‘Traffic nightmare’: How MLK weekend travel and blizzard conditions brought a Colorado mountain community to a standstill

‘Traffic nightmare’: How MLK weekend travel and blizzard conditions brought a Colorado mountain community to a standstill


An avalanche partially covers a trunk and trailer on Sunday, Jan. 14, 2024, near Berthoud Pass. The closure, which lasted through through Thursday, forced traffic from norther parts of the state into Summit County, creating stand-still traffic as cars battled to enter Interstate-70.
Colorado Department of Transportation/Courtesy photo

In a scene described as “apocalyptic,” an exodus of motorists caused chaos as travelers left Colorado’s mountain towns on the tail end of a holiday weekend marred by blizzard conditions.

Mountain pass closures forced traffic from more than a dozen ski resorts to converge in Summit County on Tuesday, Jan. 16, as vehicles battled to get onto Interstate 70. 

Longtime resident Scott Smith called it “one of the worst situations I’ve seen in 42 years up here.”

The gridlock trapped residents in their homes, interrupted commutes and brought the community to a standstill in Silverthorne and Dillon. Some workers described not being able to provide essential services to their customers, while those who ventured out on foot reported jumping into snow banks to avoid cars driving on sidewalks.

“I think it’s fair to say — no pun intended — it was a perfect storm…” Silverthorne Town Manager Ryan Hyland said. “We’ve seen a lot of different traffic impacts. It’s incredibly frustrating — and in some cases a safety issue.”

Summit Fire & EMS spokesperson Steve Lipsher said that with traffic frozen on Tuesday, the fire district became concerned about the ability to quickly reach patients on the north side of Silverthorne. 

“By sheer luck we didn’t have any calls down there,” Lipsher said, “so we did not have to fight our way through that traffic nightmare to get someone to the hospital, for instance.”

Hyland said the traffic stopped the town’s snowplows in their tracks and could have impeded emergency services.

“In Silverthorne, we’re happy to have people experience our community,” Hyland said. “But we are so small that it is really becoming taxing — and in some cases dangerous — to have everything routed through Silverthorne.”

‘Impossible to get from one side of town to the other’

Ahead of Martin Luther King Jr. Day weekend, forecasters warned of “difficult to impossible” travel conditions, heightened avalanche risk and winter storm advisories for the mountains, but hordes of travelers lured by fresh powder braved the roads anyway.

Blizzard winds with gusts up to 119 mph buffeted ski resorts Saturday, shutting down a majority of lift operations. On Sunday, Berthoud Pass — a main artery connecting the Front Range to Grand County — closed for four days following an avalanche that buried 10 cars. 

CDOT crews and local law enforcement responded to 10 vehicles involved in the slide on Berthoud Pass. Officials worked to dig out covered vehicles.
Colorado Department of Transportation/Courtesy photo

Throughout Monday, three major mountain passes, Vail, Hoosier and Loveland, were closed amid extreme winter conditions, further swelling traffic on I-70. According to Colorado Department of Transportation spokesperson Elise Thatcher, safety closures and safety metering were put into place at the Eisenhower-Johnson Memorial Tunnels. 

Meanwhile, I-70 became a “parking lot of traffic” amid hundreds of reported slide-offs. 

Heavy snow that continued into Monday prompted the Summit County Sheriff’s Office to warn drivers to stay off the roads unless “absolutely necessary.”

Silverthorne resident Brett Stemley said he was walking outside his neighborhood that afternoon when a Jeep drove onto the sidewalk and forced him and his roommate to jump into the snow. He said a nearby gas station was swarmed with cars. 

“You had people driving on the sidewalk behind us, people hopping onto the curb. It was pretty brutal,” Stemley said. “You could tell that people were trying to get food, gas, whatever. It was almost apocalyptic looking — just chaos.”

As the storm lifted Tuesday, delayed travelers made their return journey home, many to the Front Range. 

With Berthoud Pass still closed, vehicles coming from Steamboat, Winter Park and Granby were forced into Silverthorne while other drivers from areas like Vail and Aspen headed east on I-70. The confluence of the traffic in Silverthorne sparked a logjam leading to the Eisenhower-Johnson Memorial Tunnels and down into the Denver metro area.

At the same time, motorists attempting to leave Summit County south of Breckenridge were also halted by road closures and delays after several semitractor-trailers spun out and blocked Hoosier Pass.

One driver’s dash camera recorded a 15-mile backup on Colorado Highway 9 headed into Silverthorne. In town, commuters reported hours-long drives that should have taken minutes. Meanwhile, ravenous travelers stuck in the traffic stripped store shelves of food.

