Regular users are passionate about the Manitou Incline. And that passion drew them out by the dozens this weekend. The most ardent not only climbed the illegal yet popular trail of old railroad ties above Manitou Springs, they stopped to pick up trash along the way.
It was the second organized clean-up of summer and an extension of work many regulars fulfill on every visit.
The result was impressive for a mile-long trail: three large trash bags of garbage — mostly water bottles, candy and gum wrappers, Band-Aids, used tissues. There were a few surprises: dozens of cigarette butts, a few beer and wine bottles and, um, women’s underwear.
The morning’s haul might bring new meaning to Ryan Johnson’s Incline-centric Facebook group, “The Manitou Incline, Everything’s Better on the Incline.” As enthusiastic as he is about the trail, there are some uses Johnson would rather not know about.
Read more about the history of the Incline at OutThereColorado.com.
The clean-up effort was organized largely through Johnson’s Facebook group and a Facebook page run by supporter Sean Mitchell: “Manitou Springs Incline.”
Johnson and Mitchell, both board members of the newly formed Incline Friends group, have stressed the need for regular maintenance of the trail via their Facebook networks.
“The trash gets really bad during summer,” Johnson said as he stood at the trailhead Saturday morning handing trash bags to regulars and first-time hikers alike. Summer draws daily crowds to the grueling trail that rises 2,000 feet above Manitou. Officials estimate as many as 500,000 hikers hit the trail each year.
The use of the trail could increase as the bureaucratic process to legalize its use moves ahead.
“If you could just pick up what you can, that’d be great,” Johnson told a group of hikers who’d driven down from Monument to tough out their first Incline climb together.
“Sure, I’ll take a bag,” Colorado Springs hiker Janet Reese said as she stretched her hamstring muscles before her climb. “Anything for an excuse to stop now and then on the way up!”
In hopes of encouraging hikers to clean up after themselves and others, Incline regular Michael Everson and Robert Jackson of Fort Collins installed a trash bag holder at the base of the Incline. It’s just a length of hard-plastic pipe, but they hope its convenience will prompt users to grab a bag and pick up trash — and dog poop — along the way.
“If everyone would pick up after themselves,” Everson said, trailing off without stating the obvious.
Frustrated at picking up a half-dozen plastic bottles on every climb, Everson posted a sign at the trailhead in late spring: “If you can’t pack out your waste or trash, don’t do the Incline!”
Then he placed a milk jug stuffed with plastic bags at the trailhead. For a while trash declined, Everson and Johnson agreed.
Then the crowds came. And the heat and the rain. And the milk jug wasn’t so sturdy. Hence the new PVC pipe stuffed with bags.
“There isn’t money to pay someone to clean up the trash, so we’ve got to do it,” Johnson told another group as they huffed up the trail.
When the trail legally opens to use — possibly next summer, based on current federal obstacles and the path that must be followed to overcome them — the Incline Friends may place trash cans along the trail and schedule regular pick-ups. Until then, since use of the Incline is still illegal, members will organize the unofficial clean-ups.
“We don’t want to do anything that might jeopardize the process,” Johnson said.
Long climb from track to legal trail
While the Maintou Incline draws thousands of users, hiking there remains technically illegal.
At issue is a bit of red tape: No one has declared if the old railbed — the 2,000-some feet of railroad ties that are the spine of the Incline — qualifies as a railroad. The federal government must declare a railroad abandoned before the land can be used for anything else, hiking trail included. The abandonment process could take four months, officials have said.
Regardless, Manitou Springs and Colorado Springs, which hope to open the trail, must get a special use permit from the Forest Service, which owns the upper third of the land crossed by the Incline. Colorado Springs Utilities and the Cog Railway, which own the other two-thirds of the land already are on board with the project.
Once a permit application is submitted to the forest service, the agency has 60 days to respond – approving it, denying it or asking for more information. That’s followed by an environmental analysis and public input, which could take five months.
In the meantime, the Incline Friends group, with guidance of the local Trails and Open Space Coalition, is working to obtain nonprofit status, to do what it can to help the legalization process, and to forge ties with the local community.