This story first appeared in The Outsider, the premium outdoor newsletter by Jason Blevins.
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Great Outdoors Colorado has distributed close to $30 million for regional trails across the state in the three years since former Gov. John Hickenlooper announced Colorado the Beautiful, his plan to connect every state resident with a park or trail.
GOCO’s “Connect Initiative” grants — mostly lottery proceeds distributed through Colorado Parks and Wildlife — have helped communities plan, carve, pave and link trails across the state and the trail party seems to be continuing under Gov. Jared Polis.
Last fall the Colorado Parks and Wildlife Commission distributed 11 Colorado the Beautiful grants totaling $4.75 million, with $4 million coming from GOCO and $750,000 from the federal Land and Water Conservation Fund. Five of the grants went toward Hickenlooper’s “16 for 2016” high-priority trails. Another $3 million is slated for trail grants this summer.
Polis wants the Department of Natural Resources to expand public access for recreation, hunting and fishing on public lands as well as provide more opportunities on public lands to a wider range of Coloradans.
“Completing existing projects and working with stakeholders on future trail and access projects are a key component of this new priority,” said department spokesman Chris Arend.
Another goal for the department is to develop sustainable funding sources for Colorado Parks and Wildlife, which supports itself largely through park passes, camping permits and hunting and fishing license fees.
Last year Colorado lawmakers gave the wildlife commission the ability to raise those fees, which allows the agency to catch up on deferred maintenance and budget cuts after years of declining revenues.
But the fee increase alone is not enough. In December, the agency released the Colorado Parks and Wildlife Future Funding Study, which analyzed a host of possible strategies for increasing revenues. Those included a general sales tax, a sales or excise tax on outdoor gear, vehicle registration fees and fees for mountain bikes and non-motorized boats like kayaks.
Colorado Parks and Wildlife will soon start asking the public to vet these ideas at meetings across the state, with the goal of bolstering the agency’s relevance beyond its longtime supporters in the hunting and fishing community. That could involve enlisting the financial support of hikers and bicyclists who use all these new trails.
GOCO, which was established by a voter-approved constitutional amendment in 1992, is generally immune to shifting political winds. The lottery funded agency also is driven by the priorities of communities that apply for grant support and raise matching funds.
And the priorities have been pretty consistent over the years, GOCO executive director Chris Castillian said. “Trails are a huge priority for a lot of our rural communities, not only as connectors but as economic engines.”
The role of trails differs across Colorado’s rural communities. For pioneering trail towns like Fruita, it’s time for trails to spin from town to the vast singletrack networks that have made the town a mountain biking destination.
For Montrose, it’s time to connect trails and parks along the city’s Uncompahgre River to its recreation center and different neighborhoods. For newcomers like Del Norte, it’s time to assemble a loose collection of singletrack on public lands around town into a cohesive system of trails that could entice pedaling visitors to come spend a few days.
“For towns that have been reliant on a boom-bust natural resource economy, having a more consistent and stable revenue opportunity through outdoor recreation can be transformative,” Castilian said. “This isn’t just about tourism, but economic development. And a lot of it starts with a trail.”
Here’s an update on the Colorado the Beautiful plan’s 16 high-priority trails:
- The Colorado Front Range Trail is a 1,000-mile path running along the Front Range between Wyoming and New Mexico, linking with dozens of east-west trails. About half the trail is completed, with more than 90 percent finished between Golden and the northern border of Pueblo County. The recent completion of the two-mile East Plum Creek Trail spinning from downtown Castle Rock into Douglas County open space marks the latest progress on the trail. Planning and design are underway for the trail connecting Golden to Boulder as well as for the Wildcat Trail near Milliken. Trail planners in Fort Collins and Castle Rock are seeking funds for the Poudre River Trail and the Plum Creek trail.
- The 47-mile Lower Valley Trail will connect Glenwood Springs with the Colorado River Valley’s New Castle, Silt, Rifle and Parachute. The LoVa Trail received $500,000 from Colorado Park and Wildlife’s “Colorado the Beautiful” non-motorized trail grant program in late 2018 to build 1.65 miles of new trail, a bridge and underpass this year. LoVa supporters plan to apply for a Federal Lands Access Program grant to add another nine miles of trail along the Colorado River.
- The Rocky Mountain Greenway will connect the Rocky Mountain National Wildlife Refuge, the Two Ponds National Wildlife Refuge and Rocky Flats National Wildlife Refuge with Rocky Mountain National Park, creating about 80 miles of trail winding through 10 cities, six counties and four federal parcels. The Rocky Mountain Greenway is growing west and north from the Rocky Mountain Arsenal. Jefferson County is analyzing soil for dangerous remnants of Rocky Flats’ weapon-making history right now, with hopes of opening the Rocky Mountain Greenway and the Colorado Front Range trail through the refuge.
- The Colorado Riverfront Trail will stretch more than 60 miles from Palisade through Grand Junction and Fruita before ending at the Kokopelli Trailhead outside Loma. The span connecting the Fruita Visitor Center with Loma and the Kokopelli Trails was finished last year with GOCO’s first round of Connect Initiative funding. In the past 25 years, Grand Valley communities have completed about 27 miles of continuous trail along the Colorado River.
