May 25 2010

More People On the Trail – Good or Bad?

View of Pike's Peak from the Devil's Head fire tower overlook

Devil’s Head Trail

Noticing Other People Enjoying Nature

Location: Between Sedalia and Deckers, in Douglas County

Directions: From Denver take I-25 South to Happy Canyon Road (west), then go proceed on Happy Canyon Road to Highway 85 and turn right (west) toward Sedalia. (From western suburbs take C-470 to Santa Fe Drive to Sedalia and Highway 67).

From Highway 85 turn left (southwest) onto Highway 67 heading toward Deckers. Then head west on highway 67 to the north entrance of the park at Rampart Range Road, 10 miles. Take this South for approximately 9 miles to Devil’s Head campground and the Fire Tower trailhead.

Duration: Approximately 3 hours

Route: There is only one trail up the mountain to the Devil’s Head overlook and tower from the parking lot.

Access Notes: Rampart Range Road is closed from December to April since the road is not maintained in winter. It’s best to go in the summer or late spring when roads are dry and clear.

The trail itself is a moderately steep walk 1.5 miles up to the summit and the fire tower overlook. There are picnic tables and restrooms (no running water) at the trailhead and parking lot. The lot fills up early on summer weekends, even though there are plenty of spaces. You don’t need a 4WD vehicle to access this trail since Rampart Range Road is gravel and fairly smooth with only a few areas of washboard. It’s about a 1.5 hour drive to Devil’s Head from most central and northern Denver suburbs, much less if you’re coming from Highlands Ranch or Castle Pines.

This is one hike I recommend doing on a summer weekend as opposed to attempting to come when it’s not crowded, such as mid-week or early in the morning. The point of this contemplative hike is to really experience the feeling of other people on the trail, what it means, and what the future holds for those wanting to experience the peace and tranquility of nature.

Dogs are allowed on leash.

The Hike

From the parking lot to the top of the trail where the fire tower is located is 940 feet of elevation gain and a mile and a half of long, sweeping switchbacks that wind their way through tall, erect aspen and then through spruce and pine. The trail zig zags the north face of the mountain, with distant or picturesque views of rock formations, Mount Evans, the eastern plains and the Black Forest, and the Lost Creek Wilderness Range to the west.

The hike starts off sheltered in the tall aspens and crosses a small creek (during spring meltoff). Mid-way up the mountain you’ll pass huge, smooth, egg- and spire-shaped boulders and scenic overlooks. Don’t get too close to the edge!

Once you reach the summit, you’ll encounter a small meadow, a cabin, more restrooms, and an old fire tower that is accessed by a very steep and long metal staircase. This is a good place to take a break and eat lunch. The final push to the fire tower is not for the faint of heart or people with vertigo or fear of heights. However, if you can manage it, it’s well-worth the effort. The views of Pikes Peak to the south and Denver and Mt. Evans to the north are so expansive it feels as if you’re in an airplane—much higher than you actually are. The tower is closed if there’s lightning or the danger of lightning. Ideally, you want to do this hike on clear, sunny days that aren’t too windy. The final elevation at the top is about 9,500 feet, so you may feel a little winded with all that climbing.

With so many people you pass on the trail, once you reach the tower you’ll enjoy the feeling of wilderness and space. Pike National Forest surrounds you to the south, west and east, and trees are all you can see for miles. To the west, you can see the 130,000-some acres that were burned during the 2002 Deckers wildfire. The hills there are still brown in comparison to the unburned areas.

More People On the Trail — Good or Bad?

One of the many scenic overlooks from Devil's Head trail

Before you even arrive at the parking lot for this trail, you’ll notice something unique about this entire area of Pike National Forest. The length of Rampart Range Road branches off into large alcoves and parking lots intended for trucks with trailers hauling ATVs, dirt bikes and quads. There are special trails that have been designated for off-road travel by ATVs only and these trails weave in loops through the forest, sometimes parallel to the main road. Families and groups pitch their tents, bring in their travel trailers and motorhomes and spend the day or longer riding their ATVs and enjoying time in the woods.

The high-pitched buzzing of small engines permeate the area and you may start to wonder, as you’re making your way up the road to the trailhead, how you’re going to enjoy this hike with all this racket going on. It’s actually not that bad once you get up onto the trail, as most of the noise is absorbed by the trees and wind.

When I was in my 20s I used to enjoy weekends camping with friends who’d bring along their small quad that we all took turns riding. We camped in BLM land near the Lost Creek Wilderness, and being young and stupid, we did some stupid things, like making a campfire that was way too hot and throwing out sparks, drinking too much, making too much noise and probably not being very kind to the land. I’m sure we probably pissed off some backpackers or hikers who may have wandered near our camp when they heard the growl of the ATV engine zipping up and down the hills.

I haven’t ridden in any ATVs since then and actually find their noisiness irritating now when I’m out hiking or trying to enjoy the peace of wilderness. I suppose I’m not the only one who feels this way, because I know there aren’t many places that allow the kind of activity one sees as one travels down Rampart Range Road.

