Why a Longtime Rocky Mountain National Park Trail May Be Removed

This photo shows some of the erosion that's on view along Crater Trail.
This photo shows some of the erosion that's on view along Crater Trail. Courtesy of Rocky Mountain National Park
Crater Trail is an unofficial feature of Rocky Mountain National Park, but it's also a well-established one, having been in place for generations. Now, however, an environmental assessment conducted by the National Park Service argues in favor of permanently eliminating a trail that's been a local favorite for generations.

A public meeting related to the proposal will take place tonight, Tuesday, October 24, in Grand Lake. Details are accessible below, as is the environmental assessment and a link to a page where interested parties can comment online about plans for a route with a long and intriguing history.

"There were a number of dude ranches in the Kawuneeche Valley before it became part of Rocky Mountain National Park," notes Larry Gamble, RMNP's chief of planning and project stewardship. "So Crater Trail is probably from during the dude-ranching era, when people started hiking in them thar hills and began exploring the crater — which is actually a crater left over from a volcano."

How old is the trail? "I don't think we've established a particular date for it," Gamble allows, "but it shows up in old aerial photographs that we have. I don't know that it's been around for a hundred years, but it's definitely been there for decades."

Even so, says Kyle Patterson, the park's public-affairs officer, the trail "is not actually very well traveled. It's near Milner Pass off of Trail Ridge Road, and it's basically accessible two and a half months of the year. It's closed for a big part of the summer for big horn sheep lambing, which is a big part of our concern about the area. Then, once the lambing is over, we open it back up to the public from about mid-August until Trail Ridge Road closes — which is usually October or November."

"And during the part of the year when Trail Ridge Road isn't open, the trail is very inaccessible, because it's buried in snow," Gamble adds. "We have lots of trails in the park that people love to snowshoe and cross-country ski on. But its main access is by Trail Ridge Road, which typically closes by early November. We try to have it reopened by Memorial Day, but that means there's only a window from Memorial Day to late October that you can drive to any proximity of it."

click to enlarge
A map showing the route of Crater Trail.
Courtesy of Rocky Mountain National Park
Nonetheless, Patterson says that over the past several years, Crater Trail has suffered assorted "resource impacts."

"Because the trail was not a constructed trail — it was man-made, so to speak, by people hiking on it — there's significant erosion, particularly along the tree line," Gamble explains. "They're really deep scars. We're talking deep gullies where people have walked and alpine vegetation is gone. That exposed archaeological resources that we're very concerned about — prehistoric archaeological resources. So resource impact from erosion, soil loss, vegetation loss and the impact to cultural resources were the primary drivers of this — that and the lambing. Big horn sheep are the symbol of Rocky Mountain National Park, and protecting the ewes and lambs during that period is very important."

As such, Rocky Mountain National Park personnel made the decision to temporarily close Crater Trail in 2014 while an environmental assessment was conducted — and over that span, around thirty complaints and comments let them know how much the pathway meant to a small but passionate group.

"For sure, there were folks who weren't in favor of closing it," Gamble acknowledges. "It's a relatively short trail, only about a mile and a half long. But I think people appreciated it because it goes straight up the hill, straight up the mountainside, and provides ready access above the treeline."

"It's very much a local trail," Patterson adds. "It's hard to estimate how many people use it. We approximate that it's less than 3,000 a year — but some people are really tied to it."

The environmental assessment of Crater Trail, released earlier this month, "evaluated five separate alternatives, including rerouting the trail, repairing it and closing it," Gamble points out. "And the National Park Service recommendation was to close it. But it's fair to say that no decision has been made. That's why it's going out to the public for input — and we'll consider what they say before making a decision."

If the closure is approved, Gamble goes on, "we'll bring in fill material to repair the deep gullies at the trailhead and do our best to remove the trail and restore the area." During that process, he adds, "we'll put up what we call buck-and-rail fencing if people continue to walk where we've implemented the restoration, so they'll know they're not supposed to enter the area."

In a closure scenario, Patterson is hopeful that visitors will honor the decision rather than simply keep using the trail and potentially undo all the efforts of park staffers. "Since the closure in 2014, we haven't seen people flagrantly going past our 'closed' sign and climbing over the fence that's there now," she says. "But I can't say it's never happened."

"We don't have someone there 24/7," Gamble concedes. "But if the National Park Service decides to close it, we won't want people walking through there, because that will give us the best opportunity for success. That way, we can return it to natural conditions" that haven't been in place for a long, long time.

The public meeting about Crater Lake is scheduled to take place from 6 to 7:30 p.m. tonight at the Grand Lake Fire Protection District Station, 201 West Portal Road in Grand Lake; the get-together is purely informational, but attendees will be able to submit written comments afterward. Click to read the Crater Trail environmental assessment, as well as to comment online about the plan. Comments can also be sent to: Superintendent, Rocky Mountain National Park, Estes Park, CO 80517.
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Michael Roberts has written for Westword since October 1990, serving stints as music editor and media columnist. He currently covers everything from breaking news and politics to sports and stories that defy categorization.
Contact: Michael Roberts