- Ring the Peak is a natural surface trail system first envisioned in 1999 to circle Pikes Peak. Trail planners are finishing a GOCO-supported feasibility study to close an eight-mile gap near Cripple Creek and Victor, with private supporters promising to help build the trail. About 80 percent of the planned 63-mile Ring the Peak Trail is completed.
- The 65-mile Peaks to Plains Trail will run east-west between the South Platte Greenway north of Denver and the Continental Divide at Loveland Pass. The first section of the trail opened in Clear Creek Canyon in 2016, using a $4.6 million GOCO grant awarded in 2012. Jefferson and Clear Creek counties will start construction on new segments of the trail this year. Last year, the Denver Regional Council of Governments approved $9.75 million in funding for Jefferson County Open Space’s three-mile, $29.9 million East Clear Creek Canyon section of the trail, which includes two parking lots, three bridges over Clear Creek and an underpass beneath U.S. 6. About 60 percent of the Peaks to Plains trail is completed.
- The High Line Canal begins at the mouth of Douglas County’s Waterton Canyon in Douglas and winds 71 miles along the waterway northeast through Aurora to Denver’s Green Valley Ranch. A $750,000 GOCO grant to Aurora helped the city in 2017 close a three-mile gap between the High Line Canal, Sand Creek and Triple Creek trails, connecting the trail with several parks and communities. The High Line Canal Conservancy is nearing completion of a multi-year planning process, with a five- to 10-year plan for enhancements, landscaping, connectivity and opportunities along the route.
- The Fremont Pass Trail follows Colorado 91 for 21 miles, connecting Summit County’s recreation path at Copper Mountain with the Mineral Belt Trail in Leadville. Summit County last year secured a $600,000 Colorado the Beautiful grant to help build a 3.3-mile stretch, including a 460-foot boardwalk through a wetlands and a 260-foot bridge across Colorado 91 in Ten Mile Canyon. Construction of the highly anticipated project has been delayed to 2020, though, after historic avalanches ripped out power lines that Xcel Energy plans to bury along the path.
- The Alpine Loop Backcountry Byway is a 65-mile natural-surface trail popular with four-wheel drivers and off-highway vehicle (or OHV) users between Silverton and Ouray. Last year the Colorado Department of Transportation and the Colorado State Patrol agreed to allow a pilot program that will study OHV use on a 1.5-mile, paved stretch of Colorado 149 outside Lake City. Hinsdale County and its sheriff, as well as Lake City, need to approve the pilot program.
- The 74-mile Crested Butte to Carbondale Trail was envisioned in 2004 as a both paved and natural-surface trail traversing McClure and Kebler passes, connecting Carbondale and Redstone in the Crystal River Valley with Crested Butte. The plan has stirred opposition among residents on the Crystal River, with passions flaring at many Pitkin County public meetings. Pitkin County Commissioners last year approved seven miles of the trail from Redstone to the summit of McClure Pass and agreed to more study for the remaining sections running along the Crystal.
- When complete, the 63-mile, paved Eagle Valley Trail will run the length of the Eagle River between Minturn and Dotsero. Last summer, after three years of negotiations with Union Pacific concerning trail use in the railroad right-of-way, Eagle County opened an eight-mile stretch of the trail between Eagle and the Horn Ranch Open Space, using $4.8 million from the county, $200,000 from the town and $2 million from GOCO’s first round of Connect Initiative grants. When the final eight miles of the Eagle Valley Trail are completed, there will be more than 193 miles of continuous paved trails connecting Summit, Eagle, Garfield and Pitkin counties.
- The 32-mile Palisade Plunge will drop 6,000 feet from the top of the Grand Mesa down to the Colorado River and Palisade, creating a single-track, backcountry trail that will likely become a bucket-list destination for mountain bikers. Last year the Colorado Plateau Mountain Bike Trail Association’s Palisade Plunge project received a $572,000 grant from Colorado Parks and Wildlife to build the first 18 miles of the trail, including a new loop next to the Palisade Rim Trail.
- The 16-mile Paths to Mesa Verde project would link Four Corners communities, schools and trails with Mesa Verde National Park. Montezuma County plans to soon apply for funding to build a seven-mile section of the trail between Mancos and Mesa Verde National Park.
- The North Elk Creek Trail links trails in Staunton State Park with the Cub Creek Trail and Mount Evans Wilderness in the Pike National Forest. The 4.2-mile trail was the first of Hickenlooper’s 16 high-priority trails to be completed.
- The 1.5-mile Eldo-Walker Trail would connect non-motorized trails in Eldorado Canyon State Park with Boulder County’s Walker Ranch trails. Colorado Parks and Wildlife has tabled planning on the trail while the agency conducts a Visitor Use Management Plan for the state park, which has seen visitation surge from 260,000 in 2016 to more than 520,000 in 2018.
- The 64-mile Arkansas River Stage & Rail Trail would follow historic railways and stagecoach roads connecting Salida, Buena Vista and Leadville. Colorado Parks and Wildlife last year awarded Chaffee County a $573,000 Colorado the Beautiful grant for recreation projects, including the construction of trails on Salida’s Methodist Mountain and a 1.9-mile stretch of the proposed Stage & Rail Trail along County Road 313 between Buena Vista and Johnson Village.
This article was reported and written in partnership with Aspen Journalism.