When they tell you that there's 6000 yards of debris covering the Lamoille Canyon Road, it's hard to imagine what that looks like. The photos of the damage done by monsoonal rains just don't show the scale of what needs to happen to re-open Lamoille Canyon Road to vehicle traffic. Nor does it give any inkling of how the Forest Service is going to get it done with the relative pittance (about $100,000 at the moment) they have to work with. They have 20 - count 'em - landslides to clean up, most of which went from the ridge tops, over the road, and all the way to the creek in the canyon bottom. There were more, but those smaller slides just created instability, not clean-up problems.
Ken and I toured the canyon this evening with hydrologist Robin Wignall from the USFS, one of the professionals responsible for managing the response to the mudslides. It was, honestly, fascinating to see the results of Mother Nature's handiwork. And, as with all events like this, there are incidences of gobsmacking good luck, opportunities hidden in the debris, and a lengthy to-do list before full access to the canyon can be restored.
What HappenedFor those following along at home - over the course of less than 72 hours, July 30th - August 1st, sections of Lamoille Canyon from about Pete's Corner to the Terraces Picnic grounds received up to eight inches of rain. That's a quarter of the precipitation that Lamoille Canyon usually gets per annum. In a matter of hours. That's the kind of storm that happens once in 500 years.
In response, landslides came down from the steep slopes onto Lamoille Canyon Road, burying the road in massive rocks and silty mud as much as 10 feet deep. At least half of the slide activity happened above the burn scar from 2018's Range Two fire, so while some of the damage is attributable to the fire, a lot of it isn't. Culverts under the road are blocked and/or washed away, and water continues to run down the road in places. Slopes above the road are unstable, and another sudden storm could have devastating effect. The Elko County Sheriff's Office had to mount an emergency evacuation effort to get campers out of the Thomas Canyon Campground, the first time because of fears of flash flooding, the second time because of the landslides blocking the road and threatening more rockfall. The Elko County Road Department also provided emergency response, including heavy equipment and manpower, to get the road passable by vehicles so that trapped recreationists could get out, and so that USFS crews could start working to rectify the damage.
|Road damage at Pete's Corner|
As of now, the road is closed to motorized vehicles at the first pullout, across from the Lamoille-Talbot trailhead. The closure is to allow construction/debris clearance crews to work more efficiently, and because there is significant instability above the road. At this point it's doubtful that an ambulance or other vehicle in a hurry could get through. The road is open to foot traffic and bicycles all the way to road's end, and while we were there we saw bike tracks and a pair of trail runners fully enjoying the unusual solitude provided by the closures.
The next stepsOn our tour today, we saw four places where the road is damaged to the point where motorist safety would be compromised, but there is a lot of debris on the road with no inkling of what might be under all of that rock. The USFS *just* finished a $900,000 chip seal project, so workers are doing everything possible to preserve the blacktop and not have to re-do a lot of road that just got rebuilt.
The agency has been able to rob Peter to pay Paul and come up with $100,000 from various pots, but that isn't close to enough money to clear the road and repair the damage. They are working with other USFS districts in Utah and Idaho, that experienced damage from the same storm system, to apply for a grant from the Federal Highway Administration. Unfortunately, the earliest those funds would come through would be after Thanksgiving, meaning that they'll be operating on a very slim shoestring until then. There is other grant money out there that they can (and will) pursue, but none of that money will show up quickly, which means that repairs can't happen in a hurry. It can only happen as the money comes in. Since the road is officially a Forest route, not a state highway, state highway resources aren't available, and work done by either the state or county would need to be reimbursed.
The USFS is renting heavy equipment from all over the western US to use on the project - a hot commodity, as much of it is already committed to firefighting. And - as a hot commodity, the price of heavy equipment rental is only going up. In one instance, the USFS was outbid for heavy equipment by a large utility company, since the utility was able to pay more for the rental than the USFS can. The first of the equipment the USFS has secured arrives tomorrow. Because they have the equipment for such a short period of time, and because time is money when equipment is idling, the Canyon road will be closed to ALL traffic, including foot and bicycle traffic, while the equipment is operating. The USFS just doesn't have the money to manage for any kind of ongoing traffic while repairs are going on.
They hope to have the road open to Thomas Canyon Campground in 4-6 weeks, obviously depending on what they find under the debris. They are hoping to get at least parts of it open sooner. Pete's Corner and points beyond are likely to be single-lane traffic until they can come up with money to repair the places where the slides chewed up the road and removed the retaining walls. While it's likely that cars won't have problems getting through, people pulling camp trailers may have difficulties, and the USFS may have to limit the length of trailers that can pass that point. It's all a big wait and see.
Groups that had the Lion's Camp rented still have access to that camp, and cabin owners still have access to their cabins. People who had spaces rented at Thomas Canyon Campground will not be able to access the campground until the road is officially re-opened. Terraces Picnic Area is inaccessible due to road closures, but Powerhouse Picnic Area is operating normally.
