The People’s Peak — The Road to Fishers Peak State Park

We have botanists, archaeologists, naturalists, every logist you can think of, and we’ve had them out there for two years now.
Park Manager Crystal Dreiling surveys
Fishers Peak State Park
Park Manager Crystal Dreiling surveys Fishers Peak State Park

Twenty years ago, Jay Cimino drove up to the gates of the peak and found them open.

Cimino was no longer a Trinidad resident, but he remembered climbing and camping out near the peak with his Boy Scout troop, and he wanted to relive those memories of his friends and his father, who led them up. Cimino just planned to drive as close to the peak as the laws would allow, but he found the open gate hard to resist. Who doesn’t want to relive their childhood every once in a while?

When Cimino returned from Memory Lane, he found the gate locked. He couldn’t leave. He called the police, and when they came, they didn’t come for a rescue. They came to arrest him.

“Back then, when you’re a kid, everything you have is yours,” Cimino said. “You never think anyone would fence something off. But that did happen. It was no longer the Fishers Peak I knew.”

Many longtime residents felt the same way. Residents were weary of watching the wealthy buy up their beautiful land and fence it off, but Fishers Peak stung the most. The peak was as iconic to them as Longs Peak was to Estes Park or Pikes Peak was to Colorado Springs, where Cimino now lived and ran several successful car dealerships. At 9,633 feet, it is the highest point in the state east of Interstate 25. It was the town’s logo, for crying out loud.

“It was one of those things you looked up to twice a day to get your bearings,” said Tom Perry, a longtime resident, “and for so many years, it belonged to someone else.”

Years later, it went up for sale, and it remained that way because no one could afford 40,000 acres. When it was split into two, well, no one could afford 19,000 acres either. And then Cimino heard from a friend that the peak, just the peak, and a surrounding 4,000 acres was for sale. This, he thought, seemed doable.

butterfly on a flower

It is now Colorado’s newest state park, and it is not only the second largest — in many ways it is the most unique. The park’s nearly 20,000 acres were used as a cattle grazing ranch, leaving it in the kind of pristine condition rarely seen on public land, and, as a result, caring for rare and endangered flora and fauna. But there’s enough space for hiking, biking and possibly horseback riding, land for hunting and, of course, a chance to climb Fishers, a hike with a final, fun scramble near the summit that would challenge most any 14ers peak bagger.

That’s why, although the park is open to the public now, it’s only a fraction, as Colorado Parks and Wildlife (CPW) biologists work to map out the park’s sensitive ecological zones to determine what can be turned into recreational opportunities and what may need to be left alone or offered with restrictions.

First, though, Cimino had to get the land for his hometown of Trinidad, and that story only adds to Fishers’ lore, the kind reserved for iconic places: Who hasn’t heard of how “America The Beautiful” was inspired by Pikes Peak? After some wrangling, the owner’s widow met Cimino on the Crazy French Ranch property and she told him she would sell the land, though he had no way to commit to it then. She gave him 60 days to think about it. And that’s where the story begins.

Two weeks later, Cimino took some residents on a tour of Fishers. He’d worked with many of them in his Downtown Trinidad Development Group, an entity of the Phil Long Dealership where he worked, for 10 years to revive his hometown after it lost churches, hospitals and even the Catholic school he attended as a kid. They were movers and shakers, but they were also ordinary people with jobs, Cimino said, not multi-millionaires. But they’d done good things together: They worked to bring a clinic and a dental operation that will open in June. They’d helped downtown begin a revival.

They drove up in Jeeps, gathered and gazed down at Trinidad next to Fishers on a beautiful October day.

“We went to a meadow, and it looks down over the city,” Perry said. “It probably wasn’t too far of a vision that Lt. Fisher had when he saw it for the first time. We were imagining the history before us, and we realized we were also a part of creating a history for the future.”

The group was awestruck and animated. Cimino sprung his trap, pledging $2 million, even though he didn’t know where he’d get the money, and the Trinidad champions who later took on the Avengers-like moniker Gang of 14 decided to buy Fishers Peak. Greg Sund, the city manager at the time, volunteered to lead the effort. Perry said he would contact the Nature Conservancy. Others promised to do their part.

That day, and that effort, was not about him, Cimino said, but the day he was nearly arrested — he talked his way out of it — left a mark. It made him want to do something for 20 years. Fishers Peak, Trinidad’s icon since the 1800s, had been taken from them. Now they finally had an opportunity to take it back.

Dan Prenzlow, who now serves as CPW’s Director, had notions of making Fishers Peak a state park years ago, when he was a regional manager for southeast Colorado and first heard the ranch was for sale. Trinidad, depending on what you’re willing to call “east,” is one of the more well-known towns in the region. But Prenzlow had doubts it would ever happen.

“The only way I thought it would happen is if the political stars align,” Prenzlow said.

It’s tricky enough getting any kind of political support for the government to use taxpayer dollars to buy private acres for public use, and prime land such as the gorgeous acres that surround Fishers Peak costs millions. A state agency such as CPW didn’t have that kind of money or clout. Just as an example, Staunton State Park in Jefferson and Park counties was the last new state park. It opened in 2013 after 27 years of accumulating land.

Well, those stars began to align just five years later, when Trinidad, and the Gang of 14, began to ask around for help.

Residents weren’t sure it would work, even the optimistic members of the Gang. They’d been so resigned to it being off limits that they refused to even consider the possibility. There was, after all, no way a resident, or even the city government, could afford to purchase it.

Yucca

“Marijuna has treated us well,” said Sund, the former city manager, “but not that well.”

Even so, the first step was with Perry and his wife, Linda, who managed the Bar NI Ranch in Stonewall near Trinidad. The ranch isn’t open to the public, but its owners, the Cabot-Wellington family, were conservation-minded, and Perry worked with the Nature Conservancy to protect the land from further development. At the time, Perry said, the ranch became the largest conserved ranch in Colorado. Perry was a natural choice to reach out to the Nature Conservancy and ask them about Fishers Peak. He and most of the others from the Gang were pleasantly surprised by the answer. Matt Moorhead, whom Perry had worked with in the past, told them the Conservancy had been interested in the property for a decade but couldn’t find the right partnerships to make it happen.

At the same time, Sund reached out to The Trust for Public Land, and he was surprised to hear the same answer: That organization had also been interested for at least five years. The two organizations have different missions — the conservancy tends to protect habitat, and the Trust prefers to open land for public use — but they both shared a larger goal of preserving beautiful open spaces. Fishers Peak was so large, and so special, that it could satisfy both missions.

In November 2017, the same month Moorhead met with them for the first time over lunch, members of the Gang and the two organizations met with the state and Great Outdoors Colorado (GOCO). Led by Wade Shelton of the Trust, the group decided to go after the whole 19,200 acres.

“It was as if the organizations knew exactly what Trinidad was trying to do,” Cimino said. “That was incredible.”

The two conservation groups bought the land for nearly $25 million in February 2019, with the help of a $7.5-million grant from GOCO and $7 million from CPW. Both organizations said the chance to work together on something so significant was a dream, and it couldn’t have happened without that. Perry also gave credit to CPW, saying the project really took off after the state got involved, which led to Gov. Polis and his enthusiasm for the project. Polis, in fact, campaigned on recreation and the chance to provide more public land for Colorado residents, and saw Fishers Peak as an immediate way to fulfill that promise: It connects New Mexico state parks and other Colorado state wildlife areas, giving both humans and animals an incredible swath of space to roam — a rare commodity as more tracts of land get divided up for development.

“That really was one of the key things,” Perry said of the state’s involvement.

However, CPW, GOCO and the two conservation organizations preferred to give credit to the Gang of 14, the city of Trinidad, and the pile of enthusiasm delivered in the form of letters, comments and memories of the peak from residents.

It was the people, and not the partnerships, that made it possible for Fishers Peak to become a state park.

As much as the organizations would love to take credit for it — it would probably help with fundraising — all of them said the real key was the way Trinidad residents led the charge. The project was enormous — it was the largest the Trust for Public Land has ever acquired — but politically it was an easy sell because of what it meant to the area.

tree

“I’d never seen anything like it,” said Jim Petterson, the Colorado and Southwest Region Director for the Trust for Public Land. “I went to one of the meetings, and you expect some contrarian points of view, but everyone was sharing stories about how I got to go hunt on this when I was a kid, or climb the peak, or I’ve never been able to see it up close. That’s what made this project possible, is that we had SUCH buy-in from Trinidad.”

Perry delivered up to 50 letters from organizations and major players in Trinidad to officials — which stunned them, especially officials from GOCO, who also said they’d never seen anything like that either.

