Popular Waldo Canyon Trail, victim of flood danger, to remain closed

March 17, 2014 Updated: March 17, 2014 at 12:45 pm
photo - The Waldo Canyon trailhead remains closed Thursday, March 13, 2014, nearly two years since the Waldo Canyon Fire closed the popular trail for hikers, runners and mountain bikers. (The Gazette, Christian Murdock)
The Waldo Canyon trailhead remains closed Thursday, March 13, 2014, nearly two years since the Waldo Canyon Fire closed the popular trail for hikers, runners and mountain bikers. (The Gazette, Christian Murdock) 

Waiting for the Waldo Canyon Trail to reopen? It won't any time soon.

Almost two years after the Waldo Canyon fire closed the beloved trail in the mountains west of Colorado Springs, the U.S. Forest Service has no plans to reopen it, saying the potential of flash floods in the area is too great.

"It's just too dangerous," said Pike National Forest spokesman Frank Landis. "We know it's popular, but one afternoon thunderstorm there and we would have no way to evacuate all those people."

He said the trail, which attracted 500 hikers per day at peak times, will not open this year, and it likely will be many years more before the threat of floods abates.

But with Colorado dry and sunny most of the year, not everyone is happy that there is no plan to reopen the trail.

"It's one of the things we hear about from our members more than anything," said Susan Davies, director of the Trails and Open Space Coalition.

The 7-mile trail in Rampart Range was one of the most popular in the region. The hills the trail passes through were the starting point of the 18,247-acre Waldo Canyon fire, which burned 347 homes in the Mountain Shadows area of Colorado Springs and killed two people. Two weeks of burning in Waldo Canyon and other nearby areas left century-old trees blackened and steep slopes scorched bare of vegetation that could absorb rain. Landis described the upper reaches of the loop as "a moonscape." The trail has been closed since the start of the fire.

Soon after the fire, summer rainstorms brought flash floods that washed tons of rock and gravel onto U.S. 24 and swept away cars and caused the death of one man. Authorities closed the highway several times last summer when storm clouds threatened.

The parking lot for Waldo Canyon Trail, which sits along U.S. 24 and accommodates about 50 cars, is right at a funnel point where the runoff from tens of thousands of acres of the Fountain Creek watershed concentrates in a steep canyon less than 150 feet wide.

"It's in the flood zone where it could cause a lot of problems," Landis said. "CDOT (Colorado Department of Transportation) and state patrol have both requested we keep it closed."

The Forest Service has contracted for revegetation and erosion control work, but Landis said it would likely be years before the risk subsides enough to reopen the trail.

That doesn't sit well with Davies. While she said she agrees there is a serious flood risk, she said the Forest Service has failed to look at options that could reopen the trail while minimizing the danger.

The Forest Service could consider a seasonal closure during the few months of flood risk, or allow people to access the area only by foot or bike. Several local trails connect to Waldo Canyon, which means hikers wouldn't have to drive to the trailhead.

Of concern, Davies said, is that the Forest Service has done a poor job informing the public and involving users in decisions.

"We know this takes time," she said. "But with such a very popular trail, it would serve the public to have a meeting and explain these challenges and look for ways forward."

Landis said discussion of opening the trail could occur, but not until after this summer.


Follow Dave Philipps on Twitter: @David_Philipps

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