In May 2003, a breach in a large irrigation ditch within Rocky Mountain National Park (RMNP) initiated a debris flow that entered Lulu Creek and the Colorado River, where 36 000 m3 of sediment substantially altered channel forms and processes. We present a proof of concept to understand whether the 2003 disturbance is within the historical range of variability (HRV), and whether the recovery potential of the system is sufficient to adapt to the disturbance. Flow and sediment regimes, and channel morphology and stability were monitored on Lulu Creek and the Colorado River from 2004 to 2011. Dominant channel response following the debris flow within Lulu Creek included step development, bed armoring, and channel widening. Step height-to-length ratios (H/L) for three reaches on Lulu Creek are outside the HRV of reference channels, with one reach approaching reference conditions. Erosion of approximately 23% of the debris fan volume occurred as a result of the long duration 2011 peak flow. Sediment within the Lulu Creek fan will persist for ˜30–190 years, assuming current maximum and mean removal rates. Planform changes on the Colorado River since the debris flow include an increase in single-thread geometries, with braided reaches where bar deposition occurred. Bedload transport and grain-size analysis of bedload indicate translational spreading of a sand wave front with a dispersive component in steeper reaches. Lulu Creek is returning to a condition of natural variability, but the Colorado River is outside the HRV expected for steep-gradient, pool-riffle channels. Applying HRV to a situation where management questions require a longer term perspective, and pre-disturbance baseline data are limited, is a useful approach. The HRV analysis facilitates a better understanding of site variability and delineates the range of possibilities of channel form and process to achieve management goals. Copyright © 2012 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd.