Driving I80 Through Wyoming in October - Snow? Alternate Routes?
September 1, 2019 5:52 PM   Subscribe

I have to drive from Reno to Des Moines on October 7 and 8. I have two questions about the route, particularly about the pass between Laramie and Cheyanne: How likely is it that the pass will be dangerous or closed on those dates? And are the other routes (either through Denver or through Sioux City) safer or less likely to be snowy/closed?

I'm looking for two things:
1 - Are there probability tables or any other data that would give me a good idea about whether or not I should worry about closings and/or dangerous weather on the pass between Laramie and Cheyanne in the first and second week of October?
2 - If it's bad, are either of the other two routes better? Do elevations stay lower on the alternate routes? Are there similar passes that are also prone to snow and closing? Are there other downsides or considerations of either of the other two routes. (I have never driven either in summer or any other time)

I have heard horror stories about that pass. I have driven it many times in the summer, but never in October so I don't know what I should expect and whether or not I should plan for alternate routes. Thanks!
posted by crapples to Travel & Transportation around Cheyenne, WY (12 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
I-80 is by far the fastest if the weather is fair.

A big storm will tend to hit I-80 or I-70, but not close both.

A few days ahead of your trip check the forecast and compare I-80 and I-70, or even I-40 farther south as an option.
posted by nickggully at 6:31 PM on September 1, 2019

Well, it did close for a winter storm on October 10 of last year. But I have no idea how common such storms are in October.
posted by Johnny Assay at 8:04 PM on September 1, 2019

That's Cheyenne.

These storms are not unheard of from late August to June - I've stopped even trying to visit my family from late September to March because of the odds of getting stuck in Denver. It's hard to tell more than a day or two in advance if the pass might close.

It is a particularly dangerous stretch of road, in large part because of the volume of long-haul truckers on 80 every day, poor visibility, and generally weird weather conditions. Particularly the truckers - these guys are half-asleep, watching movies, hands off the wheel, and they often don't even notice the cars in front of them in time to brake. There have been dozen-car pileups here for as long as I can remember, and the last major one in Spring 2015 was a 70-car pileup.

That said, this is still the route I'd take - it's significantly faster than dealing with the Denver suburbs (which now seem to constitute most of the front range). Keep an eye on closures here, and the weather in general, as nickggully says. Try to time it so that you go through between 11am and 4pm and preemptively plan on just spending the afternoon/evening in Rawlins or Laramie if things go bad.
posted by aspersioncast at 9:24 PM on September 1, 2019

Oh and if you do get stuck in Rawlins or Laramie feel free to memail me - I know both towns pretty well.
posted by aspersioncast at 9:26 PM on September 1, 2019 [1 favorite]

I drove it in late March 2018 and again in mid October 2019, towing a camper both times. In March it got shut down for high winds and I spent a day and a half in Rawlings; in October it was spitting snow and sleet and I ended up leaving the highway and taking a back road for a while - 287 I think - which was slower but beautiful and completely deserted. I got back on 80 and made it all the way to Rock Springs*. The thing is, the scary part is not that long** and there’s a lot of information - there are billboards with warnings and this WY road condition website which seems to be updated super frequently. I tend to be very anxious about highway driving and I just kept an eye on the weather, resigned myself to overnighting if I had to and it was fine. There are lots of motels / campgrounds / Walmart parking lots en route and really it’s not that bad, just keep an eye on the weather and be as flexible as you can.

* you haven’t lived until you’ve spent the night in the rock springs wal mart parking lot. It’s quite convivial! Aargh!

** the scary part on I-80 is going into / leaving Utah.

posted by mygothlaundry at 10:43 PM on September 1, 2019

So we have been driving the "hard part" of the route you are talking about, summer and winter, regularly for about 25 years now.

By dint of hard experience, we never, ever, ever, ever, ever, EVER take the I-70 route over the mountains in anything that looks even vaguely like winter weather.

The I-80 route through Wyoming can be bad, but it is still exponentially better than the I-70 route from Denver to Grand Junction.

I-70 just goes straight up and over the top of the Rockies. You're basically taking a tour of the major Colorado ski areas: Aspen, Keystone, Vail, Copper Mountain, Breckenridge, Keystone, etc.

The Eisenhower Tunnel, highest point on I-70 at 11,100 is right in the middle of a freaking ski resort, Loveland.

So there is a reason every Native American, trapper, explorer, trader, pioneer wagon train, etc etc etc has been using the Wyoming route for thousands of years (the Gangplank, South Pass, and all that) whereas those who tried to just shove their way across the heart of the Rockies in the middle of winter often suffered a gruesome death or worse.*

So I don't think you're going to suffer a gruesome death crossing I-70 in October, but the peak of that route is a full 2500 feet higher than the I-80/Wyoming route, and the route stays at extremely high altitude for many more contiguous miles than the I-80 route does.

2500 feet higher quite literally puts it into a different climate zone.

To answer your question more directly: Here are graphs showing monthly averages for October for (near) the highest point of the I-70 route in Colorado and near the highest point of the I-80 route in Wyoming.

Note that those have temperature and precip numbers for October 2018 but a different line on the same graph also shows the historic average for that day. So carefully read the graphs and the captions.

Also note those weather stations are both nearby but quite a bit lower in elevation than the actual high point of the route. So take that into consideration.

The generally good news is that early October generally isn't that bad. Late October is when it starts to get really dicey. Just for example, Loveland Ski Area--the one you'll be driving right through the middle of, if you choose the I-70 route--typically opens mid-October. Though they start making snow late September. Yes, the altitude really is that high.

*FWIW my great-grandfather was a neighbor of the "Mr Vincent Haler" mentioned, in a very unflattering way, on page 81 and a few other places in Fremont's account of that 1849 disaster in the Rockies--which I why I happen to know about that particular incident.
posted by flug at 12:03 AM on September 2, 2019 [8 favorites]

Also, both Colorado and Wyoming Dept of Transportation have really excellent and helpful driving condition maps & apps. Would not travel without them, especially in winter-y times.
posted by flug at 12:07 AM on September 2, 2019 [1 favorite]

> To answer your question more directly: Here are graphs showing monthly averages for October for (near) the highest point of the I-70 route in Colorado and near the highest point of the I-80 route in Wyoming.

I should mention that the weather stations linked above are for Eagle Mountain Airport--a solid 4500 feet lower than the Eisenhower Tunnel--and Laramie Regional Airport--1300 feet lower than Sherman Summit. Those are the only weather stations I know of in those areas that have that kind of history.

So take with as many grains and/or buckets of salt as necessary.

Temperature on a nice day decreases about 5.4 degrees per 1000 feet of altitude, so take whatever it says for Eagle Mountain and subtract 24 degrees--you'll be in the ballpark. For Laramie Regional, subtract about 7 degrees.

For Eisenhower Tunnel in early Oct, that puts the daily low near 13 degrees. Whereas at Sherman Summit WY the average low for Oct 7th is closer to 23.
posted by flug at 12:19 AM on September 2, 2019

Sorry to keep piling on, but if by chance there is a major storm that looks like it will hit CO & WY in that time frame, it's true that from Reno you can just drive down to Vegas and then take I-40 across, then come back up via I-29 etc. That is definitely a more inviting/passable route in wintertime. It adds about 6 hours to your trip but if there is a major storm underway you could easily lose way more than 6 hours trying to take the more direct route (ask me how I know).
posted by flug at 12:24 AM on September 2, 2019 [1 favorite]

flug - Exactly the kind of information I was looking for, thank you so much! It sounds like October may be ok to pass through Wyoming, but the chance of a show-stopping storm are not zero. I will check weather before I leave and if it looks bad I'll head down to Vegas. I hadn't thought of that route at all. It adds a lot of time but I'd rather be six hours late than 2 days late.

You didn't mention this route: https://photos.app.goo.gl/NpQUzcMHCcNtxLy28
Is that one no better than going through Laramie?
Thanks for your response. This helps me process a lot.
posted by crapples at 6:58 AM on September 2, 2019 [1 favorite]

The Rapid City route isn't much better IME - if you're going to bother going out of the way I'd just go all the way down to route 50.
posted by aspersioncast at 9:01 AM on September 2, 2019

If the weather is spectacular and clear , may I suggest leaving I 80 at Walcott Wy and utilizing state route 130 over Snowy Range Pass to Laramie. A very beautiful part of Wyoming very nice road . Worth the bypass weather permitting .
posted by hortense at 12:58 PM on September 2, 2019

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