An unexpected benefit of the paved road became apparent after two snow storms in early December left 6″ of snow on the Middle Fork road. Snow like this is not unusual, but typically doesn’t stick around on the valley floor very long and the road slowly becomes more accessible as trucks and other high clearance vehicles create ruts.
So it was surprising to many visitors that King County plowed the road on Monday, December 12 and then again in the morning on Tuesday. The plowing went as far as the Middle Fork trailhead, including the parking areas there and most of the parking pullouts along the road up to that point. Beyond the trailhead, driving was significantly more difficult because of deep ruts and the monster potholes that begin at the Taylor River bridge. Some vehicles were getting farther up the road, but not all (see photo below). With expected cold weather in mid December the slushy snow will turn to ice. Warmer weather is forecast before Christmas and the road will thaw out but continuing snow accumulation will continue to make it challenging to drive to the Dingford trailhead.
Plowing on both Monday and Tuesday made for an easy drive despite the heavy snow accumulation
The plowing extended all the way to the Middle Fork trailhead, including the various pullouts along the road
The Middle Fork trailhead would have been inaccessible without plowing. The bathroom is open but not serviced in the winter so bring your own TP.
Beyond the Middle Fork trailhead the road was not plowed and only passable to high clearance vehicles with good traction
Taylor River bridge potholes before the most recently snow storm. They can be slippery and difficult to drive through when traction is reduced by slush and deeper snow.
Whether walking or driving, winter in the Middle Fork can be beautiful. Here the sun shines through cold fog at the Taylor River bridge.
This Chevy Trailblazer tried to drive up Hell Hill and ended up stuck in a muddy ditch. Later his friends came in a pickup to pull the vehicle out.
In September, 2016 the remaining section of Middle Fork road was paved, from Valley Camp to Champion Beach. A short section at the problematic cliffs near Champion Beach will be finished in 2017 under a new contract. It’s not a smooth drive all the way to the Taylor River bridge.
In the last 2 weeks of August, 3.5 more miles of the Middle Fork road were paved, from Champion Beach to Big Blowout Creek. Weather permitting, project management expects to pave the rest of the road to Valley Camp before the end of construction for this year on October 31, 2016.
3.5 miles paved in August, 2016
New pavement in progress with asphalt trucks coming out
Second layer of asphalt being applied
A worker cleans years of accumulated cruft from the concrete bridge rails
During the last week three of the Middle Fork gates and/or locks were vandalized. The Bessemer Gate (DNR) was bent out of shape and hanging open until it was partially repaired and the lock replace.
The Bessemer Gate is mostly back together but these bars were pulled away from the hinge post.
The left-side lock on the Taylor Campground gate was removed and was still missing as of February 21. It may have been cut off twice.
The lock was cut off the left Taylor Campground gate and the signs were tagged. The graffiti was quickly removed by volunteers.
The lock was also cut off the Dingford gate — quite a trick as located in a hard to access spot inside a sturdy metal post. No damage to the Dingford gate itself was observed and the lock has been replaced.
The Dingford Gate lock was removed, but a replacement was in place quickly
In addition the cable car just downstream of the TANW1 river gage was removed by the USGS because nearly every time they came out the lock had been cut and the cable car was stranded in mid-span. This has been going on for several years and the USGS started locking the cable car in 2012. In the future the river gage engineers will us a remote controlled device to calibrate the gage by measuring water flow at various depths and locations across the river. This is what used to be done in a more manual process by lowering a flow meter from the cable car.
The TANW1 cable car has been removed
USGS engineer measuring river flow to calibrate the TANW1 gage
One of many times the TANW1 calibration cable car was stranded mid-span by vandals cutting the lock and setting it loose
A windstorm on the evening of January 28, 2016 was the final blow for a large rotting Sitka Spruce tree by the Bessemer Road gate, about 7 miles up the Middle Fork road. It fell across the road, completely blocking all access to the upper valley. Two early arrivals parked on the side of the road and did their planned bike ride or hike from there. But a couple heading for Goldmyer Hot Springs were determined to get through so drove back home to get a chain saw and try to get enough of the tree cut out to drive through. Soon after they started working other locals that often help with tree clearing showed up and steady progress was made clearing the 3-foot diameter tree. After about an hour a 2-person King County road crew arrived with bigger chainsaws and a truck with a winch. They were able to cut through a healthier part of the tree and drag a large section out of the way. Normally King County is not responsible for road clearing because the paving project is not done, but they came out because they were concerned that people farther up the valley might be stranded. A path was finally cleared by about 3 PM.
Big Sitka Spruce blowdown by the Bessemer Road junction
Vehicles headed up the valley are blocked
Volunteers start cutting through the rotten and splintered lower section
A King County crew showed up with bigger chainsaws and cleared a bigger and heavier section
By 3 PM a path was cleared enough for vehicles to pass
On February 5 another King County crew equipped with a big excavator returned to the spot to complete the clearing.
Just as the Middle Fork road was about to be opened for the winter season another major storm blew through resulting in yet another extension of the closure. Four inches of warm rain was recorded at Valley Camp for December 8 with an additional 1.22 inches the following day. The TANW1 gage showed a double peak, first at 25,000 cfs at 6pm on December 8 and 24,000 cfs at 5:15am on December 9.
