Popular Grand County trail receives restoration improvements

Headwaters Trails Alliance and Volunteers for Outdoor Colorado improve Jim Creek Trail for hikers

Meg Soyars
Sky-Hi News
VOC Volunteer Elizabeth Moroney.
Meg Soyars/Sky-Hi News

GRAND COUNTY — July 16 and 17 were bluebird days in Grand County, calling hikers to enjoy the sunshine. Many headed out to Jim Creek Trail, a popular route near Winter Park Resort. Another group was on Jim Creek that weekend, but they were doing more than enjoying the trail. Members of Grand County’s Headwaters Trails Alliance and Volunteers for Outdoor Colorado wielded spades and pickaxes to restore the trail’s surface, ensuring it remains a safe, pleasant excursion for hikers.

In September 2020, a destructive wind event called a derecho tore through Arapaho National Forest in Grand County. Trees were uprooted in huge swaths, especially along Jim Creek. Derechos are extremely rare wind events. However, two occurred in Colorado in 2020. Both crossed the Continental Divide, impacting the areas in their wake.

Since September’s derecho, the Headwaters Trails Alliance and other environmental groups like Volunteers for Outdoor Colorado have been hard at work every summer, removing downed trees from Jim Creek Trail and creating erosion improvements. Headwaters Trails Alliance field manager Sean Burke, and Ben Kromash, Volunteers for Outdoor Colorado’s leadership and training manager, led 42 volunteers during July 16-17.

Headwaters Trails Alliance manages Jim Creek with oversight from the U.S. Forest Service; after the destructive derecho, they called in backup.

“The derecho had a severe impact on the region ecologically speaking, and on the trail,” said Kromash. “Quite frankly, it’s too much work for any one group, so they’ve had volunteer crews come up each season to work with (the alliance). We’re part of a long line of volunteers chipping away at all this maintenance.” 

The derecho took out nearly 10,000 trees in a single event, flattening the forest for 1.5 miles. Majestic trees, especially older yet healthy ones, toppled. It looked like a tornado had hit, with trees stacked on top of each other and roots exposed. The Headwaters Trails Alliance moved all downed trees off the trail. Despite nearby downed trees in some areas, Burke says the trail is still very scenic.

“It’s a beautiful hike. It’s within the top five most popular hikes in Grand County,” Burke said.

The trail winds along Jim Creek. Hikers can listen to the splashing water; in a couple places there are creek crossings. The path passes through shady pines and a green meadow. On the trail’s summit near James Peak, Alpine waterfalls crash and echo. The trail is known for its picturesque water features, but since the derecho, water has seeped into parts of the trail.   

“When trees were blown down, it changed the way water, especially snowmelt, comes downhill. There were sections of this trail that were huge mud puddles,” Kromash said.

Burke added that the forested areas along the trail have many underground springs. “Now that water is getting blocked up by all these downed trees adjacent to the trail, creating not sustainable trail surfaces,” he said.

During the recent trail work, volunteers dove into solving the muddy dilemma. Burke said that crews “armored” the trail. They placed heavy rocks to channel the water, getting it to flow away from the trail. They also placed rocks on the trail to create a dry walking surface. Lastly, they installed drainage features and cleared existing drainages.

Members of Volunteers for Outdoor Colorado helped maintain the trail’s drainage ditches to direct water coming down the hill.
Meg Soyars/Sky-Hi News

“The trail is pretty wide. … There’s more surface area to work with on Jim Creek,” Burke said. “When we install drainage features, they have to take up the width of the trail to catch all the water. That’s why it’s a bigger undertaking than most single-track trails.”

Volunteers hiked up inclines, moving rocks and getting their boots muddy so future hikers won’t have to.

“Now we’re able to make sure the trail will be around for 20 years and that it’s a pleasant experience for hikers,” Kromash said.

The Headwaters Trails Alliance plans to finish this summer’s restoration of Jim Creek in August. They have additional projects on the trail planned for later years.

“Jim Creek is a very popular trail, so it needs a lot of general maintenance,” Burke said. “Eventually, we’d like to put some wilderness bridges up top so people can get to the waterfall without having to cross the stream.”

They plan to coordinate with the Forest Service to accomplish this, creating easier access to the area.

“We represent all trail users, whether they’re hikers, mountain bikers, equestrian users or motorized users,” Burke said. “We can work on every mile of trail in Grand County. We usually hit around 500 miles a year.”

This is a lot of ground — Grand, a hiker’s paradise, boast over 1,000 miles of trails. This summer, their organization has worked on St. Louis Lake Trail, High Lonesome Trail and others.

“We help maintain all the trails outside of (Winter Park) Resort. We partner with the U.S. Forest Service, (Bureau of Land Management), all the municipalities in the county,” Burke said. “We’ve done projects with Rocky Mountain National Park.”

They complete maintenance projects, like drainage work and tree clearing, plus structure-based projects like building bridges. A new trail called Pinball Ridge is also in the works. The Headwaters Trails Alliance is partnering with the Forest Service to build a bridge along Pinball Ridge, which will be part of the Fraser Valley Trail system. Last but not least, they will conduct fire restoration work in the East Troublesome burn scar.

“July is our super busy month, August slows down a bit. September is our month where we get to everything that wasn’t on the schedule that comes up throughout the summer,” Burke said.

Although they’re already halfway through summer, Burke says they welcome volunteers for the next couple months. Those interesting in helping to keep Grand’s trails well-maintained can visit to sign up for any upcoming volunteer events.

People can also adopt a trail through the Headwaters Trails Alliance’s Adopt-A-Trail program or become a trail ambassador to educate the public on trail etiquette and Leave No Trace principles.

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