“In my 20 years of my conservation career, I’ve never seen so many people have that support,” said Carlos Fernandez, the state Director for the Nature Conservancy of Colorado. “It was literally all over. That’s a really neat story, by the way.”

It’s a neat story — which, by the way, is why we’re telling it — because that doesn’t happen as often as you might think. It’s a much tougher sell if it appears that organizations or the government are encroaching on land, and it’s possible that fiercely independent ranch owners, or longtime residents, don’t want to share. Or it’s also possible that residents don’t want to do the work or share it with the organizations capable of buying it. There’s even a concern about making a huge investment and having no one show up: The state parks with water generally are the money makers — so much so that they make up for the ones that don’t have them, and no matter how special Fishers Peak turns out to be, it’s not a water park.

But in this case, residents were more than willing to do the work, make overtures to organizations and make it politically viable to spend millions of dollars. They also made it clear that Fishers Peak was a part of their economic redevelopment plan: Just how a piece of land fits economically as well as environmentally should be something organizations such as the Nature Conservancy should consider as well, when it’s spending millions to preserve it, Fernandez said.

“There’s always concern about the state coming in and taking land out of private hands and into the public,” Prenzlow said. “But when the city of Trinidad got involved, I’d say that was the catalyst of making this happen. For us to be accepted, we need and want that support.”

Once Gov. Polis found out about Fishers, it was all over. Colorado’s last state park took more than 20 years to become one. Fishers Peak was designated less than a year after the conservation groups acquired the land. A tiny piece is now open to the public.

So now what?

Anyone who’s ever climbed a 14er, especially the ones just a couple hours away from the Front Range, can tell you what a well-loved — more than a few would say overused — property looks like. But Fishers Peak is the opposite, and that’s truly amazing, especially considering how popular the area is among Trinidad residents.

“It’s sort of like a blank slate,” said Crystal Dreiling, Park Manager of Fishers Peak. “We’re not coming to a heavily used and abused area. As the public has gotten to know it, there’s that sense of the sky’s the limit out here.”

That’s why, Dreiling said, CPW was viewed early on as the perfect land manager for Fishers Peak. Meeting the growing need for recreation while preserving the few special places left in the state is CPW’s speciality.

leaves

“Absolutely,” said Prenzlow. “That’s what we do. It’s a global example of the balance between conservation and recreation. Both are in our mission. Sometimes they work completely well together, and sometimes they are opposed. This will essentially be both.”

There’s room for both, if for no other reason than over 19,000 acres is a LOT of room.

The pristine area contains many special, threatened and even endangered species of plants unfettered by footsteps. And, in December, biologists discovered the endangered New Mexico meadow jumping mouse on the property. There are multiple active raptor nests overhead, and herds of elk use its corridors.

Biologists have worked for two years, since the state took control of the park, to determine which land should be habitat and which land should be a place to play. So far, it generally appears that Fishers’ south end looks better for wildlife and the north end looks better for hiking, biking and other activities. But of course, nothing is really that simple. Hunters will be allowed to hunt in both ends — after all, many hunters who don’t have the luxury of private land would probably drool at the notion of Fishers’ pristine property — and it’s possible that a trail could wind through the southern section as well, Dreiling said.

Once biologists have that data, CPW can decide how to zone Fishers Peak with the public’s input, as well as that of the town of Trinidad and special interest groups, from both the biological and recreational sides. This is one of the first and few times that scientists are scouring a piece of property, especially this closely, before plans are made in an effort to save what’s special about it.

“In some ways this is an experiment,” Dreiling said. “You’re not just putting recreation first and learning later that you’ve lost something along the way. It’s not easy to do that. We have botanists, archaeologists, naturalists, every logist you can think of, and we’ve had them out there for two years now. Then we will bring in the recreation-minded people to have them in the discussion earlier on. This is the first park I’ve been a part of for the planning process of it, and I do hear from others that this isn’t always how it’s done.”

The good news is most people who love recreation or respect the environment tend to mingle. In fact, enjoying the beauty that nature offers is a big reason why hikers, hunters and, of course, wildlife watchers travel to areas all over Colorado. But even so, as more people overrun certain areas, residents continue to cry out for new areas to explore: Dreiling admits that if this property were near Boulder or Denver, they’d already be talking about how to manage the crowds that would surely come to it.

