The Centennial Nature Trail, a six-tenths of a mile series of switchbacks between Rim Drive on the western edge of Fort Lewis College and the East Sixth Avenue-10th Street intersection, is looking 30 years younger.
A coalition of neighbors and interested professionals has refurbished signposts, replaced vandalized interpretive plaques and rewritten a brochure that identifies specimens of geological and botanical interest and points out significant viewsheds at 26 points along the trail, which has an elevation change of 300 feet.
Jim Shadell, a retired postman who lives near the lower terminus of the trail and hikes there for exercise, was the spark plug for restoration.
“About eight years ago, I guess, I was thinking ‘What a shame the trail is in such deteriorated condition,’” Shadell said Tuesday. “I figured that with a minimal amount of effort it could be restored.”
The project, only recently completed, proved harder to accomplish than Shadell thought. He repaired signposts, chopped overhanging branches and did some trail maintenance on his own for about five years.
One by one, he brought others into the project.
Among them were Travis Ward, a neighbor and retired Durango High School science teacher who also walks the trail; Page Lindsey and Preston Somers, retired Fort Lewis College biology professors; John Bregar, a geologist by training and a botanist by avocation; and Al Schneider, a retired English professor and amateur botanist who lives in Lewis and has discovered new plant specimens in Dolores County.
Trails 2000 volunteers do trail maintenance and restoration.
“I discovered the trail when I arrived in 1971,” said Ward, who since then has lived in a house a couple of blocks from the lower terminus. “I used to walk there before they fixed it – and it wasn’t called Centennial Trail then.”
The trail was created, probably by students looking for a quick way down the hill, as soon as FLC moved from Hesperus to Durango in 1956.
When Shadell’s volunteers tackled the project, it had been 30 years since the path had received attention. Interpretive signs were gone or vandalized, and the surface of the trail was uneven and eroded.
A September 1980 story in the Independent, the FLC student newspaper, laid out the situation and heralded a massive overhaul funded by $8,195 each from the Fort Lewis College Foundation and the city of Durango, and $3,500 from the Rotary Club of Durango.
“This trail is being used by more and more people, yet maintenance is nonexistent, and in some places the trail could be considered a safety hazard,” the story said. “Not only is the trail eroding, but the shortcuts between the switchbacks are becoming steep gorges.”
The effect of cutting across switchbacks is evident from the Sixth Avenue-10th Street intersection, where trail users, following the path of a campus sewer line that intersects the trail in two places, contributed to major erosion.
A few years ago, Ed Zink, owner of Mountain Bike Specialists, and his Iron Horse Classic organization contributed material to build several hundred feet of wooden steps to control the flow of water. Trails 2000 provided the muscle.
“If we use a trail, or part of it, for our events, we always leave it in better condition than we found it,” Zink said Wednesday.
Another Durangoan, Charles Shaw, owner of the Smiley Building, independently has replaced wooden letters on the trail signs with metal ones, Shadell said.
The 1981 overhaul, which included installation of interpretive signs, benches at switchbacks and a brochure, was finished in July of that year.
Shadell’s project participants decided that instead of interpretive signs, which could be mistreated again, they would letter each of the 26 posts from A to Z, and in corresponding letters in the re-edited brochure explain the importance of each point.
“We had to make some changes in the brochure because a plant might have died or a rock formation might have slid down the hill,” Shadell said. “We also reduced the brochure from 14 pages to eight by using bullet points instead of straight text.”
At the upper and lower trailheads are boxes for brochures. As an economic move, trail users are asked to return the brochures at the other end of the trail.