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What exactly is the Front Range Trail? You may already be riding on it.

Every year, Colorado’s indefatigable trail builders chip away at complex new sections of a connector they imagine stretching from Wyoming to New Mexico. Next up: Castle Rock and the Cache la Poudre.

Construction is underway to raise I-25 over the Poudre River in Fort Collins on Friday, July 3, 2021. Lifting the highway will make it possible to build a trail as part of the Front Range Trail project which will run from Wyoming to New Mexico.
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For decades now, Colorado’s premier trail builders have nurtured the dream of a Front Range Trail, piecing together existing routes and new construction to complete an 876-mile continuous path from Wyoming to New Mexico, connecting 5 million people. 

Here’s why that sentence requires the word “decades.” To complete one 5-mile set of Front Range Trail connectors in Castle Rock, the following entities must sign off: 

Town of Castle Rock. Douglas County Open Space. The Federal Emergency Management Administration. U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service. Colorado Department of Transportation. Xcel Energy. Public Utilities Commission. U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. The Federal Railroad Administration. Private railroads. Douglas County Planning Commission. Multiple private landowners. Colorado Parks and Wildlife. Oh, and the Colorado Historical Society. 

“There’s lots of pieces and parts to this, getting a trail built,” said Rich Havel, trails planner for Castle Rock’s Parks and Recreation Department. “It’s not just going out there and scratching a line in the dirt.” 

Trail fans could give up, but instead they persist. 

TODAY’S UNDERWRITER

Castle Rock will complete the portion of the Front Range Trail that runs through the city next spring, as machines hit the ground for routes along Plum Creek and toward Greenland Ranch. Connections that link together longer distances, away from increasingly dangerous highways, are more important than ever, said Matt Rettmer, president of the 6202 Bicycle Club and a 24-year Castle Rock resident who has helped lead fitness rides through wave after wave of traffic growth.

“People are just afraid of riding on the roads,” Rettmer said. “The big push has been toward gravel.” New pieces of the Front Range Trail, he added, “are a hands-down awesome addition to riding.” Or hiking, walking or rolling, the cycling clubs add — depending on who’s in charge and what the terrain is, portions of the Front Range Trail may be gravel, dirt or concrete. 

A map of Castle Rock’s Front Range Trail connections that the city made as part of a GOCO grant. Click the map image for a higher resolution map. (Handout)

Larimer County and Fort Collins will also break ground next year on new Colorado Front Range Trail connectors, including a tricky stretch underneath Interstate 25 at the Cache la Poudre River. CDOT crews are currently boosting an I-25 bridge 8-feet higher, above flood-vulnerable wetlands. Don’t ask how many agencies are involved in that one.

When those sections are done, trail builders will be somewhat closer to 300 finished miles of the nearly 900-mile plan, first conceived in the mid-1990s — though no one has a precise calculation. The state Parks and Wildlife Division keeps a homepage for the Colorado Front Range Trail, but treats it like a distant relative to be checked in on only once in a long while. Building each new segment is not up to the state, state officials emphasize, but to local towns and counties on the Front Range. 

Havel and other builders remain enthusiastic, though a complete “FRT” is not likely during their working lives. When Castle Rock is done next year, Havel said, walkers and bikers should be able to roll continuously from Fountain to Brighton, with dozens of miles of shared or spur trails leading toward attractive sites like Castlewood Canyon State Park, the Santa Fe Regional Trail through the Air Force Academy, or Pueblo Reservoir.

Backing construction along the Front Range Trail gives Great Outdoors Colorado a two-fer, said Chris Yuan-Farrell, the lottery-funded organization’s manager of programs. Western residents can benefit from both a “physical and metaphorical” connection of Wyoming, Colorado and New Mexico, he said.

Or, he added, “maybe they’re only going four or five miles on a mountain bike and that’s great. We just want to inspire people to get outdoors to use trails in their backyards, and sometimes  connections give them a feeling they are part of a larger vision.”

GOCO is putting up $2 million of the $5 million Castle Rock will spend next year on the final three segments of connecting trail, with the rest coming from town funds, Havel said. Since 2016 GOCO has spent more than $30 million on regional trails across the state, part of the organization’s Connect Initiative. The Front Range Trail was among 16 high-priority trails identified for investment by then Gov. John Hickenlooper’s “Colorado The Beautiful” plan to connect every Colorado resident with a trail.

On the south, a new trail along East Plum Creek will get the main Front Range Trail connected to the Greenland area and beyond. On the northeast, two new sections of the McMurdo Gulch Trail will complete Castle Rock’s section of a long spur that heads toward Castlewood Canyon.

“Castle Rock is a great example where they had a lot of potential stumbling blocks and they were able to overcome them,” Yuan-Farrell said.

Colorado has an energetic and broad bicycling culture, Rettmer said, but not yet the strong political voice for long-haul path funding that can complete trail sections quickly. Members of 6020 frequently write support letters for grant funding for more Front Range Trail segments, and periodic progress helps keep members enthused, he said.

It may be a “chipping away at it” approach, Rettmer said, “but it’s key to get more people to see the benefit.”

Rettmer and Front Range Trail funders want to see the next push move the trail from Colorado Springs toward Pueblo, currently home to a lot of gnarly highway-shoulder riding. Long negotiations for the needed easements are still underway.

For bicycle clubs trying to appeal to a wide array of new arrivals to Colorado and seasoned, traffic-savvy peloton veterans, the spine-and-spur design of the Front Range Trail allows for people to split off to the 50-mile or 25-mile loops that suit their legs, Rettmer said.

“You can do super-creative rides.”


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