Aspen-area trail a father’s labor of love

Scott Condon
The Aspen Times
Aspen, CO, Colorado

ASPEN – For each of the last three summers, Stirling “Buzz” Cooper has spent parts of 100 days chipping away at the rock and dirt, clearing brush and thinning weeds to scratch out a trail on a steep mountainside overlooking Castle Creek Valley.

The rough trail is a tribute to his son, Stirling Cooper Jr., who died in a hiking accident in a remote Utah canyon on Aug. 28, 1999.

Buzz turns 80 years old on Sept. 6. He knows he can’t undertake this younger man’s work anymore, so he’s racing to get the Stirling Wilderness Trail better established, publicized and used to cement its place as a fitting memorial to his son.

During a hike Tuesday, Buzz abruptly stopped on a section of the trail. Rays of sun poked through towering aspen trees with trunks too big to wrap arms around. The rays doused Buzz as he looked back at a hiking partner.

“It really just captures the spirit of Stirling,” Buzz said of the trail. “It feels good to be out in the woods.”

“Not too many people use it,” he later continued. “It’s not for the city slicker. It’s for peace and solitude, to enjoy the wilderness.”

To say the trail is not for city slickers is an understatement. It takes off from the first bend on Little Annie Road, just 500 feet or so off Castle Creek Road. The trail is a loop with a tail, with the tail the steepest section and the first that hikers encounter. It’s steep enough to make most hikers wonder what they’re getting themselves into.

The trail crosses a combination of unpatented mining claims, patented mining claims that the Copper family sold to Pitkin County two years ago, and national forest. Cooper, a third-generation Aspenite born in a log cabin near Difficult Campground in 1931, said his father bought interests in mining claims in the area beginning in 1939.

When Cooper sold 54 acres of mining claims to Pitkin County, he said he retained the right to work on the trail and allow for use by hikers. “Two words characterize my efforts – public and welcome,” he said. The property is known as the Stirling Open Space.

The open space comprises six mining claims. Five of them were surveyed in 1889 and patented in 1895, according to Cooper’s research. The immediate area’s mines were never big producers, but Cooper, fascinated by Aspen’s mining history since he was a youngster, believes they still hold promise. They have the best potential for silver of any unexplored area, he insisted.

Handmade signs keep hikers on the trail, which fades in places and requires attention. (Pitkin County open space officials urge hikers to educate themselves on the route to avoid straying onto adjacent private property.) The loop and tail total just in excess of 2 miles. A spur climbs to the Quien Sabe mine, higher on the mountainside.

The trail starts around 9,000 feet and climbs past numerous old mine dumps, tunnel diggings, collapsed ruins of mining cabins, a spring that likely dates back to the mining heyday, and the historic prize – the Storm King Cabin. Hippies fought for two decades in the 1960s and ’70s over who got to sleep in that holdover from the mining era, Cooper said. The cabin rests near the high point of the loop, at about 10,100 feet in elevation.

Buzz linked old mining routes, game trails and paths he established to create the loop. The trail often penetrates deep into spruce forest and aspen trees. Sometimes a hiker pops into a meadow or small clearing that offers views of the surrounding magnificent mountainsides, such as Hayden Peak. The heavily forested ridge across Castle Creek Valley emerges every now and then.

“I’m looking at the view my grandfather saw,” Cooper marvels at one of the clearings.

His love of the property is evident. His family attempted to win development approvals for two cabins in a land use fight with Pitkin County and the U.S. Forest Service in the late 1980s and into the ’90s. The experience angered Buzz at the time; now he says he is “glad” he didn’t win the fight. Even a humble cabin or two would have ruined the property, he said.

“So not all government interference is bad,” he quipped.

Now he just wants the special place memorialized. He hopes more exposure of the trail and open space will inspire the Pitkin County Trails and Open Space Program as well as the Forest Service to extend a trail to Richmond Hill Road, also known as Richmond Ridge.

While looking over the land and the trail built by the sweat of his brow, Cooper said there couldn’t have invested his time in a more fitting tribute to his son.

“Stirling was like my other self,” he said.