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2013 Floods: A Look Back on Rebuilding Open Space

As the afternoon faded into dusk on Sept. 11, 2013, the steady rain that had already been falling for two days increased substantially. Hour after hour through the night – and for the next four days – torrential downpours flooded the Boulder area.  When rains finally stopped and the clouds finally parted, our community immediately stepped up to help City of Boulder Open Space and Mountain Parks to rebuild and recover from the historic flooding.

Thank you to the Boulder community! View our story map to see how we repaired and restored your open space. Story Map

  • At least 1,486 volunteers gave us about 8,000 hours of their time to help rebuild and restore their open space.
  • With your help, we completed more than 120 projects to repair trails and restore areas affected by the floods.

Without a doubt, 2013 was a difficult year for OSMP and the City of Boulder. Despite the challenges, our community has been able to accomplish some amazing things that will help leave the lands we all love stronger and more resilient for future generations. We couldn’t have done any of our flood recovery without you. We are truly fortunate to work for a community that is deeply connected to the land we’re proud to protect, sustain and improve for you and future generations.

Learn more about our efforts to recover from the 2013 floods

  • Visit our online story map! Interactive maps will show how we all worked together to repair Boulder's affected open space. 
  • Or read about our community's flood-recovery work in the sections below.

Damage assessment

For four more days following Wednesday, Sept. 11, floodwaters and persistent rainfall prevented Open Space and Mountain Parks (OSMP) staff from cataloging the full extent of the floods damage. Finally, when the rains began to subside on Monday, Sept. 16, OSMP staff assembled in a small conference room. A map of the entire trail system, separated into dozens of zones, lay on a table in front of them.

Teams of two to three staff members were then tasked with hiking all trails in their zone to catalog the damage, to identify the likelihood of whether major or minor repairs were needed, and to determine whether trails were safe and passable for the average visitor. When the assessment teams came back, the damage to open space and its effect on the community and OSMP was becoming clear: It would take years for the city’s open space system to rebuild from the historic flooding.

The Floods' Toll

From north to south and east to west, floodwaters caused extensive infrastructure damage across the City of Boulder’s Open Space and Mountain Parks (OSMP) system. All told, the initial damage assessment indicated that about two-thirds of the city’s open space trail system sustained significant or severe damage.

South Fork Shanahan TrailSpringbrook Trail - North LoopSawhill PondsAccess road to Gregory Canyon TrailheadAccess road to Gregory Canyon TrailheadLower Enchanted Mesa Trail- just north of stone bridge and junction with McClintock TrailLower Enchanted Mesa - just north of stone bridge and junction with McClintock TrailSignpost for McClintock TrailSignpost for McClintock Trail buried in flood debrisSwitchbacks on Chapman DriveOld Kiln trail near Four Mile Creek TrailheadDeep erosion gulley on Chapman DriveFoot bridge on Upper Bear Canyon TrailSouth Fork Shanahan TrailSouth Fork Shanahan TrailTowhee Trail at South Mesa TrailheadSouth Mesa Trailhead, looking toward bridge over Boulder CreekWhite Rocks Trailhead on Valmont Road

See full photo set in the Photo Gallery

Trails, trailheads and bridges that sustained significant damage included:

  • Chautauqua Trail
  • Royal Arch Trail
  • Boulder Falls
  • Gregory Canyon Trailhead and access road
  • Sanitas Valley Trail
  • Chapman Drive
  • NCAR-Bear Canyon and Mesa trails
  • Shadow Canyon South and Mesa Trail
  • Foothills South Trail
  • Shanahan Ridge trail system 
  • South Mesa Trailhead
  • Doudy Draw, Skunk Canyon, South Boulder Creek bridges

There also was extensive damage to the city’s water and agricultural infrastructure. Several irrigation ditches that supply water to agricultural operations, such as the Green Ditch and the Eggleston #2 ditch, needed repairs. At the same time, about 45,000 feet of agricultural fencing was destroyed and an additional 33,000 feet sustained damage. While floodwaters can be beneficial in many cases, the 2013 floods also disrupted important stream corridors and would require substantial ecological restoration.

