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Independence Pass to reopen May 24

JANET URQUHART
pitkin county correspondent

It’s official: The drive over Independence Pass is a scenic one.

The Colorado Transportation Commission has approved the extension of the Top of the Rockies scenic byway route by about 40 miles to take in Independence Pass, east of Aspen, and the town itself ” a move endorsed by local elected officials and recommended by the state’s Scenic and Historic Byway Commission.

The extended route follows Highway 82 over the pass between Twin Lakes and Aspen, ending west of Aspen at the Maroon Creek bridge.

The pass, closed for the winter season, is scheduled to reopen May 24, weather permitting.

While no one has argued that Highway 82 over the 12,095-foot pass isn’t scenic, in the past, travelers heading out of Twin Lakes toward Aspen encountered a sign along the highway noting the Top of the Rockies scenic byway was ending ” shortly before what is arguably the most scenic stretch. The omission of Independence Pass has long irked some local officials. A year ago, upper valley elected officials from Aspen, Pitkin County and Snowmass Village voted to support an application to include the pass within the Top of the Rockies byway.

The Independence Pass Foundation, an organization dedicated primarily to restoring the high-alpine environment where it was scarred by construction of the roadway over the pass, took the initiative forward.

It’s unlikely, though, that the new designation will result in a marked increase in traffic over the Continental Divide at Independence Pass, said Mark Fuller, the foundation’s executive director.

“I think most people who look for a scenic byway, when they get to Twin Lakes, don’t necessarily stop because it’s not a scenic byway anymore,” he said.

In fact, some communities already along the Top of the Rockies route were disappointed the designation didn’t boost traffic, Fuller added.

On the other hand, some local detractors of the designation have expressed concern that scenic byway status will entice motorists over Independence Pass who don’t belong there ” those who will find its steep, winding and narrow sections, not to mention sphincter-puckering dropoffs, less than enjoyable.

The new status of the pass may, however, assist the Independence Pass Foundation in securing funds for its ongoing work. Scenic byway status is a definite plus in some grant programs, Fuller said.

“It certainly opens up some new arenas and we’ll be pursuing those as time allows,” he said.

While the foundation’s work on the so-called “top cut” ” a once-heavily eroded section near the summit ” is nearing completion, the group is considering tackling similarly damaged areas farther down the pass on the Aspen side, in the Difficult Campground and Taggert Lakes areas.

With the addition of Independence Pass, the byway is now a 122-mile route. Several 13,000-foot peaks ring the pass, including Mount Champion, Geissler Mountain, Twining Peak, Grizzly Peak and Casco Peak. Mount Elbert, the state’s highest peak, and other fourteeners in the Collegiate Peaks range are also visible along the route.

Motorists can begin the byway at Minturn or Copper Mountain, traveling over Fremont Pass between Copper and Leadville on Highway 91 or over Tennessee Pass between Minturn and Leadville on Highway 24, then take in the section between Leadville and Aspen on highways 24 and 82. Or, they can travel it in the opposite direction.

The Top of the Rockies scenic byway is one of 25 Scenic and Historic Byways in the state, 10 of which the secretary of transportation designates. The original Top of Rockies route is designated nationally as one of America’s Byways, but the Twin Lakes-to-Aspen extension requires approval by the U.S. Department of Transportation, which probably will not occur until 2008.


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