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Can Lake County afford to wait while they fix the pass?

Brief by Central Staff

Tourism – December 1999 – Colorado Central Magazine

Independence Pass, which connects Leadville to Aspen via Balltown and Twin Lakes, is the highest paved crossing of the Continental Divide in the United States at 12,095 feet.

The road, also known as Colo. 82, is a popular tourist route that puts people and money into the town of Twin Lakes when it’s open — generally from Memorial Day to the first part of October. It hasn’t been kept open in the winter since 1886, because the railroad reached Aspen the next year.

But Independence is getting harder to keep open in the summer. Rockslides on the west side closed the route for three days last June.

The slides are to some degree man-made. Where the road cuts along a hillside, there are denuded areas above the pavement. There’s nothing except friction to keep the rocks in place, and so they often roll down, demolishing any trees that have sprung up in the way.

To improve that situation, the Aspen-based Independence Pass Foundation has been building terraces above some stretches of the road and revegetating the hillsides with help from convicts at the Buena Vista Correctional Facility.

So far, so good, but the Foundation says that next year, it will need a crane for some work. The crane will block both lanes for a few days, and that has Lake County merchants concerned about the loss of traffic and tourist dollars.

State Sen. Ken Chlouber, who hails from Leadville, observed that in the summer, Independence Pass is “our economic backdoor, money flows in from Pitkin County. When we had mining, the Pass opened on Memorial Day and closed on Labor Day. Now we have to keep it open as long as the weather will allow.”

He and State Rep. Carl Miller, also from Leadville, blocked a Foundation plan to close the pass for work in 1998. These days, Lake County needs its summer and fall tourism.

And if the businesses are marginal, they can’t afford to “invest” a couple of slow weeks for pass work in the hope of a better future return from an improved road.

Not a good situation, but one Leadville resident had reason to be grateful for this summer’s work.

On Sept. 11, Pam Pearce of Leadville rolled her car on the pass. She had two dogs with her. The older dog was there when she came to, but her puppy Gracie was gone.

She put up posters and otherwise searched for her dog, to no avail. But 11 days later, over on the Aspen side, a construction worker found her dog — a little thin, but otherwise healthy.