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Two weeklong crews of seven Colorado Trail Foundation volunteers each were organized to locate, refine and survey the new route using GPS technology.


Creating the best process for reroute on The Colorado Trail

photo of people on hillside in trees

Volunteers discussing the new trail route


Colorado Trail users are often surprised when they emerge from heavily forested sections of trail along the Continental Divide and descend into the Cochetopa Hills, miles of rolling grasslands in southwest Colorado where cattle and sheep outnumber humans by a fair measure.

Although the gentler going and change of scenery provide a welcome relief to many who have hiked, biked or ridden for days over the trail’s rugged terrain, many are disappointed to find the single-track trail ends as the CT moves on to logging, jeep and ranch roads for the next several miles.

Add to that the lack of reliable water sources for some 20 miles and it’s little wonder that this section of the CT, which shares the tread with the Continental Divide National Scenic Trail (CDNST), is also one of the least popular.

That soon could change, however.

photo of dirt road across vast grassland

The original route of the trail across miles of rolling grasslands


Efforts to reroute the CT/CDNST between Lujan Pass and the La Garita Wilderness Area to get it closer to the actual Continental Divide and off this motorized section began six years ago when the U.S. Forest Service responded to entreaties from The Colorado Trail Foundation (CTF) and the now-defunct Continental Divide Trail Alliance (CDTA).

The process since then has included a number of meetings involving the CTF and CDTA, the nonprofit groups that oversee the maintenance and development of their respective trails, the government, and other public and private entities. The Forest Service also has scouted the proposed new alignment, contracted with scientists to conduct environmental assessments of the new route, and solicited public comment.

With recent favorable decisions by the Forest Service regarding the reroute, including a tentative starting date in 2014, the agency this summer sought help from the Colorado Trail Foundation in reflagging the 30 miles of new trail. Initial flagging had been done six years earlier in advance of the environmental studies, but much of it had disappeared or was badly weathered.

photo of woman in downed trees

Flagging the route through fallen timber

Two weeklong crews of seven volunteers each were organized to locate, refine and survey the new route. Heading the effort were CTF board members Jerry Brown of Durango, a professional surveyor who has mapped both the 565-mile Colorado Trail and 3,200-mile CDNST, and George Miller of Manitou Springs, longtime CTF operations director in charge of trail crews.

The organization has been utilizing the “grade reversal” method of trail building for several years, but never on such a grand scale. Grade reversal basically calls for a reasonable (8 percent or so) grade, but includes short downhill or uphill variations that minimize the need to retrofit with, and maintain, water bars and other drainage structures as the trail ages. This undulating, relatively maintenance-free trail surface is well worth the effort and particularly beneficial in remote areas with difficult access such as the Cochetopa Hills.

To locate and reflag the planned reroute, Brown used Ashtech PM100 GPS receivers loaded with maps and the approximate trail line that was established using less sophisticated GPS gear before the environmental studies were conducted. The Ashtech PM100 utilizes both U.S. GPS and Russian GLONASS satellites, which dramatically improves performance in difficult terrain. A large dish antenna was carried above head height to further improve performance and accuracy.

Photo of men with small device

Checking GPS Data


Brown used the same model GPS extensively during his three-year effort to map the CDNST from Mexico to Canada. It not only proved to be extremely effective, but the GPS, antenna rod, and antenna add only about 3 pounds to his backpack weight.

Each weeklong crew consisted of six field workers and one person providing transport and resupply. Brown carried the GPS and navigated the route. Two others carried Suunto Clinometers, which were used to fix the grade. The remaining crew members scouted ahead for remnants of the original markings and reflagged the route.

Switchbacks, which weren’t included in the original flagging, were designed as the layout progressed.

The GPS data, collected in the Forest Service’s extremely detailed TRACS format and supplemented by geo-tagged photos, include road crossings, water features, fences, gates, etc.— vital information in planning the construction of the trail.

A major focus of the crews was to anticipate and eliminate potential problems for trail builders. Forest Service personnel already had addressed a number of issues during initial flagging, taking the trail closer to water sources— including a Forest Service campground that currently is two miles from the CT— and places of interest such as a Cochetopa Dome overlook, and crossing roads in places with good lines of vision in either direction.

As the CTF crews bushwhacked their way through the mostly forested terrain on the new route, they paid close attention to lining out built-in rolling dips and wide-turned switchbacks to enhance water drainage. That and laying out a grade that is no more than 8 percent when possible are imperative to creating a sustainable trail, Brown and Miller noted.

photo of man in bare aspen trees

Carryiing the GPS unit with antenna deployed


It took additional weeks of computer processing and refining to convert the data into something “map-worthy.”

“What we took away from our week out in the woods was a profound respect for the amount of time and effort and money that has gone into the trail to make it a reality,” said Chad Neufeld, a member of one of the flagging crews. 

Crews are expected to begin trail building into 2014. Even with the use of trail-building machinery, which the Forest Service has tentatively approved, it is expected to take several years to complete the full 30 miles.

The benefits, however, are sure to be enjoyed by trail users for even many more years to come.


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