After seeing the effects, the road closure was justified as wind gusts blew down numerous trees, mostly in the first two miles of the road above the Mailbox trailhead. About seven medium sized trees blocked the road to the Dingford trailhead and these were cleared by Friday. Reports continue to come in of blowdowns on trails, but the full impact of this series of severe winter storms may not be known until spring.
After the storm on Wednesday, December 9, a geotechnical engineer inspected the slope and Champion beach and approved opening the roadway through the slide area. There is barrier in place to catch any debris that may come down. ACI is clearing the downed trees through the project area and the road may be open to the public as early as Thurday, December 17.
In early January the northwest was the recipient of another atmospheric river delivering moisture from the central Pacific. Cliff mass wrote“As much as 13 inches on the coast, with many locations getting 5-8 inches. But less than a quarter of an inch in the rain shadow over parts of Puget Sound and NW Washington. Big totals (4-6 inches) along the western slopes of the Cascades.” Rain gages in the North Bend area recorded over 4 1/2 inches of rain within a 24 hour period and the Middle Fork river responded with the 8th highest recorded flow to-date. Unfortunately the TANW1 gage, which is the only one that measures the Middle Fork in isolation failed midway through the event, but the last measured discharge* was 27,300 cfs at 11:15am, a couple hours after the rain had let up so the actual peak was likely close this value.
Flooded river access by Concrete Bridge
Precipitation map for Middle Fork area. The North Bend stations would eventually record 4 1/2 inches of rain on the morning of January 5.
Discharge as measured by the TANW1 river gage. Unfortunately the gage failed midway through the storm so the rest of this graph was inferred as a proportionate estimate from downstream gages measuring the combined flow of all three forks.
An event with such high flows would normally have serious consequences for the Middle Fork road. This time was unique in that the Middle Fork paving project had completed the first of three years of work with the last two miles of pavement completed including many new culverts for improved drainage. Most of the new work held up well to the extraordinary water flow levels but a few exceptions resulted in the road subsequently being closed until Memorial Day.
The biggest problem was at the newly constructed box culverts at the stream crossings just beyond the CCC trail, otherwise known as Bessequartz Creek. The problems with this creek date back to a landslide on the southeast ridge of Bessemer in the 1998-2003 period that deposited a load of rocks into the drainage. With each major rain event the rocks were moved further downstream, first inundating the road during the massive 2009 flood. This current flood brought down enough rocks and logs to completely block one of the box culverts. The stream then overflowed the road, covering it with small boulders and forming new drainage channels across the recently reconfigured road bed.
Old landslide scar visible on Bessemer’s southeast ridge
Bessequartz Creek washout
View up Bessequartz Creek showing the rocks and logs that have filled up the previous stream channel and blocked the box culvert. The stream should be draining directly under my feet.
Almost no water is coming through the culvert because it’s blocked on the upstream end. The water has undercut the concrete slats.
View of the Bessequartz Creek washout from the upstream side
A second major problem occurred just before the Bessequartz Creek crossing by the CCC trail junction where the road slumped because of a soft and unstable lens of clay under the road bed. The same area has been a problem in previous years as well. The paving plans call for a “deep patch” in this area which will reinforce the upper few feet but will not help with the underlying problem.
Small road slump and erosion approaching the CCC trail junction
Road slump by CCC trail junction
Road slump by CCC trail junction
A third issue was a minor road slump just beyond the Bessemer road. This would later be addressed with another “deep patch” of the road bed.
Road slump just past the Bessemer road
The road just past the Dingford turnoff up Hell Hill is frequently subjected to runoff and this was no exception.
Newly eroded gully on the road up Hell Hill
The wash at the top of Hell Hill is used by the Forest Service as a source of gravel fill and they got a fresh supply delivered by Garfield Mountain. This time it partially covered logs stored there that were cleared from the right of way as part of the paving project.
Garfield Mountain delivered a fresh round of gravel to the wash at the top of Hell Hill, covering the logs placed there from paving project clearing of the Middle Fork road.
These issues resulted in the closure of the road, ultimately until Memorial Day. The Forest Service’s Facebook announcement stated “The Mt. Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest is closing the Middle Fork Snoqualmie River Road (Forest Service road 56) for public safety until further notice. The road has recently experienced major storm damage making the road impassable. The Middle Fork Snoqualmie River Road will be closed at mile 2.2, near Valley Camp and Mailbox Peak Trailhead. At this time, Federal Highways Administration officials are determining how best to repair the road.”
* Some time after the event, the USGS retroactively removed TANW1 raw data from the record back to midnight on January 5 because it could not be calibrated. Fortunately, we were able to capture that last morning of measurements and based on experience of observing other high water events it was close to reality even if not up to USGS standards.
A paving project open house was held at the North Bend Ranger Station on April 23, 2014. Several engineers from the WFLH and a representative of the contractor were present to answer questions. The event was more lightly attended than previous events, possibly because most of the decisions have already been made. This attendee put in a request to rationalize the milepost marks by starting them at the intersection of the Middle Fork Road and 468th Ave SE instead of I-90 Exit 34.
North Bend Ranger Station, the open house venue
WFLH project engineers available to answer questions