Inmates help gut Grottos |

Inmates help gut Grottos

Jeremy Heiman

A favorite locals’ forest retreat, run down from overuse, is finally getting some thoughtful rehabilitation.

Due in part to the urging of Aspen resident Bob Lewis, trail work and a redesign of the trails at the Grottos have been under way for a week. Labor is being provided by inmates from the Buena Vista Correctional Center, and Aspen District Ranger Jim Upchurch is directing the project.

The Grottos, a collection of water-sculpted gray granite features along the Roaring Fork River halfway between Aspen and Independence Pass, has two major problems with its trails. There are far too many trails, and it’s still difficult to get anywhere.

Upchurch, who has been at his post since June, said he quickly recognized that the Grottos is a popular place because it’s beautiful and peaceful. Upchurch resolved to devote some attention to the area, which is used for picnicking, sunbathing and swimming and also is popular with painters and photographers.

As Lewis points out, it’s gotten a bit shabby in recent years, with little or no maintenance from the U.S. Forest Service. Visitors have trampled the small “gardens” of native vegetation in depressions in the granite and have created a maze of shortcut paths.

And, as Upchurch observed, visitors aren’t getting the most out of their experience because there’s nothing to direct them to the focal points of the area, the ice cave, the waterfall and the actual grottos.

“When you come up here,” Upchurch said, “people are just wandering around.” Part of the trouble is that Grottos visitors, for years, have walked wherever they wanted, without regard for trails.

And more visitors come all the time, though the Forest Service doesn’t have an actual count of users.

“We’re losing our vegetation,” Upchurch said. “We don’t want to regulate too much, but we want to preserve the things people come up here to see.”

Lewis pointed to a 12-foot-wide flat area on a long, low dome of granite. “This used to be all vegetated,” he said. Only sand is there now, because the grasses and wildflowers have been trampled.

Indicating a smaller area, where the vegetation still grows in a patch of soil on the rock, he said, “That’s 10,000 years of work.”

Glacial ice filled the valley to the brim for one million years, Lewis explained, grinding the rock smooth. The glaciers melted only 10,000 years ago. In that relatively short period of time, thin soil has built up, and the grasses, undergrowth and trees have become established.

Only in the last 50 years has the influence of man been felt here. But recent wear and tear has taken out a significant amount of the vegetation.

The inmate workers have placed brush and branches to block off dozens of the aimless trails. They have also started to rebuild degraded main trails, completing a section of the Grottos Loop Trail leading to the waterfall.

“What was here before was a sort of trench,” Upchurch said, indicating the trail. Rocks line the edge, and the trail looks as though it’s always been there.

The workers leveled this stretch of trail by building it up with road base, a mixture of gravel and soil. Because road base is a material foreign to the lodgepole pine forest, they disguised it with a covering of pine cone scales, Lewis said.

The scales are the part of cones that squirrels discard as they pick the seeds out. Great piles of the scales can sometimes be found under trees where squirrels habitually dine. The scales spread on the trail make it look anything but new.

More trail work will be ordered after Upchurch and Forest Service trail experts design a reasonable flow pattern.

“Before I say `Start digging,’ I want to make sure this is the best way to have people going,” Upchurch said. He added that once the unofficial trails are closed off, the revegetation is expected to be successful.

“This area is so wet we get pretty good recovery if you can keep people off,” he said.

Upchurch really appreciates the inmate labor, which makes the cost minimal, he said, because the Forest Service can’t afford much in the way of paid help for trail work. Moreover, 60 percent of the Aspen Ranger District staff has been assigned to firefighting most of this summer, he said.

“Trail crews have been nonexistent,” he said, adding that he hopes work can begin in the spring to finish the project quickly.

Oscar Jones, one of the inmates from Buena Vista, said he feels fortunate to be on the work detail at the Grottos.

“I’d rather be in here working on trails than just about anything,” Jones said. “When I get out, I’m coming back here to shoot a bunch of pictures, especially the ice cave.”

Jones has hauled gravel and dug up roots to build trail segments and moved rocks to form barriers to keep people from slipping into the ice cave, he said.

Even with the inmate labor, Upchurch said, the project is underfunded. Federal budget cuts have left the Forest Service with little financing for projects of this sort. He’s hoping the community will come forward with donations and volunteers for projects such as this.

“Maybe we can get some benefactor to give us some money for a bridge,” Upchurch said.

Upchurch and Lewis estimate the work is one-third to one-half done. Projects remaining include a trail bridge, some simple signs to give directions and an interpretive display.

Forest Service personnel will create some small signs over the winter to help guide people to the features they want to see. Upchurch said there’s a fine line between enough signage and not enough.

“What you get when you start putting in amenities like that is a place that’s less wild,” Upchurch said.

But, he added, with user numbers rapidly climbing, improved trails and a few signs will no doubt be necessary for safety.

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