Reconnecting visitors with open space

Recognizing that community members needed a space where they could heal from the floods, OSMP prioritized trail repair work that would reopen popular trails to help as many people reconnect with the land – as fast as possible.

By Friday, Sept. 30, 2013, the department began reopening significant sections of several major trails. Then, week after week, the department opened more and more trails. By Nov. 1, 2013, the department had reopened 108 miles of trails – or about 75 percent of its then 145-mile trail system.

Throughout the fall of 2013, OSMP staff trail crews – and teams of generous volunteers – conducted significant repairs on important open space trails, including the Bear Canyon, Skunk and Bobolink trails. Smaller repair projects on the Goat and Fern Canyon trails, along with several others, helped visitors to reconnect with OSMP’s dramatically changed open space system. By the end of 2013, the department was able to reopen 95 percent of its 145-mile trail system. However, significant flood repairs still loomed.

Community resiliency

Volunteers step up to help rebuild and restore open space
Before the floods even subsided, Open Space and Mountain Parks began receiving calls from residents who wondered what they could do to help mend their public land. Then hundreds of more people stepped forward to help OSMP rebuild and restore Boulder's open space. By the end of 2013, 777 volunteers assisted in 40 flood-recovery projects, helping the department to make strides in its immediate flood-recovery needs. Over the last five years, at least 1,486 volunteers gave OSMP about 8,000 hours of their time to help rebuild and restore their open space.

GoLite Agricultural Project for Flood RestorationWhite Wave Food & Deuter Agricultural ProjectAmeriCorps Agricultural ProjectBoulder Brands Agricultural ProjectWildlands Restoration Volunteers & Active Boulder Agricultural ProjectCU Boulder Students Agricultural ProjectCommunity Agricultural ProjectCommunity Agricultural ProjectCommunity Wetland Restoration ProjectCommunity Seed Collection ProjectCommunity Service Trail ProjectEagle Scouts Trail ProjectCommunity Service Trail ProjectCommunity Trail ProjectBoulder Mountain Bike Alliance Trail ProjectCommunity Trail ProjectCommunity Cleanup/Trail ProjectCommunity Trail ProjectWildlands Restoration Volunteers/ Community Trail ProjectBoulder Trail Runners Trail ProjectJunior Ranger Community Trail ProjectFlatirons Climbing Council Trail ProjectAmeriCorps Restoration ProjectNature Conservancy Restoration ProjectUnited Way Agricultural ProjectAmeriCorps Agricultural ProjectWildlands Restoration Volunteers Restoration ProjectCommunity Trail ProjectCommunity Restoration ProjectCU Boulder Engineers without Borders Restoration ProjectCommunity Trail ProjectThe Quarter Fund Trail ProjectBoulder Mountain Bike Alliance Trail ProjectBoulder Mountain Bike Alliance and Fairveiw HS Mountain Bike Team Trail ProjectBoulder Trail Runners Trail ProjectThe September School Trail Project

See full photo set in the Photo Gallery

OSMP leads nature hikes into areas affected by the floods
Recognizing that community members needed an opportunity to re-connect with nature while open space remained closed in the aftermath of the floods, OSMP’s naturalists led interpretive hikes into areas that were heavily impacted. For those naturalists, the hikes offered residents a way to acknowledge the trauma of the floods and to understand that ecological changes, such as floods, can be beneficial to open space. 

PHOTO CREDIT : Dennis Froelich

Floods are a part of nature

While the 2013 floods had devastating effects on human infrastructure in Boulder, floods are natural processes with ecological benefits. Floods result in an exchange of nutrients and sediment between the creek and its adjacent floodplain, benefiting both habitats. The scouring and deposition associated with flooding create new habitat adjacent to and within the creek and cleans sediment from fish spawning areas. Floods also foster the regeneration of native riparian communities by establishing germination sites for cottonwood seed. This is particularly important in riparian communities that lack young cottonwood seedlings and saplings needed to replace the mature cottonwood trees along perennial streams.

