Rerouting only paved portion of Continental Divide Trail in Colorado is continued challenge
Up to 1,000 dedicated recreationalists, often solo hikers, pass through Routt County each summer in July and August, yet many people in Steamboat Springs may never realize it.
Lovers of the Continental Divide Trail usually “through hike” across Routt County past Dumont Lake and Rabbit Ears Pass going northbound in July or southbound in August, said Dan Carter, trail and lands conservation program manager for the Continental Divide Trail Coalition. Northbound hikers number an estimated 400, and southbound hikers about 600, Carter said, plus many other people hike or bike sections of the Continental Divide Trail in Routt County.
After at least three years of advocacy work by the coalition, one remaining section of the trail in Colorado continues to follow paved highway. The so-called Muddy Pass Gap in the trail route in Routt and Jackson counties requires traveling along miles of highway.
“It’s always been a priority gap of concern,” Carter said, noting much of the Continental Divide National Scenic Trail follows constructed single-track trail on public land.
The trail near Muddy Pass follows 11 miles of pavement, along U.S. Highway 40 for 2 miles east of Dumont Lake then 9 miles on State Highway 14 until it turns onto Jackson County Road 53 to Indian Creek. That stretch along U.S. 14 from Muddy Pass north toward Walden is a narrow two-lane road flanked by bar ditches.
“It’s not the most pleasant area of trail,” Carter said. “We are in talks with CDOT to get some signage to improve safety in the short term.”
The coalition leads an interjurisdictional working group formed in early 2020 to try to move forward on the Muddy Pass gap reroute. The working group has identified the specific challenges to a preferred reroute off the highways but still needs to secure easement rights from landowners, Carter said. He said the process has been delayed in part due to land ownership changes along U.S. 14, and some landowners have expressed concerns about the reroute such as possible interference with grazing lands and private hunting and recreation interests. Other concerns include possible impact to wildlife for elk calving and grouse habitat.
“We are having conversations with landowners to both address their concerns and to discuss potential routes that would work with their private land access,” Carter said. “It’s a huge privilege for the public to have that access, and we have to be able to be cognizant of the concerns. It would be a huge accomplishment to complete the last remaining piece in Colorado for the National Scenic Trail.”
“We do have challenges with private land and wildlife that just take time to work through,” Carter said. “In this situation, we are really looking at utilization of existing infrastructure such as ranch roads and county roads. If everybody donated easements, it would just be constructing and signing. We expect to have to purchase easements instead.”
Overall, the Continental Divide National Scenic Trail runs 3,100 miles from the Mexican border through the five states of New Mexico, Colorado, Wyoming, Idaho and Montana to end at the Canadian border in Glacier National Park. Muddy Pass represents about halfway on the total trail, and most of the other gaps along pavement are in New Mexico, with smaller ones in Wyoming and Montana, Carter said.
Steamboat Springs was designated a trail “gateway” city in July 2018, one of seven in Colorado, with only Grand Lake sitting on the trail directly. For northbound travelers, the resupply hub in Steamboat is important, as supplies are not available near the trail again until Encampment, Wyoming.
Also in 2018, Steamboat Springs-based outdoor brand Big Agnes adopted 75 miles of the trail as part of its support of the coalition, including a bridge-building work day with the U.S. Forest Service.
Although Steamboat represents “a significant hitch into town,” Carter said, Continental Divide Trail hikers may catch rides from highways 40 or 14, or some hike to Steamboat via the upper Fish Creek Falls Trail.
The nonprofit coalition is celebrating its 10th anniversary this summer, so the organization hosted a variety of programs and community events including locally partnering with environmental education nonprofit Yampatika for a group hike in July.
The coalition also celebrated with the Imbibe the Divide promotion with breweries and distilleries. Storm Peak Brewing Co. in Steamboat created a special brew called Lonely Mouth, a rice lager with chamomile, and is donating $1 per draft or six pack purchased, while they last.
Storm Peak Co-owner Zach Patterson said the beer name is a play on the often-solo hikers who also get lonely for a cold beer. Patterson said he enjoys talking with the Continental Divide Trail hikers, who he says are easy to spot.
“They have all their backpack gear, and they look weathered,” Patterson said.
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