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"We love your books! We pick them up each visit. They are all so beautiful and well done. They are the best guide books of any place we visit. We especially love the Restaurant Guide" Charles from Michigan
Two relatively recent floods affected the character of the Big Thompson Canyon and downtown Estes Park--the Big Thompson Flood and the Lawn Lake Flood. The floods were devastating, with great loss of life and property. But in the end, the Big Thompson Canyon was made safer and Estes Park earned the title "Gutsiest Little Town in Colorado."
Big Thompson Flood - 1976
The signs in the mountain canyons–In Case of Flood Climb to Safety–remind everyone of the deadliest flash flood in Colorado’s recorded history. The Big Thompson flood took 145 lives (including six who were never found) and 250 were reported injured. Helicopters evacuated 1,840 people.
On the evening of July 31, 1976, as residents prepared to celebrate the centennial statehood anniversary (Colorado Day) the next day, thunderstorms began to dump heavy rain on the Big Thompson Canyon/Drake/Glen Haven region. The storm remained virtually stationary for more than three hours. Disastrous flash flooding began below the town of Estes Park and extended down the canyon for 25 miles to Loveland. The flooding was violent and caused massive destruction in a short time. The flood crest moved through the 7.7-mile stretch between Drake and the canyon mouth in about 30 minutes.
The raging torrent of water 19ft high swept away cars, campers, buildings and huge boulders in its path. The wall of water moved so fast that the only avenue of escape was up the canyon walls. Vehicles and buildings became death traps for unsuspecting campers who had no chance of survival.
At the mouth of the canyon, the raging river smashed into the supports of a 227,000-pound water pipe where it crossed the highway. The flood carried the pipe, filled with an estimated 873,000 pounds of water, a quarter of a mile downstream. The river’s flow was so fast that it could have filled an Olympic-sized swimming pool every two seconds. It whirled boulders through The Narrows and ripped out 10 feet of the river’s solid granite bottom.
At the lower end of the canyon, it was not raining. Many who were driving through the canyon did not heed the officers’ warnings. Dozens of people died when the roaring water smashed their vehicles against the rocky stream channel. Those who survived climbed to higher ground. Fortunately, the riverbed widens at the mouth of Big Thompson Canyon and the peak flow quickly tapered off.
The flood in Big Thompson Canyon destroyed 316 homes, 45 mobile homes, 52 businesses and 438 automobiles and caused more than $40 million in damage. The tragedy was a major incentive nationwide to create early warning systems for flash floods in mountain towns and recreation areas.
Lawn Lake Flood - 1982
Lori and Steve Mitchell
When you mention Estes and “the flood,” people usually think of the Lawn Lake flood.
On July 15, 1982, the 80-year-old earthen Lawn Lake Dam in the Mummy Range, 11 miles west of Estes Park, failed, unleashing millions of gallons of water along with tons of rocks, gravel and sand. The torrent rushed down Roaring River into Fall River, creating the 42-acre Alluvial Fan that is still visible today. (After you visit the site, make sure to collect the trail tag. See pages 32-33.)
At 6am that day, trash collector Stephen Gillette was making a pick-up at the Lawn Lake trailhead when he “heard a roar and saw debris in the air. It was like a jet had crashed into the mountain.” He alerted the town, and police raced to evacuate Estes Park’s business district.
Downriver in Estes Park it was the calm before the storm. Fall River was running clear and smooth. For a moment, those standing on Davis Hill overlooking downtown Estes Park thought the floodwaters from the burst Lawn Lake Dam wouldn’t reach the town. “Get back! Get back!” screamed people on the hill who saw what was coming. “Get away from the river.”
Suddenly there was water everywhere, slashing and ripping, carrying cars and furniture down Elkhorn Avenue. The hiss and rush of muddy water carried barrels and logs that smashed through storefront windows. The flood sucked furniture and merchandise from the shops. Doors flew off and windows exploded from the force of the water. Mud was everywhere. Thick, sucking congealing mud.
“We smelled the muddy water before we saw it,” recalled a 30-year Estes Park resident. “Fall River rose, muddy and filled with debris.”
The flood sent up to seven feet of water down Elkhorn Avenue, knocking down street signs, breaking windows and shifting vehicles, while leaving behind up to three feet of mud. Floodwaters destroyed 18 bridges, damaged road systems (particularly Fall River Road), inundated 177 businesses (75 percent of Estes Park’s commercial activity), damaged 108 residences and caused $31 million in damage.
The cleanup began. All along Elkhorn Avenue merchants salvaged what they could, helping each other, giving encouragement and sharing gallows humor. “Here’s mud in your eye,” said a note on a dirty window at a local watering hole.
A day later a woman who was helping clean up said she saw flowers growing in the mud. “That’s the way Estes Park will be,” one merchant said. Estes Park had survived a devastating flood and earned its nickname, “The Gutsiest Little Town in Colorado.”
In the end, the Lawn Lake flood gave birth to the Estes Park Urban Renewal Authority (EPURA), which transformed Estes Park, creating the tree-shaded Riverwalk through downtown Estes Park along the Big Thompson River, a visitor favorite for years to come.
Estes Park Weather