“This one is interesting because it has so much potential for what is hot right now,” Dreiling said. “Fishers Peak is different and kind of difficult. It’s not like most 14ers. It’s like being on top of a skyscraper. One step and you’re off.

“There are so many areas for great trails and running and other opportunities. We understand that a part of our job is to manage expectations of the public and even our partners, and we’ve heard requests for gondolas and ziplines and off-roading, all the way to don’t touch any of it,” said Dreiling.

The work is difficult, but Ed Schmal, a conservation biologist for CPW who does most of his research in the southern portion of Colorado, said it’s also fun because there’s so much to study, from grassland to old growth forest. Part of that fun, he said, is to figure out ways to manage that land as well as set aside property more suited to the public.

“There’s the largest oak I’ve seen in the area on that property,” Schmal said. “The aesthetics are incredible, from all that to canyons to rock formations, and you’ve also got Fishers Peak.”

Schmal feels good about the prospect of offering both, and that’s partly because he believes most using it will not only see it as a special place but respect its boundaries to keep it that way. He’s already seen many instances: Hikers or wildlife watchers nearly always respect seasonal closures for nesting raptors, he said. In fact, he has hopes to use climbers’ unique perspectives to help him with bat research, confident they will buy into a program, even after restrictions tied to bat habitat and the danger of the white nose syndrome angered a few of them.

“We are totally committed to making these two mesh together well,” Schmal said. “I think we can make it a wonderful park for wildlife and a wonderful park for people.”

Dreiling is a worrier. Managing a park for the state means you’re part law enforcement officer, part customer service ombudsman and part parent. Worrying is, essentially, her job. So naturally she fretted about Fisher Peak’s grand opening on Oct. 30 of last year. Gov. Polis, naturally, was there, ready to cut the ribbon. Polis helped make the park happen with his support, but that came with a price: He wanted a portion of it open by 2021. The goal was an ambitious one — honestly it was sort of unheard of, as most parks take several years to open, at a bare minimum — and Dreiling had her doubts. When Prenzlow called her and told her to open a portion of it, she answered, “I can’t.”

“But she did,” Prenzlow said, “and did it well.”

flower

“Open,” in this case, meant 250 acres and two miles of trails, and that’s what worried Dreiling. People were eager for the opening, and so many worked hard to make it happen. It seemed like opening Disneyland but having only one ride ready. No dogs are allowed yet, along with no horses, and still the park is charging a fee to enter because, well, they have to keep the lights on somehow. The 1.5-mile main trail isn’t exactly easy either: It’s a steep climb (that’s why they call it Challenge Trail). But then they opened the gates and the waves of people came.

“I was very pleasantly surprised by the endless positive remarks from the public,” Dreiling wrote in her column about the opening. “People have been so thankful.”

She’s proud of the small portion that is available. There are three trails, including the Challenge, with the First Look Trail and the Discovery Trail. The Challenge Trail leads to a wonderful view of the town and the peak: That’s why it’s so steep. But there’s still a lot of work to do to map out the park, and the master plan is due next year. That plan won’t cover everything.

“We will be learning about this place in the next 30 years,” she said. “There are parts we probably won’t touch for 100 years.”

The Gang of 14 hopes to connect the park to the town though a trail downtown that leads to it. Residents worry now that the many visitors expected to bring a jolt to the town’s economy won’t visit Trinidad without a safe way to get between the two other than a highway. Trinidad, the city, didn’t have to pay to get Fishers Peak, and now some believe it’s time for the city to build a concrete trail to help residents walk to the park entrance.

“That’s so important,” said Sund. “If we allow it to exist on its own, it really won’t add to the visitation of the city. The city needs to step up.”

One of the main goals is to make it a much different area than the one offered by Trinidad Lake State Park just three miles away. But that part may be easy. Trinidad Lake is built for recreation.

“We will conserve an area because it makes sense, and the science always dictates that,” said Fernandez with the Nature Conservancy. “But this place dictates that you can have both.”

Science also dictates that a park that lets people experience recreation can serve another purpose.

“If we continue our mission and tackle these big problems, people have to care,” said Lindsay Schlageter of The Nature Conservancy. “If they can’t get out to the places, then they won’t care.”


Dan England is a frequent contributor to Colorado Outdoors. This article is copyrighted by the author.

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