Chief Joseph Scenic Byway Gets Facelift

in News/Transportation

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By Wendy Corr, Cowboy State Daily

Wyoming is the best state to visit for scenic vistas and wide open spaces. And the highways that let visitors take in those views provide some of the best sightseeing opportunities in the world.

But every once in a while, even the road to paradise needs some repairs.

And the Chief Joseph Scenic Highway northwest of Cody is nearing the end of an extensive repair effort.

About two years ago, a portion of the steep mountainside along the highway began sliding downhill and crews scrambled to make the road safe for travelers headed to either Red Lodge, Montana, or the Northeast Entrance to Yellowstone.

It’s not been an easy task. 

Back in 2017, a portion of the hill on which switchbacks wind their way down to Sunlight Basin from Dead Indian Pass began sloughing, causing significant damage to the road also known as Wyoming Highway 296. A year later, that same area slipped, damaging the roadway further. 

In 2020, road crews were able to begin the reconstruction process, which will be finalized this month. That’s according to Cody Beers, public information specialist for the Wyoming Department of Transportation.

“There will be some short delays through May,” Beers explained. “As the road is being built, it will be paved; and then in June, it will be chip sealed. And after that it should be wide open for travelers.”

The road hasn’t been completely closed since the slide began – highway officials have been able to keep at least one lane of traffic open safely to facilitate travelers who come to see the unbeatable views from the 8,070-foot summit of Dead Indian Pass. 

And the stretch of road that is being repaired is just two-tenths of one mile — although the price to fix it ($5.8 million) belies its length. 

Although the roadway damage hasn’t posed a danger to motorists, the construction job has seen its share of tragedy. In October of 2018, a construction worker drove his huge haul truck off the edge of the cliff, resulting in his death. An investigation by the Wyoming Highway Patrol revealed that the driver had abused methamphetamines prior to getting behind the wheel.

By the end of June, Beers said the highway will be back to “normal” for the first time in more than four years.

“There won’t be any major delays,” Beers predicted. “But people will be stopped at traffic signals – there will be traffic signals on each end. But 5-minute delays at the most.”

And Beers pointed out that if drivers have to be stopped for traffic delays, the top of Dead Indian Pass is not a bad place to pause.

“We encourage people to enjoy the scenery,” he said.

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