Olympic Hot Springs Road wrestles with Elwha River

OLYMPIC NATIONAL PARK — Flood-ravaged Olympic Hot Springs Road is battling an Elwha River swollen by rain and warm-temperature runoff, a waterway unleashed by the removal of two dams, hampering access to the popular Elwha River Valley.

The Olympic National Park byway will be closed indefinitely to vehicle traffic beyond the Madison Falls parking area as river water that peaked at 18,000 cubic feet per second changed the river’s pattern, Olympic National Park spokeswoman Penny Wagner said Thursday.

Long-term options that park staff have been working on for two years include relocating the road, an alternative that could be implemented by 2020-2021, Wagner said.

“Part of this is getting the options out there, doing the research so we could relocate outside the floodplain, modify the road or take no action as an alternative,” she said.

Olympic Hot Springs Road remains open to hikers and bicyclists, who are encouraged to use caution, Wagner said.

“It’s clear that it’s not sustainable to keep making repairs to the road in its current state,” she said.

“It’s not a responsible way to manage [the road], so we are looking long term at how we do this sustainably for the long term access” for park visitors, Wagner said.

In Jefferson County, the public works department was organizing repairs to Upper Hoh Road, which was damaged by the Hoh River in a washout at milepost 8 outside the park, Wagner said.

A torrent flowed Thursday across Olympic Hot Springs Road, parts of which were broken into pieces or pockmarked with holes, making it impassable to vehicles.

Water had lifted up slabs, depositing them on firmer sections of the byway.

“Water is continuing to flow where the road goes,” Wagner said Thursday.

“Until we really look at it, there’s really no way to say how long and when we can reopen the road.”

Wagner said more precipitation is expected.

“People have various opinions about access and the Elwha, and the underlying tone of it all is that this is an important area, and the park echoes that,” Wagner said.

The Elwha River began flowing freely in late 2014 after the Glines Canyon Dam was removed, which was preceded by the takedown of Elwha Dam in 2012.

But in November 2015, the road closed after storms washed out a section and the river flowed anew in a dry channel.

The road reopened more than a year later, in January 2017, after the road was repaired and a bridge was built over the channel.

Just three weeks later, on Feb. 16, the road — built on a floodplain before the park was established — closed again after heavy rain and snow-melt fed the river, its waters inundating the former Elwha Campground again.

The road flooded again Nov. 15 — and was closed last week.

A series of storms had washed out about 90 feet of road.

“In 2015, when we first started having to make repairs, it was anticipated that it would change the dynamics of the river and the river would be open to change, so the park understood that with that came the need to look at the long term and see what the river was doing and how to manage it for the future,” Wagner said.

“After the dam removal over the last couple of years, we reacted to flooding and made repairs to a temporary bridge, always at the same time working on getting the planning process started.”

Steps will be taken to fix the road, “but it’s understood that will not work for the long term,” she added.

“Over the last two years, we’ve been moving forward on what to do, trying to put things in place to make a change or do whatever needs to happen, whatever is the best decision for the park fiscally.”

Last week’s storms also caused the closure of other roads in the park.

Hoh River flows damaged Upper Hoh Road, resulting in a washout at milepost 8 outside the park, Wagner said in a press release.

All Olympic National Park facilities in the Hoh Rain Forest are closed, Wagner said.

In addition, a landslide on Staircase Road also resulted in a road closure outside the park boundary at the Bear Gulch Picnic Area.

For road and travel information, go to www.nps.gov/olym or call a recorded road and weather hotline at 360-565-3131.


Senior Staff Writer Paul Gottlieb can be reached at 360-452-2345, ext. 55650, or at [email protected]

Olympic Hot Springs Road wrestles with Elwha River

A side channel of the Elwha River flows beneath a recently-installed one-lane bridge at the site of a previous washout on Olympic Hot Springs Road in Olympic National Park. (Keith Thorpe/Peninsula Daily News)

Olympic Hot Springs Road wrestles with Elwha River

The historic community campground kitchen shelter at the former Elwha Campground sits partially collapsed as a result of flooding of the Elwha River. (Keith Thorpe/Peninsula Daily News)