Crew works to rehabilitate 50-year-old ruts on Buff Pass trail
August 9, 2018
STEAMBOAT SPRINGS — The trail from the Summit Lake Campground to Luna Lake atop Buffalo Pass was cut by four-wheel drive vehicles more than 50 years ago.
Most of the cars that carved the ruts that became the trail are likely long gone — crushed in salvage yards or rusting abandoned in a forgotten corner of the woods somewhere — but their tracks remain to this day.
Before the area was designated as Mount Zirkel Wilderness Area, locals used Jeeps and other 4x4s to get to the lake. Even then, the two-track trails created problems on the landscape.
“Wet meadows are fast becoming a series of deep ruts," wrote the Steamboat Pilot in a 1963 editorial column. "The wheel tracks on steeper hills are washing into gullies. Even the most ardent four-wheel-drive vehicle user admits that too much damage is occurring."
In 1963, what the Pilot called a "so-called road" was closed to motorized traffic soon after the column published. In 1964, Congress designated the area as the Mount Zirkel Wilderness Area, limiting use of the area to non-motorized use — only feet and horse hooves are allowed on the trails.
Today, the path is a trail segment known by many names. It's part of the Continental Divide Trail, and it's also called the Wyoming Trail and U.S. Forest Service Trail 1101.
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"Over 50 years since, nature has not been able to reclaim that, to return it to a natural state," said Bob Korch, president of Friends of Wilderness.
This week, nature got some help. A crew from Rocky Mountain Youth Corps worked to rehabilitate one mile of the trail Monday through Thursday.
"They're a lot younger than we are, and their backs are a lot stronger," Korch joked.
Most of the Friends of Wilderness volunteers are retired, he added. They typically focus on trail maintenance that is easier on the joints.
Friends of the Wilderness also sought to hire Rocky Mountain Youth Corps because Friends is a volunteer organization. Korch said it would be inappropriate for his organization to accept funds for their work.
The crew worked to improve drainage on the trail and to direct foot traffic into one line of tread in spots where hikers and horseback riders must pick one of the two tracks.
"We've been cutting some tread to reconnect what's called the braiding of the trail, which is where drainages haven't properly been dug, and the trail splits into three paths that are all equally un-walkable," said the Leo Katz, crew leader for the Youth Corps.
The crew worked to level out some of those surfaces. They also placed tree limbs and rocks on some of the ruts to discourage foot traffic and encourage vegetation in the paths. They built rock check dams, which are buried rocks in the trail. They will eventually allow the wind and the weather to fill in the ruts with sediment.
"You build them a couple of inches above the tread so that over time material will build up along them and naturally refill the trail without having to haul in material," Katz said.
This natural engineering is especially important in the Wilderness Area, because it will allow the trail to maintain itself without much more human interference.
"They should last for decades, if not centuries," Katz said. "These are things maybe we'll be able to take our grandkids back to one day, which is a really, really cool thought."
The project received funds from the U.S. Forest Service as well as $2,290.74 from the Yampa Valley Community Foundation's Trail Endowment Fund. This money allowed them to show other funding organizations that the project had community support, which earned it additional funds from the National Forest Foundation. Steamboat Sotheby's International Realty, Ace Hardware and individual donors also contributed to the project.
Sotheby's staff will also hit the trail Friday for a volunteer day with Friends of Wilderness.
"It's always great when we can get multiple groups involved in something," said Kent Foster, a district recreation program manager for the Forest Service. "If everyone helps out a little bit, it goes a long way."
Korch said Friends of Wilderness hopes to get funding to rehabilitate one more mile of braided trail on the route. Eventually, even the improved section will need maintenance again.
"The project really is never complete," said Helen Beall, marketing manager at the Yampa Valley Community Foundation. "Trees will keep falling. The trails will get different patterns and get eroded, so having a permanent source of funding is really critical to be able to continue maintenance on these trails forever."
Right now, the Community Foundation is taking part in a $10,000 matching challenge for the Trail Endowment Fund. If the organization raises that amount before midnight Aug. 31, private donors will match it.
Soon, another round of grants will be awarded from the Trail Endowment Fund. Granting decisions to fund additional projects will be made in late October.