With the popular 18-mile Hermosa Creek Trail closed for the foreseeable future because of damage from the 416 Fire, efforts are afoot to restore and make new trails in the recreational area north of Durango.
This fall, crews rebuilt a nearly 4-mile route, called the West Cross Creek Trail, in the Hermosa Creek Watershed Special Management Area.
“Working toward opening the West Cross Creek Trail couldn’t happen at a better time,” said Matt Janowiak, Columbine District ranger for the U.S. Forest Service, in a prepared statement.
“With many Hermosa trails closed indefinitely from the 416 Fire damage, providing the public with another alternative trail will add something positive to every trail-user’s experience.”
The West Cross Creek Trail follows a historic wagon road. In drafting the Hermosa Creek Watershed Special Management Area in the early 2010s, it was decided the trail would be improved and folded into the official trail system.
Mary Monroe, executive director of Trails 2000, said the West Cross Creek Trail – a non-motorized trail – starts at the top of Hotel Draw and goes down to the Upper Hermosa Creek trailhead.
“It’s a fantastic connector trail in the middle of a very large aspen grove,” she said. “It’s a really beautiful trail.”
Don Kelly, a trails foreman for the Forest Service’s Columbine Ranger District, said on top of the new trail, crews built a stream crossing and installed a cattle guard.
But early season snow forced the work to stop. As a result, crews will return in May or June to fine-tune the completion of the trail. Kelly expects that work to take about seven to 10 days.
“We did it because we thought it was important from a trail connectivity standpoint,” said Hogan Koesis, mountain bike director for Purgatory Resort. “The trail was already there, just not being used much. Now, we’ll see a lot more traffic on something there that wasn’t utilized as much.”
Emily Olsen with the National Forest Foundation said the project was made possible because of support from the San Juan Stewardship Fund, which began in 2017 as a partnership between Purgatory Resort, the National Forest Foundation and the Forest Service.
The fund, which now includes Hermosa Tours, supports annual grants to local nonprofit organizations for on-the-ground recreation and forest health projects on the San Juan National Forest, Olsen said.
Through the fund, Olsen said patrons of Purgatory Resort are able to donate a dollar or more to the National Forest Foundation when purchasing online tickets or season passes.
The National Forest Foundation then provides a 50-cent match on every dollar donated by guests and puts it into the fund, which has generated nearly $45,000 in just one year, Olsen said.
“The next step is to bring in more businesses interested in contributing so it becomes a true community fund,” she said.
The West Cross Creek Trail cost about $13,900, Olsen said, but that doesn’t include volunteer hours and in-kind contributions.
In the future, Olsen said the fund can be used to help rehabilitate areas damaged by the 416 Fire.
“We just recognized there’s a lot of interest in rehabbing the area impacted by the 416 Fire,” she said. “And since the fund has been established, we want to make sure projects are addressing community priorities. The 416 Fire area is obviously a major community priority.”
Cam Hooley, environmental coordinator for the Forest Service’s Columbine Ranger District, said the extent of damage to the trails is still not known.
“Nobody has been all the way up the main stem yet,” she said. “Until we get a chance next spring to go out and do a really good assessment all the way through, we don’t know what to ask for yet.”
Of the few places she has been able to hike to, namely a few miles up the main Hermosa Creek Trail and Goulding Creek Trail, Hooley said most of the trails are intact, although there are a lot of downed trees across the trails.
“But we don’t know what’s going to happen to them during spring runoff when the ground is all saturated,” she said. “We’re expecting more damage after spring runoff.”
Kevin Heiner, associate director of Southwest Conservation Corps, said a crew of about eight people helped with the West Cross Creek Trail.
Heiner said the Southwest Conservation Corps has worked and rehabbed in fire-damaged areas. But it’s a matter of safety.
“Our biggest concern with 416 Fire scar is the fact the Hermosa drainage receives so much rain, and there’s a lot of steep slopes now devoid of vegetation from the fire,” he said.
“But we’re eager and would love to help. We’re just waiting for the green light.”