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Outward Bound: Manitou Incline's effects on Barr Trail felt as ideas for relief percolate

September 11, 2017 Updated: September 12, 2017 at 12:42 pm
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Brian VanValkenburg hikes to a lookout along Barr Trail. He and volunteers with Friends of the Peak are tasked with keeping up with the damage to the premier path up Pikes Peak.

Brian VanValkenburg parks at the head of Barr Trail and posts an envelope to his passenger-side window.

"Just in case," he says - just in case someone stops to take a flier from the envelope. "We need you to help us maintain trails on Pikes Peak," the sheets read, followed by a schedule of volunteer days with the nonprofit Friends of the Peak.

One is this Sunday. And it will be here at Barr Trail, the premier footpath to the top of America's Mountain, which on this recent weekend morning feels different to VanValkenburg, the Friends leader.

The usual masses are not here, and that's because the Manitou Incline is closed for repairs. The mountainside stair-stepper isn't feeding the usual traffic to Barr Trail, the connecting return route. And so VanValkenburg and I can hike and stop to talk without fear of a runner crashing into us. Strange indeed.

Also strange: these two logs sitting beside the trailhead. "Incliners" use those, VanValkenburg says. They throw them over their shoulders to increase the pain and gain. This leads him to an important point on how the region's most famous trail is wearing and tearing.

VanValkenburg begins his careful assessment: "I don't want to necessarily label it as a negative thing, but there are far more people who are nonhikers on the trail here because of the Incline. I mistakenly often call them gym rats because it's a funny term, but they're often people who view the Incline as an exercise, not some environmental, beautiful experience.

"They may not be outdoorsy. They may not hike any other trails. They're not bad people; they simply haven't learned trail etiquette because many of them aren't hikers. They're workout people."

He takes me to a hillside, showing the line clear down the center, the slice through the vegetation. Someone or many apparently slid or ran down, shortcutting the switchback just ahead. And now water could freely shoot down to the trail and erode it further, VanValkenburg says.

These "rogue" paths take time from him and other volunteers with rakes and hand tools. "Just selfish," he says. "Destroy the hillside, the trail, to maybe save, what, 40 feet worth of time?"

He talks about water a lot. "Water is the enemy," he says. "Two Vs: volume and velocity. They both cause heavy erosion, right? So the answer to both of those is to get water off the trail."

He shows me "drains" that he and others dug - slope-side channels that have grown in width and depth as more and more water has attacked. Water is getting trapped on the trail, forming puddles and causing the ground to sink over time. So VanValkenburg has seen portions of the trail steepen, increasing that dreaded velocity and making these unsustainable grades.

"This is almost certainly a water problem," he says. "But you can't discount what 3,000 feet a day are adding to the problem."

Incline numbers are uncertain. But advocates point to Barr Trail's degradation as testament to the Incline's popularity - ever on the rise since it entered the public trust in 2013 and the cities of Colorado Springs and Manitou Springs began their widespread promotions.

Just go up Barr Trail to the spur leading to the top of the Incline. Says Paul Mead, Friends of the Peak's trail design specialist: "Once you go past the Incline return route, that intersection, you'll notice the trail changes pretty dramatically in how it looks."

Fred Barr's trail was built from the top of the Incline up. Later, in the 1920s, the U.S. Forest Service used Civilian Conservation Corps workers for this lower portion. They didn't do too shabby, Mead says. Sure, they could've built more dips and rises, he says. But those water-diverting techniques weren't well-known back then.

"It was OK for its use at that time," Mead says.

Times have changed. And now officials are searching for ways to relieve Barr Trail.

They're eying the north side of the Incline - the area to the right of the steps, opposite Barr Trail - to build more "bailouts." The idea is to put one a third of the way up, with another at the halfway point serving as an alternative to the current bailout there.

Colorado Springs parks director Karen Palus says the city could soon start looking to fund those two jobs. "I'd love to see something done in '19," she says.

A future project could be an alternative return route at the top of the Incline. That would require an environmental analysis and easement from the Forest Service. But the city has paid $19,500 for contractor Tapis Associates to look into the possibility.

Tapis found that the trail would likely extend about 5 miles down. Which begs the question: If people cut switchbacks on a return route totaling 2.7 miles, would they bother using one almost double that distance? That is a question the city should seriously consider before pouring resources into the trail build.

If the threats to Barr Trail are truly great, perhaps the answer would be to build the northern bailouts and close the current Incline spurs. But might that cause more time-minded users to go against officials' wishes by making the quick, dangerous descent on the steps?

There are no easy answers here.

Mead has trekked the north-side slopes, and considering the steepness, he says the top return route would have to be longer. That is to ensure sustainability, with switchbacks and the like keeping grades below 10 percent.

"For the running people advocating to make it steeper and faster," Mead says, "well, my response is: Let's not bother building another trail. Instead of having one trail that needs constant maintenance, now we'd have two with constant maintenance."

Friends of the Peak organizes about 30 volunteer days a year across the sites it manages. The one on Sunday for Barr Trail will be pivotal, as are all days set aside for the path. "Right now, with the amount of work going into it, it's not near enough for the amount of wear the trail gets," VanValkenburg says.

We return to his car. He removes the envelope from the passenger-side window, noticing no fliers were taken.

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Contact Seth Boster: 636-0332

Twitter: @SethBoster­­

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