This story first appeared in The Outsider, the premium outdoor newsletter by Jason Blevins.
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The Arapaho and Roosevelt National Forests has closed one of the state’s first downhill mountain bike trails, citing conflicts with private landowners who have felled trees across the trail south of Idaho Springs.
Arapaho and Roosevelt National Forests supervisor Monte Williams last week signed an order closing the Warren Gulch Trail until the track can be rerouted around private property. The trail, which starts near the Echo Mountain ski area and descends more than 5 miles to a neighborhood near Idaho Springs, is commonly ridden by downhill mountain bikers who shuttle their bikes to the top.
The trail has been used since the 1930s and passes through 4.3 miles of Forest Service land before traversing several private mining claims, some with homes.
“Things really started getting heated last year,” said Santiago Garcia III, a former professional downhill mountain biker who owns the Culture of Speed bike shop in Idaho Springs. “I rode that trail once last year, but there were a lot of trees across the trail. I was, like, ‘Man, what a hassle,’ and I stopped riding there.”
Since the trail has been used for at least 90 years, there could be an argument for a prescriptive easement, which, under Colorado law, allows for a public right-of-way across private land if there has been continuous and obvious public access for a certain number of years.
But that would require a city, county or group to file a claim, which would probably be challenged and take time.
The Forest Service is planning to study a potential reroute — making sure the new trail doesn’t have any archaeological, ecological or wildlife issues — and recruit volunteers to help build a new alignment. If all goes well, the trail could reopen in fall of 2020, said Arapaho National Forest spokeswoman Reid Armstrong.
“The first way we are looking to go with this is just to find another way around. This is a historic trail, and we want to keep it open and we want to continue to provide that access, maybe not on the same alignment,” Armstrong said. “This is the path of least resistance. If we can reroute, that would get the trail open in the shortest amount of time.”
There are many felled trees across the bottom portion of the trail. The Forest Service would typically go in and remove the trees. But the lower portion of the trail is on private land and the agency does not have easements from all of the owners that would allow access to clear the trail, and at least one of them is not interested in entering an agreement, Armstrong said.
The agency could hang a sign telling mountain bikers to turn around and go back up the trail. But that’s not likely to happen.
The Warren Gulch trail was one of the first trails where downhill mountain bikers flocked. Using trucks, they shuttle their bikes a short trip up to Echo Mountain ski area and ride down the steep, technical trail. Not many riders pedal up the trail, which is steep and rocky, with erosion from years of speeding, knobby tires making uphill travel almost impossible.
The descent — dropping more than 3,200 vertical feet — takes 15 minutes for high-speed experts and about 30 minutes for normal riders. For a 10-mile shuttle, that’s a lot of bang for the buck in the downhill mountain-biking world. (A World Cup downhill course is typically finished in under 4 minutes.)
Warren Gulch’s easy shuttle and lengthy descent have drawn downhill-oriented riders from across the Front Range for years, Garcia said. And issues between mountain bikers and landowners along the trail have flared for many of those years.
The armor-clad, full-face-helmeted riders already flock to Clear Creek County, a downhiller’s paradise where many shuttle-friendly pirate trails feature massive jumps and drops built on the down-low by riders from all over, Garcia said.
“Users are coming from Lyons and Breckenridge and Fort Collins, and they are coming up here and they are changing existing trails and putting in big jump features and stuff that wasn’t normally there,” said Garcia, who credits Warren Gulch as his training ground when he raced on the national downhill circuit. “Now, I’ve got daughters, 8 and 10, and they are almost to the point where I could feel comfortable taking them down Warren Gulch. It really used to be a gem. But with the advent of GPS and GoPro and YouTube and Strava, a lot of these secret gems have become very well known. And this is what happens.”