By Angela Hill
Dust off your hiking books and dig out your fly-fishing gear: Patrick County’s much-loved Rock Castle Gorge Trail is slated to re-open the third week of August.
A crew from the U.S. National Park Service has been working overtime since mid-June to finish major repairs, and is awaiting arrival of two new bridges.
Five sections of the 10.5-mile trail were washed out by overflowing tributaries during last September’s flooding. The damage was extensive, with one washout measuring 20-feet wide and up to eight-feet deep.
The six-man NPS team brought in 300 tons of rip-rap and crusher run (a mixture of fine rock, sand and dirt) to resurface the trail and rebuild Rock Castle Creek’s banks. The crew also installed new culverts in several spots.
Before starting any work, NPS officials had to secure two permits from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which stipulates that areas around waterways can be repaired with only new material.
“When we first got down here, we said, ‘No, we can’t do this. We’ll have to contract this out.’” said NPS District Facility Manger Allen Lawson. “And we had planned to contract this out, but we had trouble getting people who wanted to do it, so we decided to do it in-house. We had the money.”
The repairs were funded by an emergency request to the federal park service’s rehabilitation fund. Lawson said they have $421,000 to work with, but will spend only about $280,000. The stone ran about $60,000; the bridges are $25,000 each; and the remainder covers items such as fuel, vehicle maintenance, and payroll.
“If we had a contractor to come do the work it would have cost a lot more,” Lawson said. “But this is good experience for the guys. Good equipment experience.”
The project is also good experience for two conservation groups: the Student Conservation Association and the American Conservation Experience. Volunteer and paid workers from the two associations will handle lighter trail repairs, focusing on the steep climb from the trail head up to the Rocky Knob campground. That area also lost a small footbridge.
The factor most affecting when Rock Castle reopens is the arrival of the two fiberglass bridges. Fabricated by Pennsylvania company E.T. Techtonics, the bridges will be carried in, on foot, in sections. They are 30- and 35-feet long and 8-feet wide. NPS crews will bring in a concrete mixer to build footers for the bridges.
Those bridges can’t accommodate vehicular traffic, Lawson explained, so rescue and maintenance crews will use utility vehicles to access parts of the trail. Full-sized vehicles can still drive the three miles leading to the historic Austin House. The house and surrounding area did not sustain flood damage.
The devastating flood that hit Patrick County on September 29 stemmed from an unusually heavy six-day rainfall. Local officials estimated the flood caused about $4 million in damage to county agriculture and roads. Lawson said officials at Rocky Knob counted 18 inches of total rainfall, with 10 inches falling in a six-hour period. About 30 trees had to be cut off the Rock Castle Gorge trail.
As for future floods and their effect on one of Patrick County’s favorite outdoor havens?
“We’re at the mercy of Mother Nature,” Lawson said. “It will take up the rip-rap. There’s nothing we can do to stop it. Hopefully, that was a thousand-year flood.”
By Angela Hill
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