The U.S. Forest Service on Wednesday announced "the next chapter" of Waldo Canyon, the area that outdoors enthusiasts have waited to revisit since it was ravaged by the 2012 wildfire.
The long-beloved trail itself, accessed off U.S. 24, will stay closed as highway officials remain concerned about the parking lot at the trailhead. And while land managers sounded optimistic about the canyon's ecological recovery five years after the historic blaze, they said the trail bears little resemblance to its former state.
"There's sections of it completely scoured from flooding and also sections incised and eroding," said Evan Burks, who is overseeing recreation in a temporary role at the Pikes Peak Ranger District. "What I always bring it back to is the public safety thing. That's what it boiled down to for us. Everybody knew the trailhead on 24 was sort of dangerous pulling in and out of prior to (the Waldo Canyon fire), and our population and use has only increased in the last five years."
The trailhead is particularly dangerous during heavy rainstorms, said Michelle Peulen of the Colorado Department of Transportation. Flooding often washes trees, vegetation and other debris into the area.
"So, you know, that really weighed heavily in this decision to keep it closed for now," Burks said. "But let's start a planning process to figure what's the best way to access Waldo for recreational use."
For now, Burks said, hikers "should be prepared for more of a bushwhacking kind of experience" in the canyon. The Forest Service's new order lifts parking restrictions on sections of Rampart Range Road that stretch from Garden of the Gods, allowing more people to enter the backcountry from the road.
The Forest Service warned of rough terrain and the possibility of flash flooding where there are no designated trails. Camping is prohibited.
By next month, the nonprofit Rocky Mountain Field Institute, a partner of the Pikes Peak Ranger District, expects to request a grant from the state's Non-Motorized Trail Program. "If we're successful at getting that," Burks said, "then we want to have a robust public engagement process."
He said the process could be similar to recent discussions in which the Forest Service and interest groups spent five years plotting the future of recreation in the Bear Creek watershed.
Jennifer Peterson, the director of RMFI, estimated the planning process to end in early 2020. The Forest Service has already committed the funds to match the grant if given to RMFI.
"The planning process will help us determine what is best for the future of the Waldo Canyon Trail," Peterson said. "That includes trailhead locations, public access issues and trail design."
District ranger Oscar Martinez has in the past expressed doubts that the Waldo Canyon trail could be opened again, saying that a new alignment might make more sense because of the changed landscape.
Peterson said RMFI and its partners also are considering ways to connect the trail to the ridge of Blodgett Peak, which Peterson said "would be awesome."
For more information, go to www.fs.usda.gov/psicc and look under "Alerts & Warnings."