A stretch of the Colorado Trail that runs through the Weminuche Wilderness is expected to be fixed by fall after a historic year for avalanches damaged the trail in 2019.
Kristina Schenck, lead wilderness ranger for the U.S. Forest Service’s Columbine Ranger District, said the winter of 2018-19 brought unprecedented avalanche activity to the San Juan Mountains.
“Especially in March,” she said, “it led to a bunch of avalanches running all over the San Juans, but especially around the Silverton area. Some people called it a 100-year avalanche cycle.”
The Weminuche Wilderness, Schenck said, was especially hit hard because of the vast amount of dead trees killed by the spruce beetle outbreak infesting the region for the past 15 years.
“We’ve never seen anything like this in the Weminuche Wilderness,” she said. “It was like almost every single drainage ran.”
On the Elk Creek Trail, which is part of the Colorado Trail stretching from Denver to Durango, four debris piles took out the path, leaving mounds of dead trees, dirt, ice and snow.
Though the trail is considered open, Schenck said the debris piles make it a rough go for hikers and nearly impossible for people on horseback. In wilderness areas, only foot and livestock travel are allowed.
The first two debris piles were anywhere from 10- to 15-feet deep, Schenck said. Those piles were cleared and the trail is now accessible after a Southwest Conservation Corps crew did some work last summer.
On Monday, Colorado Parks and Wildlife announced it awarded a $55,810 grant to start a large-scale trail-clearing project with crews to work with crosscut saws, rigging equipment and digging tools.
Most of this work will happen at piles 3 and 4, which Schenck said are the biggest of all the debris piles.
Pile 3 covers about 300 feet of trail and could be an estimated 50 vertical feet deep in some areas. Pile 4 covers about 1,000 feet of trail and is about 10-feet deep.
Because the slides happened in wilderness areas, crews must hike or ride horses to get in, and they are not allowed to use mechanized or motorized equipment.
Just getting to Elk Creek Trail is difficult. It requires taking the Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad, which drops hikers off at Elk Park, or hiking 3 miles from Molas Pass to get to the Elk Creek Trailhead.
Then, from the trailhead, Pile 3 is about a mile and a half hike in, and Pile 4 is 4 miles in. Schenck said crews will hike in from Molas Pass and will use horses to help haul equipment.
Crews will then use crosscut saws to clear a path for the trail, which also involves breaking through ice and dirt piles. Because the damage was so bad, Schenck said, an entirely new trail will have to be cut and tread.
“It’s definitely a puzzle when you’re logging out by hand,” she said.
The effort has taken the help of the Forest Service, San Juan Mountains Association, Southwest Conservation Corps, the Colorado Trails Foundation and the National Forest Foundation.
“The goal is to have the trail accessible to hikers and stock by fall,” Schenck said. “My guess is we’ll be dealing with this for a while. We’ll have to revisit it, but hopefully not on this scale.”