Mountain Travel Survival Guide: What You Need to Know Before Hitting the Road This Winter
Snow is falling and the stoke is high to head to the mountains to enjoy fresh powder turns. If you’re coming from Denver or the Front Range, you are not the only one heading for the hills. There are numerous ski resorts along the I-70 corridor, but only one road to get there. On holidays and weekends, there is a steady stream of taillights migrating west toward the Vail Valley’s resorts. Be prepared to face potential problems such as heavy traffic, road closures, and extreme winter weather.
Before you hit the road, arm yourself with the tools, resources, and knowledge you need to safely travel through the mountains.
Winter Travel Preparedness
You are ready for the snow, but is your car? Weather changes quickly in the mountains. Roads become snow-packed and slick when a winter storm rolls in. Not only should your car be reliable and properly equipped, but you should also be prepared in case of an emergency.
Snow tires provide better grip and handling, especially when encountering steep uphill climbs and winding descents over high mountain passes. If you don’t have winter tires, high-quality all season tires with plenty of tread will work. Just make sure you carry chains or have your tires paired with four wheel drive.
An easy way to measure the health of your tread is with the penny test. Insert a penny with Lincoln’s head upside down. If his hair is covered, your tires have enough tread. If you can see part or all of the head, the tire needs to be replaced because the tread is too shallow. Fines can be issued to drivers who are caught driving on worn tires or without the proper equipment.
Every driver should carry a winter emergency kit in their car, in case you become stuck or stranded. This kit should include jumper cables, a snow scraper, snow shovel, packable down blanket or extra jacket, a flashlight, and a first aid kit. Additionally, always tuck away extra water and snacks, such as energy bars or trail mix. The only thing worse than being stuck on the highway is being stuck on the highway in a car with a hangry passenger for hours while you wait.
Finally, keep your gas tank half full. If you happen to get stuck or stopped, plenty of gas will allow you to keep the car running and the heat on.
What To Consider When You Travel
Weather patterns in the Rocky Mountains are drastically different from Denver. Avoid driving through a major snowstorm and try to arrive at your destination ahead of time if there is severe weather in the forecast.
Before your trip, check weather forecasts and road conditions to know what to expect. Plan your powder days with OpenSnow.com, which provides detailed snow forecasts and conditions at your favorite resorts. They also break down the details of any upcoming storms so you can plan your travel and ski days accordingly.
COTrip.org is the best resource for up-to-date travel alerts, road conditions, and traffic cameras. Pro tip: download the free mobile app to stay informed during your drive.
Even without a snowstorm, the I-70 corridor frequently gets backed up with travelers heading to and from the ski areas. Consider traveling during off-peak times or start your weekend early at The Inn at Riverwalk. Head up on Thursday evening and use Friday as a “working day” in the mountains. With complimentary business services that cater to the needs of working professionals, along with a 24-hour self-serve Lavazza coffee bar, The Inn is the perfect place to work, play, and avoid the crowds.
Where To Stop Along I-70
Once you leave the foothills, the road starts winding up and down mountain passes and through small towns. Idaho Springs is a historic mining town that is a popular stop while traveling on I-70. There are also plenty of options to grab a bite to eat. From breweries like Westbound & Down and tasty barbeque at Smokin’ Yards, to quick sandwiches at Two Brothers Deli or legendary pizza at Beau Jo’s, this quaint town is worth the stop.
For a quick pick-me-up, Vail Mountain Coffee & Tea recently opened a new location right off the highway in Downieville. With a wide selection of loose-leaf teas and fresh roasted coffee, this cafe is conveniently located and will leave you properly caffeinated.
Georgetown is a former silver mining town with plenty of options for food, drinks, and activities to break up your drive. Sip on craft beer at one of the breweries, bite into a burger at Mother’s Saloon, or enjoy a fresh homemade meal at The Happy Cooker. Have more time? Consider visiting one of the historical museums, riding the Georgetown Loop Railroad, or going on a gold mine tour. This is the last town before heading up and over a mountain pass at 11,158 feet that crosses the Continental Divide.
At the bottom of the pass are the towns of Frisco, Dillon, and Siverthorne, where there are plenty of options for food, gas, and shopping. From fast casual food chains to independently owned restaurants, the surrounding area in Summit County offers variety and conveniences. Take your time to explore or continue west to head over Vail Pass.
Please note that the Vail Pass Rest Area is currently undergoing construction to replace their facilities and will remain closed through October 2023.
What To Do if the Road Shuts Down
Roads can frequently close in the winter due to accidents and snow mitigation. It’s impossible to predict how long they will remain closed for–it could be 30 minutes or it could be hours. The best thing to do is be patient and continually check COTrip.org for updates.
If a road closure does happen, the wait doesn’t have to be aggravating. Take advantage of your surroundings and find a comfortable place to settle in. If it looks like it’s going to be a long night, you might want to consider booking accommodations and staying an additional day (it's best to avoid the backed up traffic and slick roads anyway).
The Inn, located at the heart of the Riverwalk in Edwards, offers all the comforts and conveniences to ease the stress of travel. Enjoy the extra evening and take advantage of the surroundings. Soak your tired ski legs in the riverside hot tub and enjoy a delicious dinner at one of the local restaurants nearby. Guests at The Inn receive exclusive discounts at shops and restaurants within walking distance, so you can make the most of your extended weekend.