OSMP's top priority: Flood recovery

When OSMP completed its initial damage assessment, the department knew it would have a long recovery process ahead of it. Recognizing the scope of the rebuilding efforts, OSMP established flood recovery as its top departmental priority and focused its rebuilding on infrastructure that was eligible for reimbursement from the federal government, such as Chapman Drive, the NCAR-Bear Canyon Trail, the Shadow Canyon South Trail and important Mesa Trail sections.

However, OSMP also recognized that there were some projects that were not eligible for FEMA reimbursements, such as repairs in Boulder Falls and some repairs along the Chautauqua Trail. While those areas sustained damage during the floods, OSMP wanted to improve those popular recreational areas rather than just rebuilding them – thus making them ineligible for federal reimbursement. 

Trail projects require significant design and permitting work

For almost all of OSMP’s flood-related trail projects, the department worked with local, state and federal agencies to avoid or minimize impacts to sensitive natural resources. Trail design work and environmental permitting required OSMP trail specialists, planners, wildlife, plant and wetland ecologists – and at times, engineers and landscape architects – to coordinate project plans to protect wildlife, plant and water resources while also creating unique experiences for open space visitors.

Nearly all major OSMP flood-recovery projects west of Broadway required extensive design work and permitting because they were are located in areas with high natural resource values. For those projects, OSMP needed to coordinate with federal, state and local agencies, including the Federal Emergency Management Agency, the Army Corps of Engineers, U.S. Fish and Wildlife, Colorado’s Historic Preservation Office, Colorado Parks and Wildlife, Boulder County and city partners. Often, OSMP’s internal policies are stricter than other permit requirements. As a result, projects needing all of these permits and consultations took time to complete because of the significant amount of coordination between regulatory agencies and required design changes. 

Repairing OSMP's trail system

Chautauqua Trail, McClintock Bridge

The 2013 floods damaged infrastructure that helps drain water out of the area and off of trails. Floodwaters also caused extensive trail tread damage, with floods cutting gullies 2 to 3 feet deep in some trail areas. The McClintock Bridge also sustained significant damage and needed to be repaired. When the floods subsided, OSMP immediately focused on repairs in the Chautauqua Meadow area. In time, the department began work on larger recovery projects, including repairs to the Chautauqua Trail and the McClintock Bridge.

To make the Chautauqua Trail more sustainable for the future, OSMP repaired the path with some slight alignment changes, and repaired culverts and side swales to improve drainage and minimize trail erosion. Repairs to the Chautauqua Trail also featured a re-surfaced trail tread that will allow visitors who use wheelchairs to access one of two gathering areas that have provided generations of visitors breathtaking views of the Flatirons. The project also included restoration and revegetation of areas along the Chautauqua Trail. 

Chautauqua Trailhead, closed after the 2013 floodDeep gulley on Chautauqua TrailGulley torn by flood waters along Bluebell Road.Deep rut on Bluebell RoadRut on Chautauqua TrailDeep rut on upper Chautauqua TrailDeep rut on Bluebell RoadDeep rut on upper Chautauqua TrailDeep rut on upper Chautauqua TrailUpper Chautauqua trail Flood DamageChautauqua Trail, post-restorationRestoration and realignment of Chautaqua TrailRestoration and realignment of Chautaqua TrailRestoration of old Chautauqua Trail AlignmentSoil stabilazation and revegetation after realignment of Chautauqua TrailCulvert redirecting drainage away from Chautauqua TrailBluebell Creek / Mesa Trail repair 12/3/13Bluebell Creek / Mesa Trail repair 12/3/13Lower Enchanted Mesa - just north of stone bridge and junction with McClintock TrailLower Enchanted Mesa Trail- just north of stone bridge and junction with McClintock TrailRepair work begins on the historic stone bridge on Enchanted Mesa TrailHistoric stone bridge on Enchanted Mesa Trail nearly buried by heavy rock fallEnchanted Mesa Flooding of Bluebell Creek at Mesa Trail South of OuthouseStone Bridge @ Enchanted Mesa 9-13-13

See full photo set in the Photo Gallery

Royal Arch Trail

Floodwaters completely eroded about 30 to 40 feet of the Royal Arch Trail, creating a massive trail gap in the popular Boulder trail. Recognizing the trail’s importance to visitors and the climbing community, OSMP and the Front Range Climbing Stewards – a trail-building partnership between two Boulder-based nonprofits, the Boulder Climbing Community and the Access Fund – worked together to complete repairs along the path. That work, which was assisted by volunteers, included the construction of a new route around the trail section that was destroyed during the 2013 floods.

