Tom Ross: Steamboat's favorite trail is nearly 15 years old

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— When the bright yellow raft stood on end Saturday in the re-circulating wave known as Charlie's Hole, the crowd at the Yampa River Festival cheered in appreciation. But only a relative few recognized the significance of the middle-aged man who stood casually with his left arm wrapped around the bow tube of the crazily tilting raft.

Not only did Gary Lacy engineer the kayak play hole where he and his crewmates were showing off Saturday afternoon. The same man was largely responsible for the design of the Yampa River Core Trail that parallels the course of the river.

If there is a single public amenity in Steamboat Springs that enjoys universal appeal, it is the Yampa River trail. Senior citizens enjoy strolling on it in the cool of the morning, 12-year-olds kick their long boards down its smooth pavement, and young adults in-line skate behind Emerald Park.

Lacy has been participating in the river festival since the early 1980s, when he lived here for two years. Or was it three years? He's lost track.

In those days, the river festival consisted primarily of a slalom race like the one that was held Sunday in Dr. Rich Weiss Park. There was no such thing as a manmade kayak play hole in 1981.

Ironically, the Yampa Valley FlyFishers, who were intent on using boulders to create structure where more and bigger trout could earn a living, unintentionally built the first whitewater improvements on the town stretch of the Yampa. It turned out that what was good for fish was also good for kayaks. Today, the large whitewater play holes also create big eddies where large trout prowl the seams between currents for food.

In a case of unintended consequences, hundreds of swimmers also will be leaping into Charlie's Hole after the water gets too low to entertain kayakers.

Lacy left Steamboat for Boulder, where he funded Recreation Engineering and Planning. In 1985 and 1986, he played a major role in the creation of the Boulder Creek Project for that community.

In 1988, a visionary City Council used the proceeds of a recreation bond issue approved by the voters to fund the trail along the Yampa. I'm relying on memory here, but my recollection is that the trail was somewhat controversial because the monies had been targeted for another project. I also recall that the late Councilmember Rita Valentine pushed hard for the trail to be built.

Anyway, Lacy's firm was retained to create the master plan for the trail.

"I rode it this morning. Every foot of that trail reminds me of endless City Council meetings, controversies and delays working with the railroad," Lacy said with a smile during a break in the river festival.

The original trail began in Lincoln Park, passed under the shoulder of the 13th Street Bridge, followed a new bridge over Soda Creek, then followed a footbridge over the Yampa and two more railroad underpasses to make its way upstream. There wasn't permission to cut the trail through Fish Creek Mobile Home Park, so the original route left the river at Alpine Lumber and followed the west side of U.S. Highway 40 to rejoin the river at Rotary Park before finally terminating at Walton Creek.

Today, the trail stretches downstream from Lincoln Park, past the Stock Bridge Transit Center and beyond the James Brown Soul Center of the Universe Bridge. There is also exciting talk of extending the trail further upstream someday. And of course, the trail now runs along the river through the edge of the mobile-home park.

The trail was built remarkably quickly -- the major construction was done in 1990, with more work completed in 1991. Significantly, the concrete trail has needed very little repair in the 15 years since it was built. It has held up remarkably well to Steamboat's extreme cycles of freezing and thawing.

That's something Steamboat did right," Lacy said. "They decided to build it at least 10 feet wide and pour six inches of concrete supported by re-bar."

Thanks to the city of Steamboat Springs' determination to plow the trail free of snow all winter, it is heavily used in all seasons.

Anther visionary, Dr. Dan Smilkstein, has put forth the argument that instead of plowing the snow off of the Yampa River trail all winter, the city should be grooming it for Nordic skiing.

Why squander all of that powder? Similar trails are maintained in wintry European cities, and walkers, as well as skiers and young parents pulling children in sleds embrace the ski trails, Smilkstein said.

Here in "Paddle, Fish and Ski Town USA," if we can imagine it, we're likely to pull it off.

Tom Ross is a longtime Steamboat resident. His column is published every Monday in Steamboat Today.

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