NEWS

Estes Park is a favorite spot, but now not an easy one to reach

Updated: 2013-09-27T17:41:38Z

By KAREN DILLON

The Kansas City Star

Estes Park, a prime vacation spot that attracts thousands of Kansans and Missourians each year, has begun to mend after the epic Colorado flooding two weeks ago.

But getting to the village for the changing of seasons, traditionally a big draw for tourists, won’t be easy.

Two main roads remain closed, and it could take 4½ hours longer to reach the town on alternative routes.

Some Kansas City-area families are just back with dramatic tales of rescue and survival. Others have canceled plans to go to Estes, gateway to Rocky Mountain National Park and home of the historic Stanley Hotel.

But not Shelly Stewart of Olathe, who has plans to get married Oct. 18 in Estes Park, although she almost changed her mind when she saw images of the flooding on television. After two weeks of worrying, the couple is going ahead with the ceremony in the park.

“Yes, we were anxious, you could say,” said Stewart, who is marrying her childhood sweetheart 30 years late. “The house (where the ceremony will take place) was undamaged. It’ll just take us longer to get there.”

If you are planning to visit the Boulder, Longmont and Loveland areas and then drive to Estes Park, the quickest routes have always been two highways, 36 and 34. But both have significant damage and will not reopen until at least Dec. 1, and even then only with temporary repairs — possibly just gravel in places.

Another highway, scenic Trail Ridge Road, winds through Rocky Mountain National Park, rising to elevations of almost 12,000 feet, and then travels down the west slope to Grand Lake in Granby. It was undamaged by flooding, but it’s usually closed for winter from October to May because of snow.

In fact, it already was closed for a time Wednesday because of snow, the Colorado Department of Transportation reported.

That leaves only the Peak to Peak Scenic Byway (State Highway 7), a narrow, two-lane route winding south through the mountains to Black Hawk and eventually reaching Denver.

Amy Ford, spokeswoman for the transportation department, said 80 percent of U.S. 34 was damaged and 40 percent of U.S. 36 was damaged. The cost to fix 200 miles of highways and 50 bridges washed away is estimated to be $430 million and could take as long as two years. That doesn’t include damage to county or local roads.

“It was a terrible event,” Ford said. “The pure rush of water and the destructive force that was dealt here was truly unprecedented.”

Mayor Bill Pinkham remains upbeat and said most of Estes Parks’ businesses are running again, the downtown has been cleaned and flowers are blooming.

“It is gorgeous here,” he said by phone while sitting on his deck. “The mountains are absolutely clear. The aspen are just beginning to turn. And the elk are going around like nothing happened.”

But while downtown flooding has receded in Estes, 2,000 residents in one area are without working sewers and it’s unknown when that might be fixed, Pinkham said.

“They have water and phones and power, but no sewers,” he said. “We’re coming up with temporary solutions to that.”

Workers are having to innovate, too.

Many of them, including firefighters, shopkeepers and hospital employees, live down the mountain in Longmont, Loveland and Boulder, Pinkham said.

Because the roads are out, it takes those workers almost 4½ hours to get to Estes Park. Many workers are job sharing and staying several days to a week in temporary housing, including the YMCA of the Rockies.

As for visitors from this area, Wayne Rhodus of Basehor said he and his family have been traveling to Estes Park every fall for the last 22 years and were planning to travel Saturday to the village. Because of concerns over the devastation, he said they will stay in Dillon, a ski resort that had less damage.

“It is horrific from what we saw on the videos,” Rhodus said.

Dylan and Anna Hurt of Olathe, both 23, saw it while celebrating their first anniversary.

It was 6 a.m. when they were startled by someone pounding on their door.

They were staying at a resort near Estes Park along the Big Thompson River, and they had to get out quickly — floodwaters were rising.

Outside, the water sounded like thunder as the two scrambled to higher ground, Anna Hurt said.

Then they waited and watched as water crept up around their car, parked near the river.

“We knew there would be flood damage” to the car, she said. “But then slowly watching it go, and turn, and bump, and move closer to that river and then float down was hard.”

The innkeeper several days later found the car with other vehicles under a bridge, Anna Hurt said. The Hurts’ car was smashed.

About 1 p.m., a dam went and the water got really high and even louder.

Firefighters were able to rescue them later that day by stringing a cable from the road across the Big Thompson and using a zip line to haul people to safety, which took several hours. They were taken to a Red Cross shelter at a church in Estes Park with many other people.

Anna Hurt was surprised: No one complained, neither adults nor children.

Two older couples from Topeka escaped with the clothes they were wearing and purses, she said.

“They were in a much crazier situation than ours,” Hurt said. They had to hike a mile and a half to a fire station, and one was diabetic and another one had chronic obstructive pulmonary disease.

“It was a really horrible situation for them, but they didn’t complain,” she said. “They were just thankful for having their lives and a safe place to be.”

The next day, the Hurts got a ride to Denver. The bus traveled along Colorado 7. Mudslides and falling boulders had reduced the highway to one lane in many places.

“I now can see how damaging and scary floods are,” she said. “There is no control over anything.”

To reach Karen Dillon, call 816-234-4430 or send email to kdillon@kcstar.com.

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