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Forces of nature overtake Waldo Canyon trail in wake of 2012 fire

May 2, 2015 Updated: May 27, 2015 at 10:35 pm
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photo - Joe Lavorini of Rocky Mountain Field Institute surveys the flood damge to the Waldo Canyon Trail just past the loop hiking clock wise Friday, May 1, 2015, in Waldo Canyon Trail area. The much of the trail in that area is wiped out from the flooding. (The Gazette, Christian Murdock)
Joe Lavorini of Rocky Mountain Field Institute surveys the flood damge to the Waldo Canyon Trail just past the loop hiking clock wise Friday, May 1, 2015, in Waldo Canyon Trail area. The much of the trail in that area is wiped out from the flooding. (The Gazette, Christian Murdock)  

The Waldo Canyon trail is going wild.

It has been nearly three years since the popular, scenic hike was barred to the public after the 2012 Waldo Canyon fire, which ignited just west of the trail in the Pike National Forest. Since the fire, Mother Nature has been having her way with the once-beloved hiking area that climbs above westbound U.S. 24.

Grass covers the trail's first steps leading out of the parking lot. Noxious weeds blur the lines between trail and wilderness. Sometimes, dust in the air smells like soot.

While the trail's first few turns would be familiar, if overgrown, to its fans, floodwaters have all but obliterated its upper loop. Where the trail used to fork, it's unrecognizable.

A few familiar things remain - such as a log bench and a battered sign pointing to "Waldo Canyon Trail, 31/2 mile loop." Copses of trees stand alive, almost miraculously, amid row after row of blackened and weathered sticks.

The trail transforms every year, as snowmelt and summer rains carve new paths down Waldo Canyon. Past the trail's fork, the streambed has washed away traces of the trail, burying it in feet of sediment, boulders and dead trees. Without droves of hikers, runners and mountain bikers hitting the trail every day, Waldo Canyon has become the kind of place where bears are surprised to see a human.

At least that's how Joe Lavorini feels when he hikes the area, past the well-known wooden bench and past the new U.S. Geological Survey camera station. Sometimes he's the only human up there, and he has scared many a bear.

People like Lavorini, a program director for the Rocky Mountain Field Institute, are the only humans who see Waldo Canyon these days. He's amid many federal, state and nonprofit employees and volunteers working to slowly repair Waldo Canyon after the fire and protect it from constant flood erosion.

The Rocky Mountain Field Institute has taken small groups into the canyon since 2012, and Friday marked the first day this year for volunteer work along the ravaged trail. But the 12-person crew wasn't assigned to rebuilding the path. It is working to stem the tide of water and sediment that courses down the canyon, building log erosion barriers on the steep hillsides.

Lavorini doesn't know if a trail will be rebuilt in Waldo - when asked, he defers to the U.S. Forest Service. But in March, at a regional recovery meeting, the Forest Service expressed no immediate plans to reopen the trail this year. And all it takes is one walk up Waldo to see why. In some places, there is nowhere to build a trail; in others, a new trail would be washed away by a few inches of rain.

Lavorini and his Rocky Mountain Field Institute colleagues guessed that it could be a decade before the flood risk in Waldo subsides enough to begin considering a new trail.

"There's no idea if they are going to open it again, because of flood danger," Lavorini said. "Then there's the issue that the trail just doesn't exist anymore in places."

The words "Waldo Canyon" have become synonymous with fire in the Pikes Peak region.

But post-fire flooding has taken its toll on communities along Ute Pass and in Manitou Springs.

It's no different along the Waldo trail, where unpredictable floodwaters are eroding a place that used to rarely see flowing water at all.

"This is where the fire started," Lavorini told his Friday crew of volunteers. "But the big issue that we're dealing with up here is flooding."

Even the challenge of rebuilding the trail pales in comparison to the logistical problems of reopening it. What if hikers are washed away by floodwaters, which they wouldn't be able to see coming? What if people are trapped on the trail and on U.S. 24 when it closes due to flooding? Until runoff and flash floods can be controlled in Waldo, letting people loose on the trail seems an unlikely prospect. Lavorini gets nervous bringing in a crew, and on Friday he kept a watchful eye on the dark clouds gathering above the burn scar.

"I'm just constantly thinking about the people that we have in here," he said.

The trail is a prime example of what makes flood control in the Pike National Forest difficult. Waldo, like the region, is covered with unstable Pikes Peak granite, a soil notorious for its inability to absorb water.

"In fact, to call it soil is a little bit of luxury," Lavorini joked. Trail crews call it "kitty litter," for the loose gravel that crumbles apart easily. Cover that with melted sap and oil from burned trees and you've got ground as slick as ceramic tile. Water courses off it with little vegetation to slow it down.

The soil also makes for tricky work. On Friday, the crew members struggled to gain purchase on the slippery ground, as they hauled burned logs across a steep slope. They had smudges of soot on their faces and clothing, but they were smiling. It's good work - the kind that has brought Hilary Bryant back three times to the Waldo trail, something she had never hiked before the fire.

The Waldo Canyon trail's devastation is depressing, but return trips are worth it for Bryant for a simple reason.

"I was born and raised here. And this is home," she said. "And if your home is broken, you fix it."

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