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The Trail to Nowhere

Over the past ten years, the Colorado Trail has been all but forgotten

by Ed Quillen
Published 9 December 1984, in Empire Magazine of the Sunday Denver Post

building the trail to nowhere

building the trail to nowhere

Above the trail crew’s bent and straining backs, the somber gray summit of 14,196-foot Mount Yale poked into swirling afternoon clouds that promised another thunderstorm.

1987 crew group photoTrying to beat the rain, they picked up the pace on this hillside eight miles west of Buena Vista, Colorado. They swung their pulaski hoes more quickly, carving two feet of level ground out of the slope. Others wielded mcleods, which look like fat rakes, to pull off the duff and ensure that the trail was topped by packed mineral soil. Two men with pry bars levered out a boulder and pulled another stump, while a woman trimmed trailside brush.

Most of them were white-collar office types, secretaries and engineers, unaccustomed to this type of work. Here they were, sprouting calluses and learning about liniment and living without running water. This was how they spent a week of summer vacation — building the Colorado Trail.

The only snag that day was “Bee Tree,” fifty feet of decayed spruce right where the trail was supposed to go. Celia Nobles, one of the co-leaders, poked it with her pulaski; then she jumped and took off at a dead run, trying to escape a buzzing cloud of bees. Only a couple stung her. After her short conference with Colleen Jones, the other co-leader, two bends not in the plan were added to the trail. The bees got to keep their home.

If trail segments had Golden Spike ceremonies, they’d have had one that Thursday afternoon. Some of the dozen or so volunteers had started the week at Middle Cottonwood Creek, the others at South Cottonwood Creek. The two segments came together just north of the unplanned jog around Bee Tree. Moments after the volunteers had relaxed for a break, this newly completed piece of the Colorado Trail got its first customers: Ralph Gibson and his dog Bitsy, residents of nearby Rainbow Lake Resort.

Gibson had seen the trailhead on Middle Cottonwood Creek and had just started walking. After four miles he came out on a county road; that’s as far south as he could go on the Colorado Trail. If all had gone according to the plan laid out ten years ago, he could have started near Denver and followed the trail all the way to Durango.

crew photoThat was the dream, back in 1974. Colorado was to get a 409-mile trail for foot and horse traffic, winding through the Rockies along gentle grades at relatively low elevations. Thus the hiking season would be extended, and parts of the trail would provide excellent cross-country skiing. Suitable for ambling families, it also would connect with rugged wilderness trails and the climbing routes up many of the state’s 14,000-foot peaks.

The Colorado Trail was to link major tourist centers, giving them new summer packages to promote. In addition, a hut system would be developed so that hikers wouldn’t have to carry tents and stoves. Colleges, from Metropolitan State in Denver to Fort Lewis in Durango, would develop educational programs based on the trail, covering natural and human history in four life zones and a rich scene that included everything from Utes to abandoned railroad beds, from mining camps and sawmill towns to glittering destination resorts.

Since all but sixty-one miles were already in place as pieces of existing routes, the entire Colorado Trail could be done by 1978 — at the latest, 1980. It was all going to happen because there was ample seed money, $100,000 donated by the Gates Foundation. Also there was the Colorado Mountain Trails Foundation, Inc., which soon had an office, a paid staff, and a well-connected board of directors.

It didn’t happen. Thanks to dedicated volunteers, the Colorado Trail, except for two pieces, is in place from near Strontia Springs Reservoir twenty miles southwest of Denver to Windy Peak, on the Continental Divide west of Poncha Pass. But that’s still 160 mountainous miles from Durango, and the remainder of the route hasn’t been designated.

The foundation’s directors last met five years ago, and the Denver office closed before that. They still have some money in the bank, about $10,000, but no one seems to know just how much. At least one remaining director thinks the foundation should be dissolved because it has become an impediment to completing the Colorado Trail.

If the idea of the trail started with any one person, that person would be Bill Lucas. In 1973 Lucas was the regional forester for the eight-state Rocky Mountain region of the U.S. Forest Service, which manages a third of Colorado. The bulk of Colorado outdoor recreation occurs in National Forests.

relaxing after a hard day of work photoOver the preceding seven years, the number of hikers had grown by 20 percent a year. Wilderness areas were being trampled, shorn of firewood and filled with fire rings. Roadside campgrounds were jammed every summer weekend. The Forest Service came under increasing criticism for catering to the extremes of recreation — brutal wilderness treks and roadside campground amenities — without offering anything in the middle, for families who wanted to stroll through the woods without staggering under fifty-pound packs. And there was the first of several fuel shortages and gasoline price jumps. Future recreation was expected to be less dependent on gasoline, and much less dependent on federal money; there wasn’t going to be as much money for the Forest Service.

