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Colorado Trail buried in avalanche debris; as high as 60 feet of broken trees, rocks

The Colorado Trail Foundation and its 83 trail adopters will coordinate volunteers; they’ll then work with the U.S. Forest Service to clear the debris.

GOLDEN, Colo. — Staring at a computer screen in a tiny office in downtown Golden isn’t the way Bill Manning prefers to keep tabs on the conditions of the Colorado Trail. 

“Here’s the trail right here,” said Manning, the executive director of the Colorado Trail Foundation. “Our nonprofit keeps care of the Colorado Trail. We do the trail stewardship. We organize the volunteers that keep the trail maintained.”

The 485-mile trail meanders southwest from Denver to Durango. “Unless you start in Durango,” said Manning with a smirk. “Then it’s the opposite.”

It’s open year-round to hikers, bikers and equestrians. As the weather begins to warm up more and more, people are getting out on the trail. 

Early season typically brings some downed trees and snowdrifts, but this season is different.

“It was an extraordinary avalanche year this past winter," Manning said. "I’ve never seen anything like it in my time with the Colorado Trail Foundation. I’ve been here 14 years."

Credit: Mike Grady

The foundation is currently gathering photos sent in from users of obstructions to the trail caused by avalanches.

“We don’t even know the extent of the trouble yet, but we are finding places where the trail is buried by very deep debris,” Manning said. “In some cases up to 30 feet, maybe even as high as 60 feet deep of broken trees and rocks and real hard pack snow. It’s almost ice."

Manning and his crew are gathering reports from across the state. 

"West of Buena Vista, we have a couple of piles, and down in Elk Creek near Silverton, we have probably the worst of it,” said Manning while looking at photos on his computer monitor. “Here's one of the piles near Copper Mountain. Look at this debris. It's just, my gosh, it's really going to be something trying to clear this stuff."

The Colorado Trail Foundation and its 83 trail adopters across the state will coordinate volunteers. They’ll then work with the U.S. Forest Service to clear the debris piles. The backcountry nature of the trail creates difficult working conditions. 

“The work zones are limited. Just about enough room for a sawyer and a couple of helpers,” Manning said. 

Crews have to carry in gear, and in some areas, they’re limited to hand-powered tools.

Credit: Mike Grady

Volunteers also need a little help from Mother Nature before they can start working.

“The snow has to melt before we can really do our work very effectively, so it's going to be a long time before we can whittle away at all that wood that's covering the trail," Manning said.

In the meantime, Manning said he thinks bikers and hikers will be able to carefully meander around or over the debris.

“I think it will be easy for those two user groups," he said. "It’s the horses that I think won’t be able to cross these avalanche debris piles.”

The project will take a long time to complete.

“I think we’ll be lucky to clear all the avalanche debris piles before the end of this trail season in September,” Manning said. 

Still, he’s looking forward to getting his hands dirty and getting the trail back to normal. 

The challenges are great and we're going to have a heck of a lot of fun with it this year," Manning said.

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