Colorado’s Waldo Canyon, a place for serious adventure

COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. — A dozen savvy, bushwhacking mountaineers armed with a map and GPS met at a Safeway parking lot on the city’s west side one recent morning and an hour later found themselves in awe. 

To truly appreciate Colorado Springs’ local canyons, take the dirt road from Garden of the Gods near Balanced Rock. That’s Forest Road 300, Rampart Range Road. The gate is set to be drawn Dec. 1, so the clock is ticking to enjoy the display that these hikers had out their four-wheel drive windows:  

Ahead, Pikes Peak loomed over the rolling foothills. Behind, a pink horizon hung over the plains. And all around was the rugged glory of Queens Canyon, Williams Canyon and Waldo Canyon, their ridges and gullies folding and playing with the sunlight that broke through the clouds to shine on the slopes and floors covered with blackened tree trunks.  

Last month, to the joy of off-trail explorers like these, the U.S. Forest Service announced the legal re-entry to Waldo Canyon, which had been closed since its namesake fire five years ago. Now people with the navigational know-how are revisiting the area long beloved before the blaze. They leave with fresh scratches and bruises, with leg muscles burning from the steep terrain — and with the same question they’ve asked since 2012:  

Will Waldo Canyon ever be the same? 

The answer is no. For one, the land is entering a new chapter of ecology, as lands do in the wake of long burns. It simply won’t look the same.  

And also, the access that people so enjoyed — the trailhead at the parking lot along U.S. 24 that remains barricaded — likely will change forever.  

In the days before its October announcement, the Forest Service met with interested parties, including the nonprofit that has worked to restore the forest across the burn scar, the Rocky Mountain Field Institute, as well as the Trails and Open Space Coalition, and representatives of the Colorado Highway Patrol and the Colorado Department of Transportation.  

Those officials did not respond to requests for comment. But at that meeting, they made their feelings known about removing the barricades and reopening the trail.  

“They were pretty firm,” recalls Susan Davies, TOSC’s executive director. “It was pretty much, ‘No, that’s not gonna happen.’ ”  

Says Rocky Mountain Field Institute’s Joe Lavorini: “My understanding is, that’s not even on the table with regard to that being a trailhead once again.”  

The institute is waiting to hear back on a grant that would kickstart a lengthy planning process under the direction of a consultant and the Forest Service. Before making decisions on recreation, land managers say they want to gather public input.  

And whenever talks begin, Davies, for one, says she hopes nothing is off the table. She doesn’t argue with concerns about drivers pulling in and out of the small parking lot from busy U.S. 24. But she wonders about adding signals or changing speed limits, or maybe opening and closing the lot at certain times. A shuttle perhaps?  

“We really should look at it and see if there isn’t a way to make it work,” Davies said.  

The beauty of the trail — indeed what made it one of the region’s most popular — was in how it allowed users a quick nature escape. That could be had in Cascade, where people have trespassed on private property to reach the canyon.  

“I would like to think there is a way there,” says Lavorini, a member of the city’s Trails, Open Space and Parks working committee. The planning process, he said, could be a time “to maybe knock on some doors and see how people there feel.”  

Or maybe a trailhead will have to be more remote. “We could move it to Rampart Range Road, but it changes the experience,” said Evan Burks, who has hiked the canyon and contemplated possibilities in his temporary role with the Pikes Peak Ranger District. “But then you’re driving an hour up on a rocky, washboarded Forest Service road.”  

That suited one group just fine recently. They parked on the road, and off they went on a trail that quickly disappeared in the ravaged ground.  

Among them was Tony Eichstadt, who has taught navigation with the Colorado Mountain Club. “Of course, hiking on ridges is way, way more open,” he said of the day’s adventure. Rather than enter the canyon, they decided to hike above and were granted sweeping vistas featuring the distant Sangre de Cristo and Sawatch ranges. They followed their devices and well-trained instincts through the newly opened terrain within these “lands of many uses.”  

The charred debris crunched and snapped beneath them. At one point, all except for Pam Carothers preferred the dirt to a pile of rocks, which she figured “someone has to scramble.”  

“You know how the Robert Frost poem goes,” she said to the group.  

And though they looked down to Waldo Canyon and thought about checking it out soon, they did not linger. There was so much to see.

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