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How to avoid the worst MLK mountain traffic on I-70 this weekend

Martin Luther King holiday weekend typically ranks fifth-busiest of the year for traffic at Eisenhower-Johnson tunnels

Special Thanks The Denver Post 

President’s Day ski traffic backed up on the on ramp to I-70 eastbound at US Hwy 40 in Empire, Colo. on Monday, February 17, 2014. While President’s Day historically sees the most I-70 ski traffic, MLK weekend comes in at a close second. (Cyrus McCrimmon, The Denver Post)

If you’re heading to the mountains over the long Martin Luther King holiday weekend that begins Friday, we’ve got some advice to help you avoid the worst of the traffic heading west. Here’s a clue: Unless you’re heading up Friday, you’d better beat the sunrise.

According to CDOT spokesman Bob Wilson, the best times to head west from Denver on Saturday, Sunday or Monday over the holiday weekend usually are before 7 or 7:30 a.m. Heading up before noon on Friday typically is OK, “since people often work a half-day and then head out,” Wilson said.

The Martin Luther King holiday weekend usually ranks as the fifth-busiest of the year for high country traffic as measured by traffic counts at the Eisenhower-Johnson tunnels, behind Independence Day, Presidents Day, Labor Day and Memorial Day.

So far this season, ski traffic is down compared to last year. With resorts limiting visitation due to the pandemic and less-than-abundant snowfall to attract skiers and riders, December saw 995,646 vehicles travel through the tunnels, a decrease of about 8.9% compared to December 2019.

RELATED: How ski resorts will be operating now that they are at Level Orange

“It’s likely a combination of lower-than-average snowfall, limitations on resort visitation during peak holiday weeks, fewer people traveling/leaving home during the pandemic in general, warnings about backcountry avalanche risks, etc.,” Colorado Ski Country USA spokesman Chris Linsmayer wrote in an email.

As of Wednesday, 20 Colorado ski areas had snowpacks that were below 80% of normal, according to OpenSnow, an independent snow tracking and forecasting service. Four were at 80%-90% and only one — Wolf Creek — was above average at, 101%.

Related: Skiing in a pandemic, is this the worst year of skiing … or the best?

As a result, CDOT expects traffic this weekend to be less than last year, when more than 171,000 vehicles passed through the tunnels over the four-day period. Still, it’s bound to be slow-going much of the weekend, so you’ll want to avoid the worst of it. Here are some things to keep mind if you’re heading for the hills:

Westbound: Friday traffic for the MLK holiday weekend peaked last year between 2 and 3 p.m. On Saturday, it peaked from 8 to 11 a.m. and again from 2 to 4 p.m., with a high for the day of 2,668 vehicles from 3 to 4 p.m. On Sunday, it peaked from 9 to 10 a.m., and on Monday it peaked from 8 to 11 a.m.

Eastbound: Friday traffic peaked last year from 2 to 3 p.m. On Saturday, it peaked from noon to 1 p.m. and again from 3 to 4 p.m., remaining heavy through 7 p.m. On Sunday, it was heavy from 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. On Monday, it peaked from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. and again from 2 to 5 p.m., remaining heavy until 7 p.m.

Busiest days, times: Of the four days of the MLK weekend last year, the highest westbound traffic came on Saturday (28,388) with the highest eastbound traffic on Monday (28,006). The busiest hours of the weekend both came on Saturday: 2,668 vehicles westbound from 3 to 4 p.m. and 2,899 eastbound from noon to 1 p.m.

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