With all that in mind, Lucas convened a meeting in late 1973, inviting everyone he could find who had interest in Colorado outdoor recreation: ski area operators, wilderness outfitters, trail bikers, off-road vehicle club members, summer resort owners, conservation groups, educators, and others. Out of that evolved the Colorado Mountain Trails Foundation, which was to plan, develop, and manage the Colorado Trail.

Planning had started earlier that year. Lucas organized high school and college student volunteers, who worked their way west to the Continental Divide from Roxborough Park south of Denver. They noted avalanche-prone slopes, fragile tundra, and mountain sheep breeding grounds to avoid; they spotted likely pasturage for pack stock; they evaluated springs and creeks as water supplies; they checked for access to roads and towns, so hikers could take one-day or two-day trips as well as extended jaunts.

Once the foundation was operating, that process extended to Durango, where a group of middle-aged hikers scouted routes. Hugo Ferchau, a foundation director and professor of botany at Western State College in Gunnison, had student volunteers examining the central mountains to put together data for the required environmental assessment. Closer to Denver, the first new trail segments appeared in 1975 as about 200 members of the National Campers and Hikers Association hacked out six miles between the hamlets of South Platte and Buffalo Creek.

Since 1972, the Colorado Mountain Club has arranged for volunteers to work in the National Forests. Gudy Gaskill of Golden, the club’s trails and huts chairman, puts together these outings; she is also a director of the foundation. She advertises in national outdoor magazines and attracts volunteers from all over to spend a summer week building the Colorado Trail.

Designated a Centennial-Bicentennial project in 1976, the Colorado Trail was supposed to be finished by 1978. After the first $100,000, the Gates Foundation promised $100,000 in 1977 and $106,000 in 1978, if progress on the Colorado Trail was satisfactory. Other foundations made smaller grants, ranging from $1,000 to $10,000. Dozens of volunteers were in the field every summer, and in some districts, the Forest Service was able to put its own paid crews to work on the trail.

If you had been ambitious in the summer of 1984 and decided to follow the Colorado Trail from Denver to Durango, you would have had to drive to Kassler and stroll up the abandoned grade of the Denver, South Park & Pacific Railroad for six miles in Waterton Canyon until you reached Strontia Springs Dam, a recent Denver Water Board project. The Colorado Trail formally starts there with a ten-mile segment constructed in 1983 by the water board.

From there to Copper Mountain, the Colorado Trail is in place, although not all of it has signs. It follows the north border of South Park, skirting the Lost Creek Wilderness Area, and comes to Kenosha Pass, crossing U.S. Highway 285 before climbing the ridge between Michigan and Jefferson creeks to surmount the Continental Divide at 11,585-foot Georgia Pass. From there down to Colorado Highway 9, which it intersects four miles north of Breckenridge, the Colorado Trail shares a route with four-wheel-drive roads. Then it continues across the Tenmile Range to Copper Mountain.

There the Colorado Trail ends, although many old mining roads and pack trails twist through the Jacque Peak area to connect Copper Mountain to Tennessee Pass. “You can hike it now,” explained Sara Doman, a technician for the Dillon Ranger District, “but there’s no officially designated Colorado Trail. We haven’t figured out which route will be the Colorado Trail.”

After Tennessee Pass, the Colorado Trail follows the old Main Range Trail along the east flank of the Sawatch Range, highest in the Rockies, providing access to such famous fourteeners as Massive and Elbert.

About fifty miles south of Tennessee Pass, the Colorado Trail arrives at Middle Cottonwood Creek, due west of Buena Vista. The next four miles, with the jog for Bee Tree, was completed last summer.

From South Cottonwood Creek to Chalk Creek, about eight miles, there is no trail. If it went on public land behind Mount Princeton, it would have to transcend a 13,000-foot ridge more suited for alpine adventuring than family hiking. The front of Mount Princeton is in private hands, and the Forest Service is trying to negotiate an easement for a right-of-way.

South of Chalk Creek, the trail resumes, swinging past 14,229-foot Mount Shavano, crossing U.S. Highway 50 and ascending to the Continental Divide a couple of miles south of Monarch Pass.

For a few miles, the Colorado Trail there joins the Continental Divide Trail, a route with which it is often confused. The Divide Trail, from Canada to Mexico, isn’t complete, either, and it has sections that would tax a mountain goat. The Colorado Trail is gentler; the Divide here is rolling terrain, not sawtooth aretes and jagged ridges. At Windy Peak, twelve miles south of Monarch Pass, the Colorado Trail formally halts.

