Around one corner of Gold Camp Road, a stream-fed meadow appears, and around another corner, rocks like cathedrals soar, and around another, Pikes Peak’s imposing backside emerges. And around yet another, Kurt Trujillo waves behind a gate.
The ranger welcomes permit-holding drivers to the South Slope Recreation Area.
On this morning, Trujillo knows almost all of the 12 permit holders. Regulars account for most of the visitors here — anglers who have silent, emerald waters to themselves in a pristine valley nestled near 11,000 feet, framed by granite-crowned mountains home to bighorn sheep.
“It is a jewel,” says John Maynard, pulling a shiny trout looking at least 15 inches. It’s his fifth catch in maybe 20 minutes.
Yes, the fish are as big and as quick-to-bite as they were five years ago, when this long-cherished chain of lakes opened to the public. And yes, fishing is still the main attraction.
Around the time the Colorado Springs parks department went about building a parking lot, picnic pavilion and bathroom, volunteers bent their backs to build the multi-use trail meandering 4 ½ miles through the forest to the uppermost Boehmer Reservoir.
But no one is on the trail this day. Hardly anyone ever is, Trujillo says. “Which is unfortunate.”
Just four fishermen are in his patrolling gaze now.
Such has been the scene in South Slope’s five summers.
Upon Colorado Springs Utilities agreeing to grant entry after a 100-year wait and decades of negotiations, people flocked. In 2014, they snagged 91% of the 20 permits available per vehicle each Thursday through Sunday. Every season since, that percentage has hovered around 40.
Also since then, permits have gone up from $15 to $20. And the number of days open has been cut to three, a move made recently as city parks weighs the cost of management amid low demand.
While those costs continue to funnel from parks’ general fund — about $13,500 is budgeted — the department has shifted South Slope ranger duties to Pikes Peak America’s Mountain, the city enterprise that would like to see expenses offset by permit revenue.
“It’s not a break-even operation right now,” says Jack Glavan, the enterprise’s manager.
Which has him wondering about other strategies. He isn’t about to propose cutting another day, he says. The loss of one is concerning enough to advocates, including Susan Davies.
“I can certainly sympathize,” says the executive director of the Trails and Open Space Coalition, mentioning a parks budget that hasn’t been the same since the recession. “Parks is so strapped, they really can’t be putting money into things that aren’t benefiting the public or aren’t being used. But I would just love to see if there wasn’t a different, better way to encourage more use.”
Friends of the Peak President Steve Bremner’s idea? “Tear down the gate.”
He and Davies have been among those long countering Utilities’ long-expressed concerns of overcrowding and water contamination in South Slope. With the remoteness and red tape of permitting, advocates predicted visitation would be low.
Five years later, the data prove them right. And five years later, restrictions remain the same, if not greater, amid parks’ budget balancing act.
Now Mary Burger looks on in fear of losing the access she pushed for since helping start Friends of the Peak in the 1990s. She was with those crews building trail.
“The reality is, we can’t generate enough money to pay for this ridiculous security, so the idea will be to close it down because we can’t afford the security,” she says. “Bull----. We don’t need the security.”
If Utilities insists on surveillance, some see a solution in South Slope’s resident caretaker. While monitoring the reservoirs from his house, could he also keep an eye on visitors?
“There’s been conversations about that,” Glavan says. “What the utilities department has said is, they really don’t want to be on the recreational side of the business.”
A Utilities spokesman made that point clear in an email while declining an interview for this story. “[W]e’ve worked really hard to differentiate our role as a utility vs. a recreational management entity,” he wrote.
Outdoor enthusiasts have gotten a historic explanation: Utilities is committed to water quality and low rates, and committing to recreation would threaten both.
That rhetoric changed around Denver Water nearly three decades ago with the creation of a recreation-focused division. Brandon Ransom heads a full-time staff of six overseeing play areas such as Waterton Canyon and Dillon, Cheesman and Antero reservoirs.
“Our main priority is to get water to our users, that obviously is our priority 1A,” Ransom says. “But if we can weave recreation into some sites and offer people a good experience enjoying the natural resources we’re so lucky to have, then we certainly try to accomplish that.”
Utilities’ stated reluctance with South Slope had largely to do with the area’s remoteness (Colorado Springs drivers travel 1 ½ hours and lose cell service on the final stretch). Officials said the likelihood of slow emergency responses would make South Slope different from other Utilities lands where people recreate. And they said traffic on the rugged Gold Camp Road also could prove problematic.
To advocates, the numbers prove otherwise. Lift the permit system and the gate, and Bremner guesses numbers would double — still at a rate that he says wouldn’t be overcrowding. “I can’t imagine more than 20 or 30 people a day at the most.”
To Trujillo, the point is “moot.”
“If people are wanting access, they can have it,” the ranger says — plenty of permits available. To him, there’s a simple explanation for the unclaimed reservations: “I just don’t think people know this is here.”
If they did, surely they’d come for the solitude he finds on his patrol. Along the empty trail, he makes his way through rock gardens, up to a point where a waterfall sparkles between rugged, subalpine realms. Wildflowers pop here, a marmot scampers there, and then over the lake, a bald eagle glides.
“That’s one of the great things about working here,” Trujillo says. “You never know what’s around the corner.”