Hiking and biking in Aspen area? Be patient and maybe bring a saw

‘Relentless winds’ produced a lot of deadfall on local trails

Representatives of the Roaring Fork Mountain Bike Association found a “tangled mess” on the Mill Creek Trail on Basalt Mountain. Strong winds this spring have produced a lot of downed timber.
RFMBA/courtesy photo

Negotiating up and over downed trees is part of the spring routine for hikers and bikers in the Roaring Fork Valley, but this year might require taking it to the next level.

Strong winds this spring appear to have resulted in more downed trees than usual on roads and trails.

“It’s something we deal with each spring, but this year we’re maybe seeing more (downfall) than usual,” said Shelly Grail, recreation manager for the Aspen-Sopris Ranger District of the U.S. Forest Service.

Colorado State University’s Colorado Climate Center wrote in its report for April that the consistent high winds constituted a “significant event.”

“The biggest weather story in April was the relentless wind,” the report said. “Although April is typically the windiest month of the year for much of Colorado, 2022 took that to a new level.”

The Colorado Climate Center’s report for May isn’t posted yet, but winds persisted through the month. The Roaring Fork Valley experienced particularly heavy winds on Mother’s Day Weekend.

The Aspen-Sopris Ranger District’s seasonal workers on the trails and wilderness crews started work last week and have already cleared parts of the trails to American Lake, Cathedral Lake, Thomas Lakes, East Maroon and Crater Lake.

“Keep in mind that they’ve cleared to the snow line,” Grail said.

A hiker walks down Smuggler on a beautiful warm day in Aspen on Thursday, June 2, 2022. Hikers heading further into the woods can expect to find more than usual downfall this spring because of high winds. (Kelsey Brunner/The Aspen Times)

While the snow line varies depending on slope aspects and tree cover, it’s a safe bet that snow will be encountered at 10,000 feet and above, according to the Aspen-Sopris District Road and Trail conditions report updated online on June 1.

In some cases, snow is down to 9,000 feet in elevation, the report noted. Rangers have added notes to specific hikes they have undertaken this spring. For example, a note on the Capitol Creek Trail #1963 says the route is snow-free to a creek crossing 3 miles into the hike.

Backpackers on the popular Conundrum Creek route were advised to be prepared for route finding through snow and pitching a tent on snowpack.

“Consistent snow starts 1.5 miles from Conundrum Creek trailhead,” the report said. “Expect to travel and camp on snow. Travel not recommended without snowshoes or skis and knowledge of snow travel and route finding. Snow will persist through the end of June and early July. There is a creek crossing that does not have a bridge. Water is cold and swift.”

Many routes on Independence Pass are listed as snow-covered in the Forest Service report.

Some trails in the Fryingpan Valley were specifically noted for downed trees. The South Fork Pass Trail, for example, had “a lot of windfall 1-2 miles in,” the report said.

Like the Forest Service, the Roaring Fork Mountain Bike Association has encountered downed trees on some routes. In its latest newsletter sent May 31, RFMBA titled an entry, “High winds = Plenty of deadfall blocking trails.”

“There’s a lot of downed trees crossing trails out there,” the article said. “Mill Creek on Basalt Mountain is a tangled mess.”

Mill Creek and other trails on Basalt Mountain are particularly vulnerable to high winds because so many trees were killed or weakened by the Lake Christine Fire in 2018. Mill Creek Trail is lined with burned-out trunks called standing snags.

RFMBA executive director Mike Pritchard said new members of the organization’s trails crew are going through sawyer’s training this week and will be hitting problem spots soon. A “super volunteer” already cleared up the Forest Hollow Trail outside of Glenwood Springs, according to the newsletter.

The association advised riders to take extra food into the backcountry and be prepared to turn around if deadfall is too thick.

“If the conditions at Mill Creek are any indication of the forested trails in the rest of the valley, it should be one of the worst years for deadfall in recent memory,” the newsletter said.

Grail, with the Forest Service, also urged people to climb over downed trees whenever possible rather than walking around and creating new trail. “It’s best to go over and not around,” she said.

Grail also encouraged trail users to submit observations on conditions by calling the Aspen-Sopris Ranger District at 970-963-2266.


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