“What on earth is a Pulaski?” That was my question in 2009, the first time I participated in a Roaring Fork Outdoor Volunteers (RFOV) trail project.
I started doing trail work during a college summer break as an unemployed 19-year-old who wanted to learn skills that involved being outside and required little previous experience. Volunteer trail work didn’t pay, but it did give me the experience I was looking for and allowed me to spend time outside. So I learned about corridors (the width foliage is trimmed for trail), water bars (lines of rocks that cross the trail diagonally which are for water drainage), trail-threading (when hikers go off-trail for any reason, creating social trails that twine across a landscape and increase erosion) and pulaskis (hand tools designed for wildfire fighting that have a dual head of an axe and adze and are highly effective for Rocky Mountain trail work).
In 2009 and 2010, I learned a great deal about trail creation, maintenance, outdoor stewardship, and the vast range of interest groups utilizing these beautiful places. Recreation covers a remarkably broad number of activities, especially here in Colorado. Our state is famous for its recreational opportunities, which is causing our population and statewide tourist economy to grow rapidly over the past several decades. This is in addition to the recreation on the part of our vast and well-established statewide tourist economy. Through RFOV, I stumbled upon an easy way to take more ownership of my recreational pursuits, increase my own awareness about how to conscientiously interact with these places, and increase my network of other outdoor-oriented people. RFOV bases a lot of their training materials on resources developed by Volunteers for Outdoor Colorado, an organization that hosts volunteer events and training opportunities statewide.
In addition to general stewardship and trail work organizations, we are lucky to be home to the amazing Colorado Fourteeners Initiative (CFI), a non-profit dedicated specifically to promoting stewardship of these mountains that we love so much. Mountains that, in some cases, are being over-used and over-worked without enough thought about what kind of damage is being done. For example there are several hikes I do on a regular basis where I witness other trail-users making or taking unofficial shortcuts without even thinking about the poorer quality of the soil. This is an issue caused by the grade of the slope that will eventually erode the actual trail, not just the slope on which the shortcut has formed. In the interest of increasing awareness to the more steadfast lovers of these peaks, CFI started compiling data in 2011 and recently released their 14ers report card as a measure of how we can manage recreation on these mountains more effectively. It is interesting to note that the worst scores on the report are almost all for the unofficial routes. In the eyes of trail volunteers, these routes have been formed due to years of tread instead of deliberately constructed and improved trails created with consideration of run-off, foliage management and mitigation (in the case of willows). This is telling of what can happen when people either disregard these less marked trails or lack the tracking and route-finding skills to discern a more subtle corridor.
You don’t have to hike a 14er to see the positives of trail work or the contrasting lack of maintenance or trail ethics. A few of my favorite “lower altitude” trails in the Roaring Fork Valley show clear signs of attention or lack thereof. The overuse of the Conundrum Hot Springs has been widely publicized throughout the state. The vistas from this spring, accessed by an 18 mile roundtrip hike up an exquisite valley, are breathtaking in only the way a place removed from a road can be. Unfortunately, the secret got out and now everyone wants the experience which makes sense, but is damaging the trail and destroying the camping area and the spring itself. Local land management agencies are scrambling to decide on the best course of action to prevent a fecal/erosive catastrophe. Other popular trails in the area have received more recent attention including Buckskin Pass. Just shy of 10 miles roundtrip from Maroon Lake and topping out just under 12,500 feet, this pass offers extraordinary views of the Pyramid massif to the east, an interesting diagonal view of the Maroon Bells along the southeastern ridgeline, and sweeping views of Snowmass Mountain, Snowmass Lake, and Capitol Peak to the west. This trail has been subject to steady trail work (mostly maintenance such as rock walls to support switchback corners and water bars for drainage) and is still in excellent condition despite bearing a large portion of the traffic the area receives each summer (estimates suggest upwards of 13,000 people throughout each summer and fall).
On the edge of the Frying Pan Wilderness, slightly west from the top of Independence Pass and north of the highway, you can find two more of my favorite hikes. The Lost Man Loop runs from one trailhead to another, both just off of Highway 82. It is just shy of nine miles and tops out at 12,800 feet. When it’s dry, it is a beautiful hiking trail and an even more beautiful high altitude run. But the trail is an example of mild threading and progressive erosion. When it was first built, drainage systems such as water bars were poorly established which now means that as long as there is any melting snowpack in the either basin, the trail is usually a muddy, wet mess. As a result, many hikers step up and out, just to the side of the trail, and now it’s three times as wide as originally intended. In contrast, the Midway trail, which starts at the lower Lost Man trailhead and branches up to the west, shows signs of meticulous construction, including water bars and careful trail grading despite a track up a steeper slope.
14ers attract a special interest group of people, a curious subset within the active and explorative Colorado norm. In the way that soccer enthusiasts own their favorite team’s jersey or volunteer to coach a local youth team, us hikers need to take on the mantle of fundraising and educating to share what we love with others and to ensure that it stays in shareable condition. I deeply believe in the power of experiential education, so while I would encourage everyone to do research about Leave No Trace (LNT) and basic trail concepts, the best learning will be from participating in a trail project or hiking with a highly experienced friend. CFI hosts many trail projects each summer and fall, as do many other organizations, though the latter aren’t 14er specific.
To close, I have a few thoughts on LNT. In late September last year, I hiked Belford and Oxford with a friend of mine who was relatively new to backcountry hiking. Over Labor Day weekend we’d both been in a group that hiked Mt. Massive via North Halfmoon Creek, ascending a ridge to the south of North Massive, and then traversing across the high points of the peak. At a certain point on the talus that trail almost entirely disappears. Our group adopted the backcountry practice of spreading out across the terrain instead of walking all grouped together. On Belford, my friend and I descended via Elkhead Pass. As we walked, I ended up explaining to him why we needed to keep to the eroding trail there, unlike the section of our ascent on North Massive. In true backcountry, with minimal tread, spreading out disperses impact instead of concentrating. But in places where game trails exist that roughly match your intended compass bearing, those game trails serve well. If a human established trail exists, walking off of it or creating shortcuts will surely increase erosion, undermining both the ecology and the trail itself. Sharing knowledge is easy so let’s take on that endeavor by loving these places as respectfully as we can and sharing those practices with our friends. To learn more about LNT, check out their website: https://lnt.org/.