US 34 canyon reconstruction to begin in October

Posted at 11:38 PM, May 23, 2016
and last updated 2016-05-24 01:38:42-04

CDOT will begin the first phase of its permanent reconstruction of Highway 34 through the Big Thompson Canyon in just a few weeks.

The first part of the project will involve some rock blasting in the horseshoe area of the canyon, near milepost 78.4.   The rock blasting will begin just after July 4.

Project Director James Usher said engineers want to remove a sharp curve in the highway, that has washed out twice, in two separate floods, and replace it with a shortcut through the mountain.


“There will be minimal delays,” he said, estimating that the rock blasting would require a couple of short road closures each day.

He told Denver7 that the main construction work won’t begin until October, after the tourist season. Then road crews begin blasting away the mountain side along the highway near the old Idylwilde dam site.

He said it too is an area that has washed away twice - once during the flood of 1976 and again during the historic 2013 flood.

“We’re trying to figure out how to make the road more resilient,” Usher said. “We want to move it onto bedrock.”


The project director noted that other sections of the highway that were built on bedrock withstood both floods.

He noted that by moving the highway they’ll also be able to widen the river channel.

He said that will lessen the velocity of the water traveling through the Idylwilde bend and will lessen the likelihood of catastrophic damage in future floods.

Usher said the project will involve moving more than 115,000 cubic yards of rock.

“To put it in perspective,” he said, “that’s roughly 10,000 dump trucks worth of material.”

Residents Concerned

People who live and work in the canyon are getting nervous about potential traffic delays.

Colin Napier owns the Stoney River Lodge.

He said the Flood of 2013 washed away a big chunk of his concrete deck, some stairs and a fireplace that were adjacent to the river.

He said it would cost a half million dollars to repair.

“Obviously, we can’t put that sort of money up,” he said.

Napier said he purchased the Lodge about five years ago and has only had one solid year since.

“The first year, we had the bush fires over there,” he said, “we came in late. The next year, people canceled because of the previous fire. Then we had the flood.”

“Last year was pretty good,” Napier said. 

He said he’s booked for the season, so far, but worries what will happen when CDOT begins reconstruction in earnest.

“If they go ahead and close down the highway, we’re done,” he said. “We won’t have the money to recoup.”

CDOT says it is mindful of those concerns and is getting input from residents, business owners, and commuters.

Usher said people who want to drive to Estes Park from Loveland and other parts of Northern Colorado can use US 36 via Colorado Highway 66.

But those who need to access the canyon, are at the mercy of the construction schedule.

Usher told Denver7 that CDOT is considering a couple of options in terms of construction and access for the 23-mile long reconstruction project, which will take an estimated two and a half to three years to complete at a budgeted cost of $129-million.

Traffic Options for Mileposts 77 – 80:


Usher said once the first phase of the project is done, they’ll move on to the second phase. He said that involves work from Drake to the mouth of the Canyon. He said the third phase will be around Drake itself. The fourth phase is from Estes Park to Drake and the fifth phase is resurfacing the entire canyon.

Usher told Denver7 that CDOT is working with numerous agencies on the project, including the U.S. Forest Service, Colorado Parks and Wildlife, the Colorado Water Conservation Board, the Big Thompson Water Shed, Larimer County and the City of Loveland.

The project director said they want to encourage a fish habitat in the river.

“We need to look at this as a system,” he said. “Not just a roadway, but a system that includes the roadway and the river. We have to figure out how to make the two work in harmony. That’s the challenge.”