Volunteers spruce up Sapphire Point
The photo caption with this story has been updated to correct the species of animal pictured. It is a ground squirrel.
Sapphire Point is truly a crown jewel of Summit County. The breathtaking lookout point and associated loop trail off of Swan Mountain Road got some love and attention this weekend, as volunteers from the Friends of the Dillon Ranger District and U.S. Forest Service did maintenance work at the popular site.
Built as part of the Swan Mountain Road project in the 1960s, Sapphire Point is one of the most popular tourist attractions in the county. It offers jaw-dropping views of Lake Dillon, the Tenmile Range and the Gore Range to the north.
The view at the main lookout point, facing the southern end of Lake Dillon toward Breckenridge, is one of the best in Summit. It is also the backdrop for the only designated wedding site in the Dillon Ranger District, a charming alcove framed by tall pines and hemmed with a low stone wall where hundreds of couples have said “I do” over the years.
But Sapphire Point’s popularity is starting to take its toll. The trail is showing heavy wear from the thousands of visitors who walk the loop, which is a bit longer than a half-mile. Tripping hazards from exposed roots, rocks and old drainage sluices have made the short stretch of trail from the entrance down to the wedding site precarious, particularly for wheelchair users.
FDRD program manager Doozie Martin said the mountain was also trying to “reclaim the trail,” with the embankment near the entrance slowly collapsing on to the path, with no retaining wall to keep it stable.
The parking lot at the lookout is meant to only park 22 vehicles, but on any typical summer weekend the lot is usually overflowing, with dozens of cars illegally parked wherever they can fit. Traffic to the site from Swan Mountain Road has also increased every year, necessitating the county to start making improvements for driver and cyclist safety.
Recognizing the site’s popularity, volunteers from FDRD joined the forest service on Saturday morning to perform trail maintenance and make improvements to amenities at the lookout. Among the volunteers was an Eagle Scout looking to snag another badge, with his friends joining to help him.
The volunteers performed a variety of tasks, including removing tripping hazards from the trail with shovels and picks, grading work at uneven parts of the path, digging out old drainage sluices that no longer worked, restacking rocks and stabilizing the stone wall at the wedding site to make it more aesthetically pleasing, and sanding and staining benches and tables further along the trail. Contractors with chainsaws were also on hand to cut down beetle-killed trees on the adjoining hillside.
Martin said that there was only so much volunteers could do by hand, and a lot of the work needs to be done by heavy machinery and professional contractors. But, he said, the Forest Service does not have it in their budget to do that work, so volunteers stepped up to do a few small projects in the meantime.
One of the primary goals of the day was to help make the trail safer and accessible to people with wheelchairs and walkers, especially given the wedding site’s popularity.
“The idea is to make it more accessible,” Martin said. “It’s not ADA compliant, but we want to try to allow some new user groups to use the area.”
Along with the grading work, a retaining wall needs to be built along the inside of the path to keep the aforementioned embankment from collapsing, an expensive and onerous task that can only done by professionals. Martin hopes that FDRD can raise enough money to make the big improvements next year.
Aside from eroding infrastructure, the site’s popularity has created a bit of a ecological issue. The site is also famous for its teeming village of rambunctious chipmunks, and it has become a pastime for kids and adults to feed them handfuls of sunflower seeds.
Standing among small piles of sunflower seed shells around the site, Chris Walsh from the U.S. Forest Service said the forest service does not recommend people feed the chipmunks as they are becoming acclimated to humans, interfering with the local ecosystem. Walsh said there was also a health concern, as chipmunks, which are rodents, may carry disease.
New local Doug Stratton was one of the volunteers working at the site, laboring under the sun to get rid of a hazard on the trail. Stratton, who has only lived in the county for a month, said he was a “proud volunteer” who had just moved here and “planned to be buried here,” saying he loved the community. Sapphire Point, to him, represented much of what he loved about Summit.
“It’s not only the natural beauty and serenity, it’s the peace of mind,” Stratton said. “People come here, walk and sit on the benches, and look off into the distance quietly. I think that’s quality time.”
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