compared to the Saturday and Sunday totals. For live trip updates, real-time road conditions and more travel information, visit CoTrip.org.