On a Saturday night at the end of July in 1976, in the foothills of Northern Colorado, a flash flood of epic proportions occurred. It came with no warning, catching thousands of vacationers and weekend warriors completely by surprise. My wife and I drove up the canyon that Saturday morning and spent that night in the backcountry on the west side of the Divide.
I recently put pen to paper and tried to recall some of our experiences on that weekend, but it was a long time ago and many details have been lost to time, yet some of the memories are so vivid and clear that it’s almost as if they happened yesterday.
Heading into a three day weekend, everything was looking good. Local weatherman, Stormy Rottman predicted just a chance of afternoon thunderstorms, a typical forecast for the end of July in the Colorado Rockies.
It was Saturday, July 31st, 1976. My wife Lynda and I were heading into the high country for a three day backpacking trip. Lynda worked for Colorado State University and like all state employees, had Monday off in celebration of Colorado Day, the day Colorado had become a state one hundred years earlier. We were still new to Colorado, having been in the state for just over a year, and the long weekend would give us a chance to explore a little further from home.
Our destination was Long Lake in the Arapahoe National Forest, just south of Rocky Mountain National Park, on the west side of the Divide. To get there we drove from our home in Loveland, up the Big Thompson Canyon, and over Trail Ridge Road to the trailhead at Monarch Lake. The traffic was heavy and the canyon was full of vacationers, as one would expect on a weekend in late July. We were glad to be leaving the crowds behind and looked forward to the solitude that the unmarked, unmaintained trail leading up Hell Canyon promised.
The first mile or so was easy hiking. At the end of the meadow beyond the lake, the trail began climbing toward Buchanan Pass. Another mile of fairly easy hiking brought us to the lower end of Hell Canyon. Following a moderately well used path that roughly paralleled the unnamed creek (Hell Creek just doesn’t sound very nice), we struggled up the canyon, gaining 600 feet in less than half a mile before the trail leveled off a bit. After another mile we entered a small, grassy meadow which was bisected by the creek. A perfect place for a lunch break, I thought.
We spent the better part of an hour there; eating, drinking and relaxing. The crystal clear waters of the creek beckoned me to cast a fly upon them. Heeding the call, I quickly assembled my rod and crept as close as I dared to the water’s edge. I could see trout laying in the slow moving current, rising occasionally to the surface to grab a morsel. I managed to land a few nice ones and was surprised to find that they were cutthroats. Would have loved to linger in that meadow a while longer, but we needed to get moving if we were to make Long Lake
As often happens in meadows, the trail disappeared. At first it wasn’t a problem, we just continued walking up the drainage, through the tall grass, trying to pick the best path. Our problems grew as the meadow morphed into a boggy maze of water, mud and downed timber.
Our progress slowed to a crawl. At some point, late in the afternoon, we came to the conclusion that we either needed to backtrack our way out of the maze or find a suitable place to bivouac. Not wanting to lose any ground, we decided to look for a flat spot to camp.
After some searching we found a small island of dry ground nestled beneath some pine trees. Though not completely flat, it proved to be quite comfortable and the trees made excellent anchoring points for our tarp. Once camp was set-up, we boiled water for dinner and kicked backed for the evening. Given that we were using a minimalistic, ColinFletcheresq, white visqueen tarp for shelter, we were thankful for the scarcity of mosquitos.
Darkness came prematurely thanks to ominous looking dark clouds that boiled overhead. The rain started sometime around 7PM. It started off innocently enough, not too hard, just straight falling and steady with occasional lightning and thunder. As the evening and the darkness progressed, the storm took an evil turn. The rain became a torrent, the thunder rumbled non-stop and the lightning lit up the sky in all directions. We huddled under that tarp, holding on to each other, waiting/hoping for the storm to pass. Instead of passing, the storm raged on most of the night, with an intensity that I’d never seen before. Lynda’s face was inches from mine, her eyes wide and filled with fear, as I’m sure mine were to her. The strobe-like flashes of lightning, amplified by the white plastic of the tarp added to the surreal scene that night. It was, to say the least, a wild night and we slept little.
At first light, the rain was still falling, though it fell at a much more moderate pace. We’d made it through the night, and in spite of our meager shelter, we somehow managed to stay dry. Faced with the morning’s continuing, steady rain, we made a decision to bail-out a day early and get the hell out of Hell Canyon.
Other than the damp conditions, everything seemed normal as we made our way back to the car. Don’t remember running into anyone else on the trail or at the trailhead. At the TH, we shed our ponchos, loaded our gear into the Volkswagon and headed out to the highway and home.
At the Rocky Mountain NP entrance we were greeted with the first news of the disaster that had occurred in the Big Thompson Canyon. We didn’t quite get it, when the ranger told us we couldn’t go over Trail Ridge Rd to Estes Park. “But that’s where we live,” we told him, “we have to go that way.” “It’s a disaster area, you’ll have to go another way,” he said. We had no idea of what other way we could go. The ranger suggested that we turn around and take Hwy 40 over Berthoud Pass.
Berthoud Pass was bizarre, there were rocks strewn all over the road. By the time we reached I-70 we were a wreck. As we drove north on I-25 from Denver, we could only guess at what we would find at home.
What we found at our apartment was nothing, situation normal, much to our relief. During the following week, we learned the extent of the disaster, via the media, through friends and co-workers personal experiences and by helping with the cleanup work.
On a Saturday night at the end of July in 1976, in the foothills of Northern Colorado, one hundred and forty four people lost their lives as a flash flood of epic proportions roared through the Big Thompson Canyon. Fortunately for us, we passed through in the morning. Some of the people we passed by that morning were not so lucky.
Big Thompsom Flood Facts
Check out the fact sheet here- USGS Big Thompson Flood link