“There are stock drive trails and the like up there,” explained Ray George, range conservationist in the Saguache District Ranger’s office. “It wouldn’t take too much work to make it into a continuous trail that would get you down to somewhere west of Creede in the San Juans.” Rugged as the San Juans are, they too hold trails that can be linked, with some new construction, to continue the Colorado Trail. Although some maps show a general corridor, there is no firm route.

Walt Werner, recreation staff director for San Juan National Forest in Durango, said that extant plans call for the trail to go over 12,493-foot Hunchback Pass and drop onto upper Vallecito Creek. “But we already have problems with overuse there, and we want a different route,” he said. “However, nobody’s come up with one. As it is, you could say that the Colorado Trail is on indefinite hold in these parts.”

So is the trails foundation. “I’m not too sure how or why that happened,” Ferchau said. “It just dwindled, and now it’s inactive.” After the first grant, Gates Foundation support ended. “It was conditioned on their making progress,” said Charles Froelicher, Gates Foundation executive director. “The progress didn’t warrant further grants.”

Lucas, who served for a while as executive director of the trails foundation after he retired in 1976, said the inactivity was partially because “the board and one of our executive directors had big differences toward the end. When he left, we board members didn’t agree on a course.”

“And the foundation didn’t need to serve some purposes it was designed to serve. For instance, it was going to provide tools for the volunteers, but the Forest Service agreed to provide their tools and safety gear. The foundation was going to provide insurance for the volunteers. Then the Federal Volunteer Act was passed, and that meant the volunteers were automatically covered by workmen’s compensation insurance. So in a way, the foundation ran out of jobs to do.”

“The foundation ought to be dissolved. It’s just in the way,” Gaskill said. “We who still want to get the trail finished have a hard time raising money as long as people think that foundation is there, even though that foundation is doing nothing. But it’s been hard to get the remaining directors together so that we can kill the foundation and put its money, however much there is, to work on the trail, and to raise whatever it takes to finish it.”

hard at work photoAll three said that Mayo “Butch” Sommermeyer, a Fort Collins lawyer who has served on the foundation board since its inception, had the expertise to start dissolving the foundation. He agreed that it should be done, saying, “The foundation is basically inoperative and nonfunctional.” Sommermeyer blamed the foundation’s inactivity on “unrealistic expectations. Everybody seemed to think the trail would get done quickly and that it would have something for everybody. When it didn’t, people got discouraged.

“And it was frustrating,” he continued. “We had money, but it was going to administrative salaries, phone bills, and office rent, not to building the trail. It was seed money, but the plant never really blossomed. I hope somebody decides to carry it on by setting up something new to replace the foundation. I believe in the trail and I want to see it completed. But I’m tired of it.” He said the remaining money, about $10,000, is in an interest-bearing account in a Golden bank.

The Colorado Mountain Trails Foundation is obviously in no position to complete the Colorado Trail. Neither is the U.S. Forest Service; its budget for trail-building in the Rocky Mountain region went from $1.25 million in 1982 to $822,000 in 1985. “It’s more than we can do to maintain existing trails,” said Chuck McConnell, recreation planner in the Denver regional office. “When it comes to new construction, our priorities are correcting safety hazards and building loop trails in high-use areas, where we get the most recreation user-days for our money.”

If there ever is a Colorado Trail, it will likely be because Gudy Gaskill hasn’t given up. In 1980, completing the Colorado Trail ranked as the first priority for her Colorado Mountain Club trails and huts committee.

That has changed, though. “It’s not our first priority anymore,” she said, “because so many other trails need work, too. It would be selfish to put all our volunteers to work on the Colorado Trail with so much else that should be done.”

Gaskill estimated that with twenty-eight additional miles of new trail — the segment across the east side of Mount Princeton and some links in the San Juans — there would be a continuous trail of sorts from Kassler to Durango. “And we’ll have volunteers out there working on it every summer until it is done. It’s going to take a while, building only two to four miles a year.”

That’s why about a dozen people shared a campsite up South Cottonwood Creek during the last week of August last summer. The week earlier, another dozen volunteers had been camped there, working on that four-mile trail segment.

The preceding spring, the Mountain Club had offered a choice of eight one-week trail jobs. All were arranged by Gaskill after consulting with McConnell, who receives requests for volunteer trail work from district rangers across the state. Some were deep in the backcountry, where the volunteers had to carry in their supplies and tools. The Colorado Trail crews could drive to their campsite.

Each volunteer pays $10, to cover administrative costs. In return, the Mountain Club supplies food and some camp facilities, such as a cook tent with a propane stove and a latrine tent. Volunteers provide their own personal gear.

