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Journey to summit of Cheyenne Mountain remains a long trip

June 4, 2015 Updated: June 4, 2015 at 9:45 am
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photo - Volunteers Allan Harwood of Kemmerer, Wyo., right, and Jill Smokovitz of Colorado Springs cut a trail Saturday, May 30, 2015, as Volunteers for Outdoor Colorado work on the Dixon Trail to the top of Cheyenne Mountain from Cheyenne Mountain State Park. The trail is expected to be completed by 2019. (The Gazette, Christian Murdock)
Volunteers Allan Harwood of Kemmerer, Wyo., right, and Jill Smokovitz of Colorado Springs cut a trail Saturday, May 30, 2015, as Volunteers for Outdoor Colorado work on the Dixon Trail to the top of Cheyenne Mountain from Cheyenne Mountain State Park. The trail is expected to be completed by 2019. (The Gazette, Christian Murdock) 

For Kevin Starling, the effort to reclaim a Cold War icon will itself be won like a war - by the slow accumulation of incremental gains.

"Baby steps," the volunteer crew leader from Colorado Springs barked during sweat-drenched labor on the slopes of Cheyenne Mountain, where he joined roughly 50 workers for a weekend of cutting earth, hauling dirt and hacking away at roots and stumps.

High in the upper reaches of Cheyenne Mountain State Park, the efforts are giving shape to Dixon Trail, a long-awaited route to the summit.

Just don't expect it to be ready soon.

Armed with picks, axes, shovels and rakes, the crew from Denver-based Volunteers for Outdoor Colorado (VOC) spent the final weekend in May extending the trail to just more than a mile in length.

That leaves 2 miles on steep, rocky terrain before builders reach the goal of summiting Cheyenne Mountain, where the trail ultimately will tie into the 3.6-mile Top of the Mountain Trail, which carves a figure 8 along the flat summit ridge.

Announced in 2009 and approved in 2011, Dixon Trail initially was expected to take four to five years to complete, according to estimates by state park administrators. Now the goal for completion is 2019, the result of thin funding and chronic weather delays.

- ALSO: A hike into Cheyenne Mountain's rugged history

A trail to the top of Cheyenne Mountain has long been a dream of outdoors enthusiasts. Although the summit can be reached by historic routes accessed via Old Stage Road to the west, it's mostly the domain of experts willing to endure steep slopes and route finding - not to mention the risk of wandering onto property controlled by North American Aerospace Defense Command, which largely has monopolized the peak since it became operational in the mid-1960s.

Dixon Trail, which will climb 3,000 feet, begins at the top of the North Talon Loop in the state park and rises steadily on a 3-foot-wide corridor by means of a series of switchbacks through thick stands of conifers and swampy seasonal creeks.

Along the way, the trail will run past the remains of a 1957 plane crash that killed both pilots aboard a T-33. A memorial is planned for the site.

Only hikers will be allowed to travel the full distance to the summit. Horses and cyclists will be permitted to travel roughly half the distance, to a saddle with an overlook. That call was made by state park administrators, who feared that cyclists would descend at dangerous speeds.

The slow progress on the trail is due entirely to external factors, say people involved in the project. On top of challenging terrain and a remote project site, weather has been a continual drain.

In 2011, a snowstorm canceled two of three project days planned by VOC, all but scrubbing weeks of preparation, said Jack Busher, who marshals volunteers at the park. In September 2013, a different VOC crew was sidelined by historic flooding, which damaged portions of the park's public trail network. The bad luck continued last month, when 65 Fountain Valley School students came expecting to put in hard labor only to be pinned inside their tents by a rainstorm that helped push May into the record books as El Paso County's wettest month ever.

"That's why we've been doing it for several years and we're still not close," said Glen Scadden, a volunteer crew leader.

Even as volunteers take up the cause, an effort is underway to find alternative funding that would pay for contractors and speed up the process. In late May, the Friends of Cheyenne Mountain State Park announced the Cheyenne Mountain Race, a foot race planned for October to raise funds and create excitement for completing Dixon Trail.

"We have this beautiful gem in our community and we're stymied because of lack of funds," said Pat Cooper, president of the Friends group.

Drawing on a wide base of volunteers working for reduced fees or for free, the Cheyenne Mountain Run is expected to raise several thousand dollars - a welcome infusion but a long way from the sum needed for dedicated trail crews, experts say.

Paul Mead, who designed the trail along with fellow volunteer Chris Lieber, estimates that a professional trail builder could charge upwards of "a couple hundred thousand dollars." Terrain on Cheyenne Mountain's rocky shoulder would require a mix of mechanical trail construction and crews camping out on the mountain for long periods, Mead said.

Busher, who provided a lower estimate of $80,000-$100,000, said he is pursuing well-heeled donors in hopes of speeding the process. Park manager Mitch Martin said the state park also was evaluating whether additional funds could be directed to the effort, though he provided few details.

The payoff will be a view from a perspective that's been off-limits to many in the community.

As fog settled over the peak Saturday, several volunteers said they're willing to put in the work to make it happen, should alternative means fall through.

"I've been looking at this mountain for 30 years," Starling said. "I've always wanted to know what's up here."

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