Flood-damaged US 36 to Estes Park reopening Monday, nearly 1 month ahead of schedule

Residents cheer National Guard, CDOT

ESTES PARK, Colo. - Flood-damaged U.S. Highway 36 to Estes Park will reopen Monday, almost a month ahead of the Dec. 1 schedule initially set by the Colorado Department of Transportation.

Governor John Hickenlooper will join CDOT, the National Guard and community leaders from Estes Park and Pinewood Springs for the official reopening.

"I'm so happy they're getting this road done,' said Rachel Sandoval, who owns a house in the Retreat at Glen Haven. "I had renters in there.  They were air-evacuated out on Sept. 14."

Sandoval told 7NEWS that until Sunday, she couldn't get up to her house to winterize it.

While highway 36 doesn't officially open until Monday, road crews have been escorting homeowners up to mountain roads as far west as PInewood Springs.

Sandoval said from there, she's going to try to go over the mountains to Glen Haven.

"I just need to see what's going on with my house."

Business owners in Lyons are happy to see the highway reopen.

"What's good for Estes Park is good for Lyons," said Greig Chesne, owner of the Barking Dog Cafe. "If people are going through Lyons to get to Estes Park, a percentage of that traffic will stop here."

Several members of the Colorado Chassis Lassies, an all women car club, drove up to Lyons Sunday, solely to spend some cash.

"We just thought we'd come up and support the businesses," said Judy Richards. "I bought this artwork today. It's absolutely gorgeous."

Richards said they'll do the same thing in Estes Park once Hwy 36 is open.

Other residents from Estes Park and other communities hit hard by the September flooda gave a standing ovation to the fast rebuilding effort by National Guard engineers and CDOT at a Tuesday afternoon meeting at the Life Bridge Church in Longmont.

"The National Guard and CDOT are amazing!" Larimer County Sheriff Justin Smith said on his Facebook page.

"Standing ovations for the National Guard," tweeted Estes Park Town Administrator Frank Lancaster, who also shared a photo of the meeting.

Flood-ravaged roadways have forced people to take long detours over mountain roads to reach Estes Park, the gateway to Rocky Mountain National Park. This has been a hardship for town residents and seriously harmed the flow of tourists to the national park, a key part of the area economy. 

The National Guard engineers' highway repair project -- dubbed Operation Sapper Fury -- involved about 200 National Guard citizen-soldiers from Colorado, Utah, Montana and Kansas.

Guard members worked with CDOT to repair a 25-mile stretch of U.S. Highway 36 between Lyons and Estes Park.

"This is why we serve -- to help our neighbors in need, whether it's our neighbor in Utah, or our neighbors in Colorado," said Sgt. Maj. Shane Rothwell, the task force’s senior enlisted leader. "The men and women here are working sunrise to sunset, seven days a week. I'm very proud of the work ethic and dedication shown every day, by every member of the team here."

The project's goal is to create a 24-foot-wide, two-lane causeway that will allow passenger vehicles to get through the area before winter weather halts construction, according to a Friday Colorado National Guard news release.

Since operations began in September, the multi-state, National Guard team has worked 9,060 man hours, placed 320 feet of culvert, removed 1,155 feet of guardrail and hauled 14,050 cubic yards of fill material, the release said.

CDOT spokeswoman Amy Ford told 7NEWS that work crews are still shooting for a Dec. 1 deadline to reopen Highway 34 through the Big Thompson Canyon and Highway 7 between Lyons and Raymond.

She said work crews are ahead of schedule on Highway 72 in Jefferson County and will likely finish it before the end of the month.

In all, the state is spending an estimated $450 million to repair roads and bridges damaged by the Sept. floods.