Dealing with the byproducts of a busy COVID summer on Independence Pass |

Dealing with the byproducts of a busy COVID summer on Independence Pass

Forest Service, partners decide permanent toilet needed at Upper Lost Man Trailhead

Lost Man Lake is a popular stop on the Lost Man Loop. The number of hikers soared during the COVID summer of 2020. The ecosystem paid the price.
Scott Condon/The Aspen Times

The unprecedented use — and occasional abuse — of the Independence Pass corridor last summer will produce a highly visible result this summer.

The U.S. Forest Service and partners decided after flushing out all the issues to install a permanent bathroom at the Upper Lost Man Trailhead.

The Lost Man Loop hike has always been popular but visits soared in the COVID-19 summer as people from Colorado’s Front Range and other urban areas fled to the mountains to find relief from the pandemic.

“Last year saw more use on the Pass than any year in history, is the bottom line,” Karin Teague, executive director of the nonprofit Independence Pass Foundation, said Tuesday. “The Pass felt the impacts.”

One of those impacts was human waste and trash along the Upper Lost Man Trailhead. Teague said she and an intern spent considerable time last year picking up after people, unpleasant as it was.

There is no bathroom at the trailhead, so people took matters into their own hands. They ducked behind willow bushes and small brush that grows just off the roadside and did their business. More often than not they did not properly dispose of their waste.

Teague said the rush to get outdoors might have attracted people who didn’t have experience with carrying a trowel and burying their waste in a “cat hole” or carrying a WAG bag, designed for hauling out waste and leaving no trace.

Expectations are for continued heavy use of the Pass.

Forest Service officials and its partners discussed alternatives — urging people to drive the 1½-miles to the bathroom at the Independence Pass summit, stocking WAG bags at the trailhead or doing nothing. They came to the conclusion that installing a toilet was the best option, said Shelly Grail, recreation staff manager for the Aspen-Sopris Ranger District.

Teague said she never likes to see development in the Pass corridor, but there is a trade-off. The terrain in the Upper Lost Man Trailhead is sensitive at 11,500 feet and it is located at the headwaters of the Roaring Fork River, so it’s important to try to prevent people from leaving waste, she said.

Independence Pass Foundation is adding money to its support. It raised $12,500 for the effort. The Forest Service and Aspen Skiing Co. employee Environment Foundation donated $10,000 each.

The single-stall toilet will be installed by mid-June, weather conditions permitting. It will be built to last with a concrete vault and foundation similar to the bathrooms at the 12,095-foot summit of the Pass.

Teague said the toilet would be built into the hillside on the western side of the informal parking at the Upper Lost Man Trailhead.

The Lower Lost Man Trailhead, which sees as much use, doesn’t have quite the same problem with human waste. The bathroom at the Lost Man Campground is located across Highway 82 from that parking area. The campground did not open during the COVID summer but is expected to be back in operation in the future. Teague said the Colorado Department of Transportation has agreed to paint crosswalk lines on the highway to create a safer environment for pedestrians heading to the facilities.

Waste isn’t the only byproduct of increased use of the great outdoors last summer. The Lost Man Loop saw even more braiding of the trail than usual. A lot of the trail is in a wetland area and the terrain holds snow well into spring and summer. Hikers seek ways around wet ground and create braids to the main trail.

Roaring Fork Outdoor Volunteers and IPF will target the area with a trails project this summer. In addition, the two nonprofits will team with the Forest Service and Wilderness Workshop for an extended project on the Lost Man Loop in mid-August.

Teague stressed that it “made her heart sing” to see families and other people enjoying the Pass last summer. Some of the visitors appeared new to getting outside and enjoying nature. People are more likely to be inspired to help save special places when they experience them. However, the heavy use also requires attention of public land managers and its partners. The Upper Lost Man toilet is an example of that attention, Teague said.

Funding for forest projects

The 2.3-million acre White River National Forest scored funds for infrastructure projects in the Great American Outdoors Act of 2021.

Two projects that stand out are repaving and completion of paving in the popular Difficult Campground east of Aspen and replacement of a bridge over Hell Roaring Creek on the Avalanche Creek Trail.

At Difficult, roads, camper pads and a day-use parking lot will be paved. The work will be undertaken after Labor Day Weekend so it doesn’t interfere with the busy season, according to Shelly Grail, recreation staff manager for the Aspen-Sopris Ranger District.

The bridge over Hell Roaring Creek washed out during high runoff in spring 2019. An usually high avalanche cycle in March 2019 dumped debris in many drainages throughout the Colorado Rocky Mountains. Debris that was washed down Hell Roaring Creek knocked out the bridge, making crossing difficult at best and treacherous at high water.