Severe damage to Royal Arch trailSevere damage to Royal Arch trailSevere damage to Royal Arch trailUpper Royal Arch trail.Royal Arch Volunteer Project Sept. 25Royal Arch Volunteer Project Sept. 25Royal Arch RepairsRoyal Arch RepairsRoyal Arch Volunteer ProjectRoyal Arch Volunteer Project

See full photo set in the Photo Gallery

Boulder Falls

The September 2013 floods caused significant damage in the area. To address the damage, OSMP trail crews began to repair a landing platform that provides visitors a view of the falls, along with additional repairs in the area. As OSMP crews conducted their work, they recognized the need for additional rebuilding work, such as more substantial repairs to the gabions, which are rock baskets used to catch sediment coming off the hillside. Unfortunately, those repairs would necessitate extended closures in the area.

In 2018, the department rebuilt the gabion walls and conducted additional repairs to stabilize the Boulder Falls trail. OSMP recognizes Boulder Falls importance to community members, and we appreciate their patience while we worked to rebuild this iconic Boulder area.  

Boulder Falls Restoration WorkBoulder Falls Restoration WorkGabion walls at Boulder FallsGabion walls at Boulder FallsWork in progress: restoring the path to Boulder FallsIMG_0006After - Boulder Falls (1)

See full photo set in the Photo Gallery

Gregory Canyon trailhead area

The 2013 floods ripped the Gregory Canyon Road apart, making it impassable. At the trailhead, the Amphitheater Trail bridge over the creek was completely buried under flood debris. In June 2015, OSMP completed repairs to the Gregory Canyon access road and trailhead, completely rebuilding sections of road that were ripped apart by the floods. In 2017, OSMP raised the Amphitheater Bridge to a minimum height required by Boulder County, which will help make the bridge more resilient. OSMP also installed stacked stone abutments to provide more protection from high-water levels.

Access road to Gregory Canyon TrailheadAccess road to Gregory Canyon TrailheadDamage to Gregory Canyon RoadDamage to Gregory Canyon RoadDamage to Gregory Canyon RoadAmphitheater Bridge washed away in 2013 FloodAmphitheater Bridge washed away in 2013 FloodDamage to Trailhead at Gregory CanyonUpper Gregory Canyon near Realization Point

See full photo set in the Photo Gallery

Sanitas Valley Trail
Floodwaters caused extensive damage to trail tread and carved large gullies along the path. In 2015, OSMP completed improvements along the trail, which included better connections to existing paths on Mount Sanitas, and enhanced drainage features that will make the trail more resilient and less prone to erosion damage. OSMP also completed other numerous flood repairs, including fixing large trail gullies. Volunteers also helped complete repairs along this popular path. 

Water flowing through the shelter at Sanitas TrailheadTrail damage near trailheadErosion of Sanitas Valley Trail where it crosses Silver Lake DitchSanitas Valley TrailLandslides on Dakota RidgeLandslides on Dakota RidgeLandslides on Dakota RidgeGoat Trail Landslide above Hawthorn looking NESanitas trail repaired with culvert to improve drainage

See full photo set in the Photo Gallery

Chapman Drive
Chapman Drive, originally constructed by the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) during the Great Depression in the 1930s, sustained major damage along 2.6 miles of the road, which is used as a recreational trail as well as vehicle access for administrative and emergency purposes. Damage included erosion ruts that were more than 4 feet deep in some places, along with landslides that removed sections of the road and destabilized nearby slopes. The floods also destroyed the trailhead parking lot when Boulder Creek jumped its bank.

OSMP’s repairs along Chapman Drive fixed major trail damage and included additional infrastructure, such as the replacement of seven culverts, to address water drainage along the trail. All of the work was completed to match with the historic CCC design and construction of the road while making important drainage improvements for sustainability. This work has helped to improve visitor experiences on the trail while also providing emergency vehicles an alternate access to and from Flagstaff Mountain.

