You don’t know what you’ve got ’til it’s gone

RMNP Roads Supervisor Chuck Stalker assesses damage on Old Fall River Road from the September 2013 flood. (Yes, that’s the road, not a footpath.) (Image: NPS)

Colorado’s September floods are old news now to most of the country, but the after effects continue to reverberate in the flood zone.

I had heard, for example, that Old Fall River Road in Rocky Mountain National Park would be closed through 2014. Not until today, however, did I come across the National Park Service’s December 9 report on the road, which included this photo. Little more needs to be said. The old one-lane one-way dirt road that huffs, puffs, and claws its way up the steep south slope of Mount Chapin obviously needs extensive repairs.

It’s amazing how deprived I feel, considering I’ve driven that road only three times in the last 40 years. But now that I see how damaged it is, now that I know it’s closed … now I feel a great loss. Now I feel that surely if the road were open next summer, I’d be up there every couple of weeks.

I feel reasonably confident that the road, with all the history behind it, will be rebuilt. But you never quite know what the park service will ultimately decide is a “natural occurrence” that should be respected as nature at work and thus left alone. Certainly it would be a lot cheaper to just put up a sign saying “Remnants of Old Fall River Road, destroyed by the historic floods of 2013” than to rebuild the road.

After all, it’s happened before. When the Lawn Lake Dam broke in 1982 and washed tons of debris down into RMNP’s Horseshoe Park, the park service didn’t bring in heavy equipment to clear away the mess. They just put up signs telling how the alluvial fan was formed and rerouted the road through it. And that wasn’t even a natural disaster. That was the failure of a poorly maintained manmade dam.

So I find myself wondering if the old road should actually be restored. Would one less road in the backcountry be a loss … or a gain?

16 thoughts on “You don’t know what you’ve got ’til it’s gone

  1. Well said PT. I’m really not sure how to answer the question at the end. Guess it depends on whether you like people having access or not. I’m sure there are those who’d prefer it if visitors were few and far between…

    1. I don’t even know myself. I love that old road and the fact that it allows me to get into an area I’d never see otherwise. On the other hand, I’ve always believed fewer roads mean more protection for the backcountry. Maybe it wouldn’t be so bad if they didn’t rebuild it (although as far as I know, no one has suggested it not be repaired and reopened).

  2. i kind of lean towards the ‘not such a bad thing if they didn’t repair it’ school of thought. perhaps the area would be better off returning to it’s more natural and intended state. we are all just visitors after all –

    1. There’s been no hint that it won’t be repaired. But for some reason it occurred to me that it might not be a bad idea to let it revert to trail status, as it was back even before it was a road. It’s one of only three main roads in the park, so it’s pretty important to those of us who do all our sightseeing by car.

  3. When the floods came to Mt Rainier, it was heart breaking to see the damage that will take years to fix…Christmas this year I received books on hiking trails in the Denver and Boulder area. I am sure that are going to be a lot of adaptions to the changes.

    1. Over my lifetime, I’ve seen a lot of trails rerouted or abandoned due to washouts, local flooding, rock falls, downed trees, etc. Nothing like this year’s floods, however. I’ve no idea what to expect, but I suspect I’m not prepared for what’s happened to the park since my last visit.

  4. Hi PT– while I can see how allowing the OFRR to continue unrepaired would support the naturalization efforts, it does have historical significance as a road, being the first vehicle route linking Estes to the western slope, and that the Stanley Steamers actually drove it (in reverse), etc. It was closed for years- then in the early 70’s was again readied for vehicle traffic. That is when they constructed the slope of “chain link rock cages” on that worst slide area (can’t recall the real name, sorry!). I drove the Old Road before tackling Trail Ridge- and prefer it even now- making the drive just before sunrise usually means lots of wildlife, including moose this year & most days a decent chance at parking near the Chapin Pass trailhead, too. But to be fair, they removed the road from the Pass House to Milner Lake, and the road bed/trail is a popular hike for many each summer. My fingers are crossed that funding is allocated to make the repairs! Thanks for posting that photo– it certainly lets everyone see how bad it was damaged.

    1. The road is wonderful for people like me who can’t hike into the backcountry to get closer to nature. If traffic is light enough and there are no other cars within earshot, the experience is truly incomparable. And the history is fascinating.

      I discovered after posting it that this photo is really quite large and if you zoom in, you’ll see a lot that isn’t noticeable at first. There are two other people in the picture. And on the bulging outcropping of road you can see that it’s held in place by chain link. Not good enough. When nature decides to wash out a road, it gets washed out.

  5. Those natural resource decisions can be tough indeed; I don’t envy the Park Service managers who will have to make this one. However, the prospects for federal funding of much of anything outside defense being what they are, it could be a long time before there is a serious move toward reconstruction even if that is the choice.

    1. Considering how long storm relief has taken in populated areas — Hurricane Sandy, for example — I’m not betting a nickel on when or if the park service gets funds for this, unless those funds are already set aside.

    1. I knew it was for road support (didn’t know what it was called). Haven’t ever examined it up close and just assumed it was chain link being employed in a different way. “Gabion,” eh? I’ll have to remember that. Thanks.

      Actually, looking closely, this one looks more like chicken wire. But I doubt chicken wire, although flexible, would be strong enough for such use. Just guessing.

... and that's my two cents