Where will it end?
Subject of Colorado Trail's terminus puts local advocacy groups at odds

The Colorado Trail winds its way through scrub oak and aspen near it's Junction Creek trailhead.  An answer to the contentious question of routing a new trail connection to downtown Durango through the Perins Peak Wildlife Area may be given as soon as this fall. It may seem unusual that two parties with an apparent love for the outdoors are at extreme odds in Durango. But that is precisely the case in the decade-old debate over extending the Colorado Trail beyond its current terminus and into downtown Durango. However, the dispute may soon see some closure, as the controversial issue is expected to reach some kind of resolution in coming months.

Fully linked-up in the mid-’80s, the Colorado Trail traverses nearly 500 miles on its winding route from Denver to Durango. Remarkably, the trail stays within national forest the entire way, crossing six wilderness areas and rarely emerging onto jeep road. Trails 2000 Executive Director and Colorado Trail Foundation Board Member Bill Manning is unabashed in his praise of the trail.

“What they’ve ended up with is spectacular,” he said. “The Colorado Trail is a national treasure.”

However, Manning and other trail advocates see one significant flaw – the Durango trailhead, about 3.5 miles from Durango along Junction Creek Road. When asked why the trailhead presents a problem, Manning is quick to elaborate. “Maybe initially that was an OK place, but it is very inadequate at this point,” he says. “Even with the two parking lots, it’s too small. There’s no room for horse trailers, no place for bathrooms. There really isn’t even enough room to organize your backpack. The parking is really limited, and it makes that location kind of hazardous. There are also some concerns about the lower parking lot being in a riparian area. All in all, the trailhead has poor presentation.”

Another component of the list of concerns is the trailhead’s location on the outskirts of Durango. “Access is also an issue,” says Manning. “Junction Creek Road is a windy, busy road with no shoulder, and that presents some hazards as well.”

Trails 2000 Board Member Daryl Crites shares the belief that the Colorado Trail should end in downtown Durango. “At least once I’ve given people a ride from the trailhead,” he says. “Just imagine, you’ve done the whole hike from Denver, and you’ve had this great experience. It’s so anticlimactic to finish such a huge deal at that parking lot and not even be close to town.”

The trailhead’s distance from Durango and the busy nature of Junction Creek Road are reasons La Plata County officials also would like to see the Colorado Trail extended into Durango.

“The county has an ongoing, serious concern about the trailhead’s location in that it forces people onto Junction Creek Road,” said county attorney Sheryl Rogers.

An impossible riddle?

However, getting an extension into Durango is easier said than done. “There are obviously lots of reasons to find a solution, and we’re searching for a solution,” said Crites. “We’re not sure what it is.”

While unsure of the best answer to the problem, Trails 2000 has looked into several options, and the group has a favorite. It includes rerouting the trail along the edge of the Perins Peak State Wildlife Area and down into the Durango Mountain Park, where a larger trailhead and parking lot would be created atop the former county dumpsite. An additional spur to bring the trail down to the Ninth Street Bridge also would be created.

While Trails 2000 has been responsible for advancing this potential solution, Crites and Manning are quick to note that the group has little to do with the decision-making process. Any decision to extend the trail will be made principally by the Colorado Division of Wildlife, the Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management.

“We will not call the shots on this thing,” Manning says. “These decisions will be made by the agencies and different landowners.”

The city of Durango is in a similar, neutral position. “I think the city has always envisioned the trail extending into town,” says Kevin Hall, parks, open space and trails development manager. “Where and what route it takes have been historically uncertain.”

He adds: “The city hasn’t wholeheartedly supported a pro or con position. What we’ve done is support a land exchange if all the parties can come to agreement.”

Who owns what?

Those agencies are currently discussing an exchange of land, which would transfer the eastern fringe of the Wildlife Area to Forest Service hands and open the way for the trail. The impetus for this exchange comes from La Plata County’s claim of ownership of the “old wagon road” also known as Dry Gulch Road. Extending from the Rock Ridge development, the road cuts a straight line through the wildlife area.

“The road was established in the late 1800s, and the county vigorously protects its rights-of-way,” says Rogers.

Consequently, the county forwarded a letter to the DOW, which maintains control over the wildlife area, emphasizing the county’s ownership of the road. The county also has suggested trading this right-of-way through the middle of the area for a trail on its edge. “The county, through its ownership of the road, has some legal clout and impetus for changing the trailhead,” says Rogers. And while there has been talk of a lawsuit between the two governmental entities, Rogers said the county “presently doesn’t plan on suing the DOW.”

A complex web

Instead, a land swap involving the county, the DOW and the Forest Service is being discussed. Regulations prohibit a direct exchange between the county and DOW, so consequently the Forest Service has been brought in as a third party. The groups sat down in the spring to discuss the feasibility of such an exchange. To date, no decisions have been made.

“We were told then that we would receive a decision in a matter of weeks,” says Rogers. “It’s kind of par for the course as far as how long and frustrating the process has been.”

Rogers adds that a decision would only kick off the land swap process, which could take years.

This preliminary decision rests in the hands of the Division of Wildlife. Area Wildlife Manager Tony Gurzick is matter-of-fact about the process. “I expect to see a decision by late fall or early winter,” he says. “That decision would only be whether to proceed with the land trade.”

Of some of the criteria for an exchange, Gurzick adds, “We haven’t looked at a whole lot of specifics,” he says. “We obviously want something that’s a good or better habitat than what we have. We’re in the business of wildlife management. What benefits wildlife will drive our decision.”






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