Across the San Juan Mountains, the barrage of avalanches this past winter has caused damage to popular recreational trails, prompting an extensive effort forest-wide to start the cleanup.
The highly traveled Colorado Trail, which takes hikers from Denver to Durango, or vice-versa, may not be accessible this year because of all the avalanche destruction, as well as the lingering snowpack in the high country.
“People who want to go down the Colorado Trail may have to put off their trip until next year,” said Jed Botsford, recreation staff officer for the U.S. Forest Service.
The problem extends throughout the San Juan National Forest.
On the Ice Lakes Trail, an avalanche this winter brought down a volley of trees, covering 20 to 30 feet of the trail in five different places. Some trees were 200 to 300 years old, said David Taft, conservation director for the San Juan Mountains Association.
“They were big trees,” he said. “It’s pretty wild.”
On the Elk Creek Trail, one of the most heavily used trails in the Weminuche Wilderness, three avalanches – each about 60-feet wide and 30-feet deep – have the Forest Service considering its last resort to clear the route: blasting.
“We haven’t used blasting on the San Juan National Forest for a while,” Botsford said. “But it’s definitely a possibility.”
And Forest Service staff this week will travel to the Needle Creek Trail, also in the Weminuche Wilderness, to confirm reports that avalanches have buried the popular route to Chicago Basin.
“We need to determine how gigantic it is, and what it will take to clear it,” Botsford said.
In assessing a strategy for clearing and repairing trails, the Forest Service first prioritizes the trails by popularity and use and plans trail clearing with its available workforce. Botsford said the San Juan National Forest has a trail crew of six people this year, but the agency does have the ability to contract work out.
And, the Forest Service can lean on volunteer crews, when it’s safe.
At the Ice Lakes Trail, for instance, volunteers with the San Juan Mountains Association, joined by people who planned to run the Hardrock 100 (which was canceled because of lingering snow in the high country and damage to trails) started moving trees last weekend.
Taft said there was an extra layer of work, too: fixing about 150 yards of trails created by people going around the avalanche path.
“People were just blazing new trails for the most part, because once a new trail has been cut, people just flock on it,” he said. “So the main thing is making it cluttered up enough that people don’t want to use it.”
Volunteer crews need about a day or two more to get the Ice Lakes Trail back in order, Taft said. Then, the San Juan Mountains Association will consult the Forest Service about where next to start work.
“It’s a never-ending battle,” Taft said.
In more complex and dangerous trail-work situations, Botsford said Forest Service staff will take on the load. But if there’s still too much of a risk, the Forest Service can use blasting. Explosives can be used in wilderness areas where chain saws and other mechanized equipment are prohibited.
Botsford said the trail work required in Elk Creek would take too long and be too dangerous for crews. As a result, blasting is likely to occur there later in the summer, probably around September.
“It’s a calculated risk,” he said. “If we put someone in there with crosscut saws, that exposes employees to more time in the danger zone. If that’s going to take too long, we can determine to go ahead and just blast.”
In the meantime, people will still recreate on public lands. But that does pose an increased risk to public safety, said Ron Corkish, president of La Plata County Search and Rescue.
People trying to cross areas covered in avalanche debris are more susceptible to falling and possibly breaking a leg or ankle, Corkish said. And, if people are cutting their own trails, it may be hard to find those in need of help.
Also a major challenge, Corkish said, is that avalanches change the landscape, causing search and rescue crews to figure out new landing zones and best routes to reach people.
And, response times can be delayed if the terrain is harder to travel through.
“If people hurt themselves,” Corkish said, “it could take us longer to get to them.”