Silverthorne resident Patricia Price, who lives in the Sierra Bosce neighborhood roughly 9 miles from I-70, said her husband lost out on a day of work. With school canceled, Price had planned to take her children skiing, but Google Maps estimated it would take more than two hours to get to Frisco. 

“We didn’t get a chance to leave our house,” Price said. “I have lived in the county since 2002 and have never seen traffic this bad.”

Lenka Lesmerises — who owns an in-home care clinic based in Silverthorne — feared Tuesday’s traffic could have resulted in a medical emergency. 

That day, 33 clients were supposed to receive visits, Lesmerises said, but a quarter of those sessions were canceled because providers could not reach their patients’ homes dotted around the county. 

Some who did receive care had to wait hours longer than planned.

“It was impossible to get from one side of town to the other in any normal amount of time,” Lesmerises said.

One caregiver was in a car accident while driving to Keystone from Dillon and another showed up five hours late to a scheduled appointment at a home near Breckenridge, Lesmerises said. Several clients have Parkinson’s Disease and need to be reminded to take their medication on time, making any delays in appointments a risk. 

“I think the stressful thing is that if there was any need for any emergency services or if the client needed to be brought to the hospital it would have been impossible to get around the traffic,” Lesmerises added.

Heavy traffic is pictured on Interstate 70 westbound just east of Exit 205 in Silverthorne around 5:30 p.m. Tuesday, Jan. 16, 2024. Residents reported grid-locked traffic throughout the town as people left the High Country following the holiday weekend.
Colorado Department of Transportation/Courtesy photo

Silverthorne resident Deborah Ellison said it would’ve taken her more than two hours to go less than 2 miles to pick up her 15-year-old daughter at the Recreation Center late Tuesday morning. 

Ellison said her daughter waited for a bus, but none arrived, so she began walking home when a car drove off the road and onto the sidewalk in front of her. Ellison said her daughter called her immediately afterward to tell her what happened. 

“If a kid can’t even walk on a sidewalk, that’s not safe for a town,” Ellison said.

‘A challenge without an easy solution’

The traffic that poured into Silverthorne from the rest of the state overwhelmed the small mountain town and its surrounding communities — highlighting long-standing public safety concerns, Hyland said.

While the town manager said he understands people’s need to get home, he added that the unprecedented gridlock should be the impetus for conversations with the Colorado Department of Transportation, the Summit County government and other stakeholders.

“It is a challenge without any easy solution, for sure,” Hyland said. “But it warrants a debrief. This is way more (than) a Silverthorne issue. This is a county, regional and state issue with the amount of people coming through our community.”

This is hardly the first time that Silverthorne has experienced heavy traffic, but the blockage Tuesday was among the worst the town has seen and demonstrates a need for additional resources, Hyland said.

He questioned whether traffic coming into Silverthorne might have to be metered in the future to prevent the kind of buildups that create public safety concerns and impede the functionality of the community.

“I think we know when storms are coming, we know when holiday weekends are coming,” Hyland said. “If we have some of those additional resources, maybe we can mitigate it to a certain degree, but there is no silver bullet when you have that many people coming into such a small place.”

Michelle Duvall/Courtesy photo
Michelle Duvall, who was driving with her family from Grand County to Boulder, said they spent 10 hours in the car before making it home. Desperate for food and a bathroom break, they stopped in the Target in Silverthorne, a mid-way point. When they arrived, Duvall found mostly empty shelves. “We ended up grabbing a couple packs of Lunchables that were in a different section. There was really just not much of anything,” Duvall said.
Michelle Duvall/Courtesy photo
Michelle Duvall and her family stopped inside a Target in Silverthorne after spending 5 hours in the car during their drive from Grand County to Boulder on Tuesday. Arriving around 8 p.m., Duvall said most of the grab-and-go food was picked over.
Michelle Duvall/Courtesy photo

Hyland noted, though, that the town has no authority to meter traffic along Colorado Highway 9 on its own and that metering traffic could have other impacts, such as pushing travelers further away from amenities such as food and bathrooms.

Dillon Town Manager Nathan Johnson said that the traffic Tuesday impacted the quality of life for all county residents, not just those in Silverthorne, adding that the town, county and state governments all need to work together to come up with solutions. 

“It’s very difficult to hear about people who come up here to vacation for various different reasons and then they’re sitting here in traffic for hours and hours,” he said. “Is that really the portrait we want to portray to people if they’re looking to vacation in Summit County?”


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