Some crazy good luck
|The slides ran right through the cabin area - without burying any cabins|
Even though the road is spectacularly buried in a lot of places, this event COULD have been a whole lot worse than it was. Nobody died, which was a very real possibility. Thomas Canyon Campground was undamaged. The cabins were mostly undamaged, although the slides came right through the cabin area and the cabin access road is impassable in places. The USFS had completed a scaling project in the Narrows just last year, and so a lot of rocks that otherwise would have been candidates for smashing into cars and bikes had already been removed. The Backcountry Horsemen and Friends of Nevada Wilderness had re-established the old Colonel Moore Trail after the 2018 Range Two fire, meaning that trail access to Liberty Lake and points beyond is still available. The dead mahoganies burned in the fire remain rooted enough to provide some slope stability, and likely helped prevent worse damage. The Scout Camp was undamaged, as were the hiking trails up Right Fork, Thomas Canyon, and at Road's End. The road damage isn't catastrophic, and with some work the road can be made passable again. Some of the dispersed camping near the Lion's Camp is inaccessible due to a road washout, but the road is repairable and the bridge over Lamoille Creek was undamaged. The storm cells don't appear to have been as ferocious above the Terraces Picnic Ground, so (perhaps amazingly) the Verdi Chutes didn't slide. The bridges on the Island and Lamoille Lake Trails weren't damaged. The Nature Trail was largely undamaged, as well.
What this means for recreation
HIKERS - The Lamoille Canyon terminus of the Ruby Crest Trail, as well as the Island Lake trail, aren't going to be accessible by vehicle any time soon. Those planning on Ruby Crest Trail trips are best served by exiting/entering via the Colonel Moore Trailhead, on the Ruby Valley side of the mountains. Would-be Lamoille Canyon dayhikers have access to the Lamoille-Talbot trailhead at the mouth of the canyon, or can walk up the road a few miles to access the Right Fork and Thomas Canyon trails - while the heavy equipment isn't operating. The Lamoille Canyon end of the old guide trail from Pete's Corner to Talbot Canyon was washed out... hopefully money for re-establishing the trail can be part of the Pete's Corner repair project.
CYCLISTS - The road is open to bicycles to Road's End, as long as the heavy equipment isn't operating. The road is passible by road bikes, but there is a significant amount of gravel on the road, and a gravel bike might be safer. The road up to Pete's Corner is largely clear.
HUNTERS - Those scouting hunts are going to face the same limitations as hikers. The road is closed to all motorized vehicles just past the first pullout, so scouts will need to travel on foot or horseback. Access to the high country for hikers and horsemen is via the Colonel Moore Trail, the Overland Trail, Krenka Creek, Secret Pass, Rattlesnake Canyon, Soldier Canyon or Harrison Pass.
|The Dead Snag access trail is largely gone|
ROCK CLIMBERS - The Sport Rocks area is largely undamaged, although there is significant instability and the risk of rockfall is real. The Buttresses are largely unaffected. The approach to Dead Snag Wall was one of the more damaged portions of the canyon - the small stream crossing on the approach trail became a raging torrent and dumped tons of rock and debris on the road. The access trail is largely gone. Odin's was a massive wash-out... conditions depending, it may now be a very interesting alpine climb/ski descent in the winter, to rival Terminal Cancer Couloir.
|Odin's... need snow for this one.|
|One of the East Side Climbs - now steeper and more interesting|
ICE CLIMBERS - The Canyon's ice climbers are likely to have a number of tasty new climbs to explore. Many of the gullies that form ice are now a lot longer, steeper and cleaner than they were before the storm. There is a newly-exposed formation below Scout Camp that looks long and steep enough to be interesting, with a short and simple approach (a real gift, there). There were significant flows in a couple of the East Side Climbs, and the new climbs could prove to be a lot more interesting than their predecessors. Ice Capades experienced some flows, but nothing that would change climb characteristics. Upper and Lower Slabs, Delay of Game, and the other popular ice climbs appeared largely unaffected.
SNOWMOBILERS/SKIERS - The road will be open to snowmobiles and skiers all winter. The slides had no effect on the approach to Terminal Cancer Couloir, or on the couloir itself.
RV CAMPERS - The Thomas Canyon Campground should be accessible again to RV campers in 4-6 weeks, although there may be some limitations to vehicle length. Those using dispersed camping near the Lion's Camp will lose access to the most upcanyon campsites, until the USFS can repair the washed-out road. Campsites downstream from the washout are unaffected.
Silver liningsPerhaps surprisingly, there are a few opportunities that this crazy event has presented. One opportunity - all of the debris is now a whole lot of potential construction material that can be used to repair roads and trails. As an example - with some forethought some of it can be used to repair the Lamoille Canyon end of the Ruby Crest Trail - the first half mile or so is incredibly eroded, and in need of material. The potential is there for Historic Roads and Trails grant money designated for repairs to be used for building better trails than were there previously - say, for instance, the Talbot-Lamoille Trail, whose Lamoille Canyon terminus was completely wiped out.
|Insert new trailhead here|
As was the case after the Range Two fire, the slides are going to become part of the lore of the canyon, and will force people to look at the canyon in new ways. Our old friend is different now. I remember after the last huge slide event more than two decades ago, when Thomas Canyon Campground was heavily damaged, the local talk was that the canyon would never be the same.
A decade later those old slide scars were still findable, if you knew where to look, and the re-routed creek through Thomas Canyon Campground is a geology lesson, if anything. The canyon ISN'T the same, but that isn't necessarily a bad thing. The canyon recovered from the last slide cycle, it is recovering from the catastrophic fire, and it will recover from this, too.