Switchbacks on The Colorado Trail

The famed 28 switchbacks between Elk Creek and the Continental Divide in Segment 24 of The Colorado Trail. Photo Cornelius Friesen

The famed 28 switchbacks between Elk Creek and the Continental Divide in Segment 24 of The Colorado Trail. Photo Cornelius Friesen

Recently a distance hiker brought up switchbacks on the CT as well as the relatively gentle Trail grades. Making a comparison with another long trail, he wrote that he liked switchbacks.

The subject of switchbacks takes us way back to the very beginning of The Colorado Trail. Foresters and volunteers alike wanted a relatively gentle grade route. They knew gentle grades are more enjoyable and more family friendly. They set their sights on gentle. For example, where newly constructed trail was required, they hoped their maximum grade could be 8 percent. Not only would travelers find enjoyment in such routing, but the Trail would be easier to keep maintained.

Gentle grades, however, are much easier said than done. If you have major elevation to climb and decide on a gentle route, the trail lengthens. More trail to construct and tough-to-build switchbacks will be needed to align the trail on favorable hillsides. Back and forth, switchback to switchback. Extra work, but worth it. Early CT volunteers, often led by Gudy Gaskill, tried just this and sometimes grumbled their way as they constructed each switchback that took so much labor to build.

We are lucky these good souls, when building new sections, chose gentle and switchbacks, as they make the Trail more enjoyable.

Where the Trail was to utilize an older, existing route, it typically had fewer switchbacks and was steeper. These old, pre-CT sections were usually forged by cattlemen, loggers or miners. They were on the time clock, establishing the shortest route from A to B.

From a Trail maintenance perspective, steep routes get torn apart faster and take extra labor to maintain. Runoff carries away the trail soil and turns the old, steep fall-line routes into gullies full of rocks. These sections are not as much fun to travel and often a lost cause to keep well maintained. Diverting the runoff from a deeply gullied fall-line section is nearly impossible.

Yes, the CT Foundation likes switchbacks too.