OGDEN — Northern Utah’s two big alpine highways are set to close at the end of the month, but with snow in the forecast over the next several days, transportation officials say would-be users of the mountain passes should be prepared for them to close at a moment’s notice.
As it stands now, the Monte Cristo Highway, also known as State Route 39, will close after Thanksgiving between milepost 37, just east of Huntsville near Ant Flat Road, and milepost 56 near Woodruff in Rich County. The Big Mountain Highway, or S.R. 65, will close between milepost 3, north of the Emigration Canyon turn-off in eastern Salt Lake County, and milepost 13, which is about 2 miles south of the East Canyon State Park in Morgan County.
“Because of budget restraints and depending on how many November storms we get, like the ones we just saw, they may close them early,” said Utah Department of Transportation Senior Communications Manager Zach Whitney. “Typically we close them just after Thanksgiving.”
Due to their high elevations, the routes can be hit with extreme snowfall in a matter of hours. The National Weather Service’s seven-day Ogden forecast shows at least a chance of snow on four of the next seven days. On Friday and Saturday, the NWS forecasts that snow is likely for the Ogden region.
When UDOT closes the two highways, they will remain out of service until at least spring.
During the closures, motorists who would use the Monte Cristo Highway to pass the Monte Cristo summit should use either U.S. Highway 89 through Logan Canyon, or a combination of Utah S.R. 16, Wyoming S.R. 89, Interstate 80 and Interstate 84 to access communities east and west of the highway. Motorists who normally use the Big Mountain Highway should use I-84 and S.R. 66 from Morgan, or S.R. 65 from I-84 at Henefer to access the East Canyon recreation area.
When open, the heavily traveled mountain passes are often used by outdoor recreation enthusiasts. According to the U.S. Forest Service, the Monte Cristo Highway is an officially designated Utah State Scenic Byway. After traversing through the narrow Ogden River canyon and past the shores of Pineview Reservoir, the road climbs for many miles toward the summit of the Monte Cristo range. The road climbs to over 9,000 feet, which is nearly as high as the peak of Ben Lomond, and passes through an array of vegetation types.
UDOT has said winter maintenance on the roads is extremely expensive and because of the chances of a swift, incoming heavy snowstorm, motorist safety is a big concern during the winter. Those two factors make the road nearly impossible to keep open year-round. The roads typically close from late November through May, but sometimes heavy snow forces the state to keep them closed longer. In 2011, the Monte Cristo Highway didn’t open until mid-July as extremely high snow levels remained throughout a cool spring. That year, off-highway snow depths reached 25 feet in some locations.
The state has previously considered keeping both roads open through the winter, but a 2014 study found that costs associated with staff salaries, equipment, materials, fuel and roadway improvements outweighed potential benefits like travel time savings, community connections, recreational property access, safety and potential tax gains from development opportunities.