They arrive on a Saturday and set up camp. Sunday is a day of rest — hiking, collecting mushrooms, fishing, or examining wildflowers. Wednesday, too, is a day off, by tradition devoted to climbing a nearby 14,000-foot peak; camp is broken on Saturday. The trail gets built on Monday, Tuesday, Thursday, and Friday.

At six o’clock on those mornings, a wind-up alarm clock goes off. Breakfast duties are rotated; other volunteers pack sack lunches for the noon break, up on the trail. By eight o’clock, the dishes are done and the crew is ready; a forest ranger comes by to talk about yesterday’s work and today’s. Then it’s time to hike to work — the more they got done yesterday, the farther they have to walk in today.

Building a trail is more complicated than stomping out a path. Once the general corridor is selected, the area must be examined on foot. A specific route has to meet certain criteria: the Colorado Trail, designed to be gentle, avoids steep climbs and high elevations as much as possible, so it twists like a drunken sidewinder. It’s for recreation, not for getting from one place to another in a hurry.

On this segment, Forest Service engineers first flagged the route. Then they brought in convict volunteers from the nearby Buena Vista Correctional Facility, who were glad to get outdoors and do the heavy work of initial trail clearing with chainsaws.

The Mountain Club volunteers go to work next. First the sideslope is leveled by hacking away at the hillside with a pulaski, which looks something like a doubled-bitted axe with one bit perpendicular to the other. Then come other volunteers, armed with pry bars and pulaskis. They dig and chop to remove stumps and strain for leverage as they pull breadbox-sized boulders out of the trail bed.

Then the trail surface is smoothed and packed with mcleods. Along the way, others trim overhanging tree limbs and protruding brush. They want twelve feet of overhead clearance, enough to clear a rider on horseback, and an arm’s length of side clearance.

Trail Crew workers enjoying each otherWhere the trail crosses small ravines of sporadic water flow, the volunteers arrange rocks to build a French drain, a trench filled with loose stones and covered with earth. Bigger and more constant streams get log bridges, next to smoothed fords for equestrians. Where the trail flanks a steep hillside, it has to be supported by rock cribbing; a few yards can take hours of back-breaking toil. Along steeper sections, the trail receives water bars, drainage bumps that divert runoff so the volunteers’ work won’t be washed out next spring. On a good day, the volunteers can construct several hundred yards.

“You could look at it as a screwy way to spend a vacation,” said Chuck Fraser of Lakewood, an engineer who designs fiber-optic transmission lines for Mountain Bell. “But a vacation is supposed to be a break from your routine, and this is sure a lot different from thinking at a desk.” Fraser was getting a lot of kidding for being the camp’s strong man; an inch-thick steel pry bar had snapped while he was pushing on it.

A trail workday ends sometime between 3 and 5 p.m., depending on the day’s accomplishments, thunderstorms, and the general morale. At dinner, cooking duties again are rotated and shared. Some gather, saw, and split firewood; others cook; others do dishes. Then it’s time to relax and swap stories around the campfire.

At this camp, a nightly diversion is scanning the sky for satellites. Jim Ray, one of the volunteers, makes his living tracking satellites for Hughes Aircraft, but he can’t explain much to others; most of his work is classified.

No one stays up much past ten o’clock, and most are off in their own tents before that. It’s a harmonious camp, which pleases Jones, one of the co-leaders. She works in Englewood for the Social Security Administration. “This is the first time I’ve led a crew, and I’m always worried that things won’t go right.”

She was supposed to have an experienced co-leader, Irene Cazer of Denver. But Cazer had injured her leg the preceding week, so her contribution to this trail crew was limited to grocery shopping and a shipment of rhubarb pie, baked in civilization. “Planning meals for twelve people for a week, where you don’t have refrigeration except a few camp coolers, is a challenge,” she said, “but going shopping is probably more of one. Did you ever try to maneuver four or five shopping carts down an aisle?”

best scenery in the state photoCelia Nobles, an engineer at Martin Marietta, took Cazer’s place. “The worst thing about camp,” Nobles said, “is that there isn’t any running water. It’s so hard to keep clean.” She and Jones took turns pouring buckets of water over each other’s hair after dinner.

Although most volunteers belong to the Colorado Mountain Club, that’s not a requirement. Over the past decade, they’ve come from twenty-two states and several foreign countries. Everyone on this crew had much the same reason for volunteering for a week of sprained backs and blistered hands: I like to walk on mountain trails. This is a way of paying my dues for all those great hikes. And there’s a feeling of accomplishment that you don’t get behind a desk. You can see right away that you’ve done something.

Most planned to be back next summer, spending a week of vacation swinging a pulaski. “Sure it’s hard work, but it’s a lot of fun, too,” Jones said. “You get to meet some great people. And we’re going to get this trail built.”