Big Thompson Canyon

Bighorn sheep in Big Thompson Canyon
if you're lucky, you may spot a bighorn sheep in Big Thompson Canyon. | Photo by jc-pics / flickr

Staff writer

Big Thompson Canyon, a narrow, rugged canyon along the Big Thompson River, is the gateway to Estes Park and Rocky Mountain National Park. It is a 32-mile drive from Loveland to Estes Park, passing through granite walls, timbered slopes and white water.

The river is named for David Thompson, an Englishman who explored streams in the New World during the early 19th Century.

Loveland businessmen in its early days wanted to build a road through the canyon for stagecoaches and freight, but it was so narrow in many places that two wagons could not pass each other. Getting by was extremely difficult, involving unhitching teams and unloading wagons.

The towns of Glen Haven and Drake began as stage stops, and many cabins sprang up as plains residents wanted to get away from the summer heat.

Today, the canyon is a popular vacation spot as well as a beautiful scenic drive into the mountains.

In 1976, the Big Thompson Flood killed more than 140 people in the canyon. Some were never found.

A huge thunderstorm stalled near the top of the canyon, dropping a foot of rain in just a few hours. A 20-foot wall of water plunged down the canyon just after dark, destroying hundreds of cars and houses as well as washing out much of the road. Many of the victims died in their cars, trying and failing to outrun the flood.

Big Thompson Canyon
Big Thompson Flood (PDF)