Flood water escapes Boulder Creek and runs through Chapman Drive trailhead parking lotFlood water running through Chapman Drive trailhead parking lotDeep erosion gulley on Chapman DriveRut on Chapman Drive nearly 5 feet deep!Inside view of stone masonry culvertCulvert built with stone masonryHydroseeding to revegetate Chapman DriveRestoration of Cattleguard crossing on Chapman DriveOne of the entrances to Chapman Drive (1930-1940).

See full photo set in the Photo Gallery

NCAR-Bear Canyon and Mesa trails

Floodwaters caused significant erosion damage along the NCAR-Bear Canyon and Mesa trails, with ruts up to 3 feet deep in several places. The floods also caused significant damage to the Bear Creek crossing, where floodwaters washed a 36-inch culvert away and carved a 5-foot deep hole in the area.

This trail project repaired 1.75 miles of trail, allowing firefighting and search-and-rescue vehicles to regain access to difficult terrain in Boulder’s mountain backdrop while also improving trail conditions for visitors. Repairs included resurfacing the trail with road base (gravel) and reconstructing the Bear Creek crossing on the Mesa Trail with a significantly larger culvert with a stone bridge appearance. Drainage repairs included the addition of 4,100 feet of side ditches and 10 culverts. These repairs will improve trail drainage and sustainability, helping to make the trails less susceptible to future flood damage. This project also helped restore valuable habitat for the Preble’s meadow jumping mouse – a rare and threatened species – and other species that inhabit the area around Bear Canyon.

Erosion to NCAR-Bear Canyon TrailRockslide on NCAR-BearCanyon TrailMudslide on NCAR-Bear Canyon TrailErosion to NCAR-Bear Canyon TrailErosion to NCAR-Bear Canyon TrailRockslide in Bear CanyonIMG_1134massive boulder that slid onto Bear Canyon TrailPortion of trail washed away by rushing water

See full photo set in the Photo Gallery

Shadow Canyon South and South Mesa Trail
The flood caused erosion damage along the Shadow Canyon South and Mesa trails near the South Mesa Trailhead. In some places, the erosion damage was a few inches to 3 feet deep. To repair the damage, OSMP filled in erosion ruts with soil that was excavated from new road-side drainage ditches.

The Shadow Canyon creek crossing was hardened with stone to prevent significant wash-outs. OSMP also made drainage improvements to reduce the likelihood of major road damage in future flood events, including the addition of more than 5,100 feet of side ditches and 46 rolling dips. Those features will collect water from the road itself along with adjacent slopes, diverting it away from the road. All told, this work fixed 2.25 miles of trail, which can now be used for vehicle access, including OSMP administrative needs, emergency response and utility access.

Bridge over South Boulder Creek at South Mesa TrailheadSouth Mesa Trailhead, looking toward bridge over Boulder CreekDamage to South Mesa TrailDamage to South Mesa TrailFlood erosion exposed the bedrock on South Mesa TrailCrews repair the southern portion of the Mesa TrailRepaired southern portion of the Mesa TrailRepairs to the southern portion of the Mesa TrailMesa repairs_before-during-after_narrower

See full photo set in the Photo Gallery

Foothills South Trail
The surface material covering the trail washed away during the floods. The trail next to the bridge crossing Four Mile Creek was also washed away when the creek jumped its banks. OSMP re-graded the trail and surfaced it with crusher fines, which is a gravel product. OSMP also gently sloped the trail to allow water to drain off its surface. OSMP also made several other repairs, including:

Adding of 1,430 feet of trail-side ditch to collect water from the trail surface and adjacent slopes. 
Adding 12 rolling dips to divert water away from the trail and trailside ditches.

A new bridge is currently in design for Foothills South Trail where it crosses Four Mile Creek.  Due to sensitive wetland habitat protection requirements, this project will take some time as it goes through design and permitting phases.

