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Rocky Mountain National Park bouncing back after floods and federal shutdown

October 24, 2013 Updated: October 24, 2013 at 12:33 pm
photo - A bridge in Rocky Mountain National Park is blocked by rocks and boulders washed down from the mountainside.
A bridge in Rocky Mountain National Park is blocked by rocks and boulders washed down from the mountainside. 

ESTES PARK- Autumn is Jean Langel's favorite time to visit Rocky Mountain National Park. The aspens are golden, the elk are filling the valleys with the bugling and sparring of the rut and there just aren't as many people around.

When she wanted to visit a few weeks ago, however, a park that's supposed to be open 365 days a year was closed.

"It's frustrating," said Langel, of Littleton. "It's prime season, with the elk and the aspens, so yes, we missed it."

Langel was finally here last week, taking a hike around Bear Lake. The trail was icier than it might have been in September, but she said it was still "awesome" to have the park back.

The park, a beloved Front Range gem that gets 3 million visitors a year, is rebounding from a duo of disasters, one natural, one man-made. Flooding forced it to close all or part of the park 13 days, and right when things were getting back to normal, the government shutdown closed it for 10 more days.

The flood damage in the park is repaired and the shutdown is over, but still only a trickle of people are coming, largely because the two main arteries to the park from the Front Range remain closed.

Last week, the Bear Lake trailhead, usually so busy that hikers must ride a shuttle bus, was barely one-fifth full. That will probably be the norm for now. Said park spokeswoman Kyle Patterson, "If you love Rocky Mountain National Park in the fall, there will never be another fall like this, as far as crowds go."

Spared from destruction

U.S. Highways 34 and 36 are closed, and the high-elevation Trail Ridge Road, the western route into the park, is closed for the season by snow.

There is a way in, the winding mountain road known as the Peak to Peak Scenic Highway from Central City to Estes Park. Clearly not meant for all the traffic and trucks using the road, the 36-mile drive from Boulder took 90 minutes last week.

Getting there is the hard part. Once in the park, there are hardly any signs of the floods at all.

The historic rains over the northern Front Range began Sept. 9 and didn't let up for eight days. In one 24-hour period, 12 inches fell on Rocky Mountain National Park. Campers and visitors were evacuated to high ground and RV owners opened their doors to soaked tent campers, whose rain flies had long since failed. The park closed Sept. 13.

In the aftermath, it was clear the park had escaped the catastrophic damage that happened downstream, as canyons below funneled all the water into raging, deadly torrents. Some trails and bridges were washed out, many localized landslides occurred, but no buildings were destroyed and road damage was not very severe.

In the days that followed, Trail Ridge Road, also spared from destruction, was the only way into and out of the flooded area. Tourists fled west, then heavy trucks rumbled east to deliver aid and begin repairs.

Officials began reopening parts of the park Sept. 18, starting with the undamaged west side. The east side, the direction from which 80 percent of park visitors arive, began to reopen Sept. 25 . Yes, drivers had to take a circuitous route that could take three hours or more from Denver, but people could get there. Businesses in Estes Park began to reopen. And the weekend of Sept. 27-29, Elk Fest, a celebration of the autumn rut, went on, and it was also a celebration of the park being fully reopened.

In a town where two-thirds of the economy comes from tourism, there was finally optimism.

It didn't last.

The state steps in

On the morning of Oct. 2, the park was again evacuated and the gates shut.

Employees had a few hours to wrap things up, and they went home on furlough, as a political standoff brought the National Park Service, like much of the rest of the federal government, to a shutdown.

"Here we were just celebrating the reopening of the park and something out of our control was happening," Patterson said. "We had a lot of European visitors who could not understand why this was happening."

Boulder Canyon Road to Nederland reopened, shortening the drive from Denver considerably, but with no park, few people came.

Then, the state of Colorado donated $362,700 to reopen the park up to Oct. 20, $40,000 a day.

The gates opened Oct. 12, and 10,200 people came on a beautiful fall weekend. But that number was about a third of what the park would normally get on an October weekend, Patterson said.

The federal shutdown ended last week and the state got $120,000 back, while it will take an act of Congress if the state wants the rest refunded.

But there has been little celebration in Estes Park.

Being optimistic

The lunch rush at Estes Park Brewery consisted of three tables Oct. 17.

It's been that kind of fall for owner Tyler Lemirande. Winter is the slowest time of year in Estes Park, and winters are long here.

"We've kind of passed into the offseason already, so the damage has already been done," said Lemirande, whose restaurant was spared flood damage.

But he doesn't blame the federal shutdown. He blames the lack of easy access.

"You live and die with the roads. Even if the park wasn't open but the roads were open, we would've still had good business," he said.

At The Warming House, an outdoors gear and apparel shop, owner Phebe Novic said people would have still come during the shutdown, had there been a quicker way.

"There are people that love Estes and know Estes has been through a really bad time and I think a lot of people are coming to support the town - outside of what happened with the park - that are just trying to help the town survive," she said.

Work crews are working around the clock to meet a state deadline of Dec. 1 to have the two highways opened.

"I feel better about it than I did a couple weeks ago," Novic said about the next few months. "I've got to be optimistic."

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