If you live in Colorado and enjoy recreating in the backcountry, then you know the importance of Colorado state trails! Trails are the unsung heroes of recreation, providing hunters, hikers, bikers, and OHV-users alike entrance to the outdoors, often to areas that would otherwise be inaccessible.
The current number of mapped trail miles in Colorado, single and multi-use combined, stands at more than 45,000 – and counting. The most popular of these trails can see an astounding number of visitors in a short amount of time. For example, Breckenridge’s 14er Quandary Peak may see over 35,000 hiker-use days in just one year. In 2019, total 14-er hiker-use days numbered at 288,000.
While this volume of use means 2019 saw some epic Instagram posts, it also guarantees that Colorado’s 14-ers saw wear and tear. Some of this is to be expected, and some of it is avoidable. Part of the mission of Colorado Parks and Wildlife is to educate new and seasoned recreationists on how to best care for natural resources, including state trails. The Colorado State Trails Program was created as a crucial part of fulfilling this mission.
We’re mapping Colorado’s Trails
Discover and explore Colorado’s unique trail experiences with the Colorado Trail Explorer. Available for free, COTREX offers the most comprehensive trail map available for the state and is built atop data from over 230 trail managers.
Colorado State Trails Program
Colorado Parks and Wildlife’s Trails Program seeks to encourage, facilitate and advocate for trails in Colorado, with the ultimate goal of connecting people to nature in a way that protects wildlife and its habitats. In other words, they help you help them help Colorado. Everybody wins! The program accomplishes this through administering grants for trail-related projects, working with a variety of different federal and state agencies, local groups, and stakeholders to do so. Once the money has been given out, a volunteer team performs the physical work to improve or build the trail in need. The full process from beginning to end is a statewide group effort.
The program not only supports the development of new trails (don’t forget – 45,000 miles and counting), it also offers funding for existing ones. Each and every public access needs regular upkeep, and Colorado Parks and Wildlife’s Trails Program helps make this possible by providing grants for this specific purpose.
Remember that “help you help them help Colorado” statement from before? Agencies like Colorado Parks and Wildlife partner with users just like us to preserve the outdoors. Responsible recreation is a shared responsibility. When it comes to getting the word out, the Trails Program draws from reliable organizations that do this on a daily basis. Leave No Trace is one of these.
Leave No Trace
The Leave No Trace Center for Outdoor Ethics helps educate people to care for the outdoors. There are seven principles of Leave No Trace that are designed for the purpose of minimum impact. While originally created for on-foot backcountry experiences, they have been modified to apply to any and all adventures.
We recreationists play an important part in maintaining the resource of state trails. By applying a few simple, easy-to-remember steps, we can guarantee that our impact on wildlife, habitat and trail structure is minimal.
Ever heard of trail etiquette? Get ready for a crash course!
The Seven Principles of Leave No Trace
1. Plan Ahead and Prepare
This is a novel idea for some of us! A low-impact and safe adventure begins right here. Putting thought into the details of an outdoor excursion will help support the safety of the group and minimize any damage to trails and campsites. As in life, so in camping – poor planning will have poor results!
2. Travel and Camp on Durable Surfaces
Is this a no-brainer? Hopefully for most of us the answer is yes! Use a trail when at all possible. When picking a camp spot, look for durable surfaces, and avoid trampling too much ground. Stay mindful of the delicacy of local vegetation. Tread lightly, and if you’re unsure, don’t tread at all.
3. Dispose of Waste Properly
We don’t want to talk about it, but unless we are content to pollute water, spread diseases, and prevent decomposition, then we must make a plan for disposing of waste. If you find yourself in need of a cat hole, make sure to dig it 6-8 inches deep, 4-6 inches wide, and 200 feet or more from any water source. The best practice is to thoroughly bury toilet paper or to carry a plastic bag and pack it out. The Golden Rule is a good one to remember. Dispose of waste appropriately for the good of the environment, and of fellow recreationists.
Pets too – pet waste can be a serious problem in the outdoors. With so many people recreating with their pets, the potential to impact the environment is significant. Pet waste smells, can be a health hazard for people (particularly children) and other animals, and is not natural to any environment. Cleaning up after your pet helps protect water resources, plant life and habitat for native animals. The solution is simple–clean up after your pet. Many areas supply bags that you can use to pick up your pet’s waste. If these are not available, a plastic grocery or newspaper bag will work. Bag your pet’s waste and put it in the trash. This simple act keeps lands used for recreation clean for all to enjoy.
4. Leave What You Find
Just how far should we go in leaving nature natural? Principle 4 strongly discourages taking “souvenirs” such as antlers or rocks, cutting limbs for sleeping pads, and even constructing lean-tos from the environment. Yes, appreciating nature can be a big exercise in self-control! Let’s all keep our eyes open, and our hands to ourselves.
5. Minimize Campfire Impacts
Before you build a campfire, stop and ask yourself these questions. Are there fire restrictions in place? Will the use of wood at the site be noticeable? Does the group understand how to create a campfire that will leave no trace and will be safe? If you can’t answer these and other considerations with confidence, then please make other plans! There are options. For example, one low-impact choice is to use an efficient camp stove. Not only will your food cook evenly, it will also cook in spite of the weather.
6. Respect Wildlife
In order to keep plants and animals as undisturbed by our presence as possible, we should observe them quietly and from a distance, giving them space to live as they would without us there. After all, we’re the intruders! Bear country, of course, presents its own rules. If you’re hiking here, make noise in order to prevent startling a bear. As you may imagine, this creates a tense situation for both parties…
7. Be Considerate of Other Visitors
Again, the Golden Rule takes little effort and goes a long way. Remember that on narrow trails, uphill foot travel has the right of way. Another reminder – equestrians have the right of way to foot traffic (you can step to the side of a trail much easier than a horse!). And cyclists, you should yield to both.
When it comes to passing others, be polite and careful. Keep your voice volume low at all times so as not to distract others or take away from their experience. Wear earth-tone colors to keep your visual impact at a minimum (yes, there is even clothing etiquette when hiking!). Lastly – there’s no good way to say this – pick up your dog poop!
The full breakdown of these seven principles can be found on the Leave No Trace website. This list is all-inclusive and definitely worth checking out for anyone who recreates in beautiful Colorado.
Hikers, mountain bikers, hunters, backpackers, OHV users, skiers, snowmobilers, we all live in Colorado for the same reason – the backcountry is right outside our door. State agencies such as the Colorado State Trails Program and their federal partners work hard to preserve and protect our natural resources. Volunteers spend their free time building and working on trails for this same reason. As users, there is plenty we can do to support that mission. Taking responsibility for our impact is a way we can express gratitude for the beautiful state that we call home.
Written by Lauren Wallace. Lauren works as an Administrative Assistant at the Southwest Region office in Durango. Originally from Kentucky, she enjoys learning about western wildlife and ecology and looks forward to exploring the region’s state parks this summer.