Shanahan Ridge trail system
The floods caused extensive damage to trails on Shanahan Ridge, with floodwaters cutting ruts 5 to 6 feet deep in some places. The floods also damaged water features along Shanahan-area trails, which are used for emergency-vehicle access. To repair the damage, OSMP resurfaced portions of the trail, replaced existing drainage features and added new ones.

Doudy Draw, Skunk Canyon, South Boulder Creek bridges
The 2013 floods completely destroyed bridges that crossed the Doudy Draw, Skunk Canyon and South Boulder Creek trails. After completing extensive permitting, OSMP rebuilt new bridges that are more sustainable and less likely to be a complete loss in the next flood.

Mending our natural areas

While floods can often be beneficial to ecosystems and habitats, OSMP needed to restore areas transformed by 2013 floodwaters and wanted to understand how the floods affected local wildlife.

Preble's Meadow jumping mouse monitoring
Every June and August since 2014, the department has monitored for Preble’s Meadow jumping mouse, a federally-threatened species. Trappings and data collected by OSMP indicated the animal species still remain in sensitive OSMP habitats following the floods.

South Boulder Creek restoration
OSMP worked with community partners to help restore areas disturbed by the floods. In 2015, the Environmental Protection Agency lauded Seth Blum, a Boulder teen, for his work to help restore a riparian area near South Boulder Road and South Boulder Creek. That work, which was guided by OSMP’s ecological staff, restored 25,000 square feet of habitat and included the planting of 1,000 native plants, shrubs and trees.

South Boulder Creek After the Floods

South Boulder Creek After Restoration

Boulder Creek restoration
In 2017, OSMP completed a major restoration project that repaired damage from the 2013 floods by returning Boulder Creek east and west of 61st Street to its pre-flood channel. The project also improved native fish habitat in Boulder Creek and restored natural areas surrounding the creek. It also included the planting of more than 11,000 native trees and shrubs. This will help improve the creek’s sustainability and resiliency and help mitigate damage to private and public property during future floods.

Restoring water infrastructure, local agriculture

The 2013 floods caused extensive damage to the city’s water and agricultural infrastructure. Several irrigation ditches that supply water to agricultural operations, such as the Green Ditch, Butte Mill Ditch and the Eggleston #1 Ditch, needed repairs. At least 45,000 feet of agricultural fencing was destroyed and an additional 33,000 feet sustained damage or was covered with debris. Once the floods subsided, OSMP worked with volunteers to remove debris from or repair agricultural fences damaged in the floods. Volunteers also assisted the department in removing debris from important irrigation ditches, including the Silver Lake Ditch. By the end of 2013, nearly 8.3 miles of agricultural fencing was repaired.

In 2013, OSMP repaired the Eggleston #2 #1 Ditch, rebuilding the diversion structure, restoring a breached section of the ditch,  and addressed erosion issues in the area. OSMP also procured grant money and coordinated the complete reconstruction of the diversion dam and headworks for the Green Ditch.  Once the repairs were completed, water was delivered through the new structures, helping to provide water to local agricultural operations. OSMP continues to address needed repairs along important irrigation ditches that serve local agricultural operators.

OSMP works with volunteers to repair damaged agricultural fencing

Volunteers help repair agricultural fencing damaged during the floods

Repairs to the Eggleston #2 ditch

Lessons in trail sustainability

When Open Space and Mountain Parks assessed the trail system on Sept. 16, 2013, they noted that trails built with sustainable trail-building principles weathered the floods with little to no damage. These principles, which OSMP has been utilizing and honing for years, require extensive collaboration between trail specialists, planners, wildlife, plant and wetland ecologists – and at times – engineers and landscape architects. The key goal of sustainable trail building is to minimize trail erosion by ensuring water drainage. This is done by:

  • Having minimal 8-percent grades that greatly reduce trail erosion. Steeper trail grades allow water to gain volume and velocity, which increases erosion potential.
  • Building grade reversals, which are trail segments where an ascending trail will descend for a few feet, then return to ascending. This creates low points in the trail that forces water off of it.
  • Building outslopes, which are sections of trail that tilt slightly downward and help the trail drain water off of it.

An example of grade reversals