The irony of all of itRocky Mountain National Park is the one of the busiest national park in the nation, usually breaking the top 10, but it is a bit of an anomaly if you ask me. Behind GSMNP and Yosemite, surrounded by substantial population centers, and Yellowstone, Grand Canyon and Olympic, destinations for their natural wonders, Rocky Mountain is really pretty single-faceted and unrecognized. Other than driving through it and stopping in Estes or Grand Lake, it isn’t the most spectacular place for the lazy vacationer. This, unlike most other national parks, is based almost entirely on its trail system. RMNP boasts its vast trail system, 355 miles worth of broad, well maintained paths that take you to or within a few miles of your destination. I would agree that this was true for about 90% of the trails, but there are some glaring exceptions that reveal some of their policy about maintaining trails.
Most trails in the national park are built to last, well marked, hewn into stone, and free of downed timber. Coincidentally (or is it?), these are the trails that are well traveled, hosting lines of tourists in the summertime. These are the trails that lead to the picture ops, to pretty lakes, over Flattop; these are the trails that make their money. Economically, it would be foolish for them to let these trails be reclaimed by the forest and fall into disarray. People like to drive over Trail Ridge, but they also like to hike to Emerald Lake and Calypso Cascades. If they were to stop maintaining the trails, people would not hike them, and there would be no reason to visit for more than a day if even to visit at all. Trail Ridge Road isn’t going to consistently bring in 3 million people a year.
What has come to be of the trail systemThere are many ways to hike across the park, but the three most frequented are Mummy Pass, Flattop Mountain, and Boulder-Grand Pass. Flattop Mountain is probably the second most popular ‘real’ hike in the park behind Long’s Peak, and is probably climbed by a hundred people a day in the tourist season; Mummy and Boulder-Grand Pass are probably crossed by less than 5 people a day. Mummy Pass is crossed by what appears on the map to be an established horse trail, but is in fact a small, indistinct, broken, grown over and narrow path no larger or better maintained than the wildlife trails that cross over it. It leads through meadow, marsh and mire, it is braided, and in many places, just trampled grass. It looks as if it hasn’t been maintained for ten years. Twice I have tried to intersect it near Mummy Pass, which isn’t quite obvious itself, just to either walk right across it, or find myself scouting it out to no avail. The Trails Illustrated map for the park lists coordinates for the pass itself, which I entered into my GPS and found. There was nothing there, no trail, nothing that really resembled a pass. My GPS was accurate in both elevation and triangulation that day, there was just no pass and no trail. I would eventually find the small trail a few minutes later, and resolved that I should warn people about the Mummy Pass Trail.
It seems that more often people have been getting lost or injured in the national park as of late, but attendance hasn’t made a sharp increase over the last few years. I hypothesize that people are following the trails shown on the map, the ones that are unmaintained or unimproved, thinking that they are still relatively easy to follow or well marked. Sometimes this is true for most of the trail, but there are places where it becomes indistinct and even the best of us have to backtrack our way on to the trail again. After climbing Castle Rock and coming down the unimproved trail to Spruce Lake, I heard some voices in the woods talking about ‘re-finding the trail’. I called to them and got them back on the right path, but it’s easy to go wrong on a few sections of that trail. I know exactly where they got off, too; right where I found myself when I wasn’t paying close attention to where I was going.
While on my 60 mile long backpacking trip this summer, I planned our route south through Long Meadows, which I knew was cross-country travel. On just about every map of the park, the trails to Long Meadows were shown leading to the edge of the opening and petering off after a while. From the north an unmaintained trail connects the north edge of the meadow with the Timber Lake Trail. This trail was not in very good shape, numerous large trees had fallen across it making travel a little less straightforward, but I had expected this from the beginning, and at least it was easy to follow where the trees weren’t blocking you. We expected to head south about a mile and a half to the southern end of the meadow, cross the creek and connect with the other trail that leads to Onahu Bridge. All the maps, including the crappy little maps they hand you at the entrance stations, clearly show the trail west of the creek. Every single one. We crossed the creek and connected to what seemed to be a well worn path, for a little while anyways, until it became apparent that it was not the trail we were looking for.
About midway through Long Meadows we heard a helicopter in the distance, after a minute or so; a SAR helicopter flew directly overhead, heading north and flying low. A few minutes later, a different helicopter crossed us overhead, heading south towards Grand Lake. We concluded that they were looking for someone somewhere north of us. Ironically, about two hours later we were the ones who were lost. The trail we were following was taking up the wrong direction and up in elevation, and we were left without a clear heading as to where the Onahu Bridge was. I claim that I will never get lost in RMNP, I’m just too familiar with my surroundings and know how to get out if need be, but it was frustrating none the less. That day we were supposed to hike ten miles to Grand Lake, but we expected to be on a trail by now. To make a long story short, we climbed down to the creek and found a human trail to follow, which took us to where there was evidence of a washed out bridge and a fisherman who worked for the park. He told us about how terrible the trail was coming out of Long Meadows and told us about a trail he had rediscovered in the area by looking at an old topo map of the area circa 1961. On the other side of the creek was a pretty good trail that took us to the Onahu Bridge a quarter mile down stream. Upon review, I did find a map that showed the trail on the east side of the creek in Lisa Foster’s book, but that was the only one. Had the NPS put a little sign at the bottom of the meadow, it could have all been avoided.
An unclear future for our trailsThe fact is, that map made in 1961 shows a lot of other trails, ones that I haven’t found description of elsewhere. It shows a trail that takes you miles up Columbine Creek, one that connects Signal Mountain with the Stormy Peaks Pass trail, one that could have been useful for firefighters battling the ‘Cow Creek Fire’ this summer, the Husted Trail. The map shows trails that have faded back into history in just about every area of the park, back when the trail system was in a golden age. At some point, someone decided that these trails didn’t need to be maintained anymore, and so abandoned them. With that in mind, it’s easy to make the assumption that the NP will continue to let trails fall into disuse and abandonment. I’m afraid this is what’s on the horizon for our unmaintained trails, for the Mummy Pass and Long Meadows and Spruce Lake trails.
It is a fine line that the NPS is walking with Rocky Mountain. While the park tries to balance the ‘character of the wilderness’ on one hand, it is loosing grasp with the importance of the trail system with the other. Rocky Mountain isn’t the best park to see through a car window, so it can’t fall back on that to keep attendance up. Most people come to RMNP to enjoy the wilderness AND take a nice hike, and should word get out that this park is more inclined to build picnic tables and resurface Trail Ridge every summer than maintain their trails, attendance will drop. Some locals might say that that would be wonderful, but with less revenue coming in from tourism, the worse and worse the trails will get. The trails are our primary resource, and right now we are under allocating that commodity.
There are two types of people who can save these trails, the people building picnic tables, and the people who actually use the trails. Right now, the park management is making a huge effort into working on the trails, but every hiker can do something little to help out. The unimproved trail past Lake Verna was littered with downed timber, trees that could be easily tossed to the side, rocks that could be kicked out of the way, and grass that could be trampled. We did all of these things in the interest of making it easier the next morning to travel over, but you don’t have to just avoid the trees, just take them out of the equation. On narrow trails, widen it by trampling the grass. Don’t be timid about it, if you feel bad about walking on the tundra, too bad, until there is an obvious trail leading the way people are going to braid the trail to the point that the tundra is decimated. Sometimes you have to kill a little to save a lot.