Recently, the idea of too many people using natural areas has come up as a source of controversy among the National Forest Service, Boulder county residents and some of my friends. In October of 2009, The Boulder City Council and the Open Space and Mountain Parks Board of Trustees were considering a pilot program that would charge non-residents a fee to use some of the open space parks within Boulder county. The reason this was being considered was because City Council was looking to close a budget gap for Open Space programs. Around 40% of users of the open space park are non-Boulder (non-city tax paying) residents, according to City Council, and they felt those people needed to help pay for the cleaning and maintenance of the parks.

The walk up to the fire tower is 1-1/2 miles and nearly 1000 feet of elevation gain.

In May of 2010, an article appeared in the Gazette stating that the Forest Service was considering charging hikers $10 per day to summit the fourteeners in the South Colony Basin near Westcliffe, Colorado. As state and federal budgets are tightened, land managers are looking for alternative ways to both cover the cost of trail maintenance and to reduce the number of people using the trails.

This controversial proposal struck a nerve among some of my friends and family, who admit they, too, feel there are too many people crowding the Front Range hiking trails on any given weekend and wonder what the solutions are.

One person even told me that perhaps there ought to be less books telling people where to go hiking, because the information is just contributing to this “problem.” (This book, of course, being the target of such facetious banter.)

But is it a problem? And why is it a problem?

As an ecopsychologist, I can say that the worst thing federal, state and city authorities can do to solve budget problems is to start charging money for people to spend time in nature. Unless people have ample opportunities to enjoy nature and connect with the land where they live, they will no longer know how much wilderness is really left and therefore won’t care about what happens to wilderness. Human beings need some sort of connection to nature for optimum mental health. We cannot lock ourselves up in a concrete box with only more boxes such as television, cars and computers to interact with and think we can end up healthy, mentally or physically. We need a relationship to the land: whether that’s a garden, an animal, a tree, a park or a backyard. When that relationship is lacking, man’s consideration for his environment withers. The environment just becomes an abstract idea. The natural world becomes an object to be exploited and converted to human wealth. It becomes a mountain to be mined for coal, an ocean to be exploited for oil and seafood, a forest to be cut down to build tract homes.

If it’s going to cost money to experience wilderness, then only those people who can afford to spend the money will be able to enjoy time in nature. Many low-income people already don’t drive up to the mountains to go hiking or just enjoy the woods because they can barely afford the gas money for such trips, let alone if it cost them $10 per person or $5 to park their car each time. Enjoying nature becomes a luxury for those that can’t afford the fees and gas prices, and the best they can do is to go to a nearby park in the city and sit under a tree.

But the bigger question is, why are so many more people using the trails, visiting State and National Parks and putting a financial burden on the agencies who are working so hard to maintain these areas? Is it that there are so many more people moving to Colorado and the population is increasing in general? Perhaps — I certainly wouldn’t discount this obvious fact.

View from just below the fire tower

Perhaps the other reason more people are finding it necessary to drive some distance away from where they live to go enjoy nature is because nature is being continually pushed out from the city by development. There are fewer and fewer places to go in the city that afford the same kind of experience once gets from hiking in the woods—where it’s quiet and scenic and smells good. It’s not so much that population is increasing, it’s also that development is increasing around the Front Range, with fewer and fewer fields, prairies, stands of trees and what investors call “vacant land.”

Is charging fees and discouraging use of trails and parks the best solution? The problem is not that there are too many people using the trails. The industrial growth paradigm that creates this need in people is the problem. It stems from how we treat or value natural areas that already exist near the city. It’s not a vast meadow with some trees to be enjoyed by all creatures; it’s undeveloped land that has certain monetary value to investors, but only if it’s bulldozed, excavated and covered by buildings and parking lots. A prairie dog or coyote is not an animal; it’s a “nuisance” to be eliminated or relocated.

Therefore, charging fees to recoup the cost of human use of natural areas or to discourage use by making it only affordable to wealthy people is like putting a band aid on a headwound. It doesn’t address the core problem of industrial growth society’s attitude toward nature, and ignores the fact that keeping people distanced from nature only adds to the problem, because people will look to material wealth to fill that void; a void they could be filling through spiritual and contemplative practices, such as an opening up to feeling enchanted by nature’s beauty.

The Activity

The intention of this hike is not to be silent and withdrawn from others, but to connect not just to the mountain, but to the people who have come to enjoy it, too.

When I hiked this trail in late May, I noticed a lot of “sneaker hikers” enjoying the trail. This is what I call people who like to hike but don’t have the latest in technical clothing and gear, who aren’t racing to the top, who are stopping frequently to take breaks and enjoy the view and maybe even snap a few photos. They came with their kids, their dogs, their friends to enjoy a warm, sunny spring day in the woods with their loved ones.

People aren’t a “nuisance” on trails. They are individuals who value the land where they reside. They value what being in the woods or hiking up a mountain does for their bodies and souls. Human beings belong to the land, not the other way around.

I can’t imagine these hikers feeling that this particular trail is an object to be exploited to create products or build mansions for the select few. I’m almost positive that if I were to ask each person on the trail if they wouldn’t mind if this entire area was closed to the public and turned over to a mining and forestry company to extract resources for the manufacture of cellphones, coffee tables and televisions, they’d look at me in horror.

Take a look at the people you encounter on your hike. Consider why they’re here. Consider what would happen if they weren’t here, or if no one cared about coming up to the mountains for enjoyment.

These are people who have seen nature displaced where they live, in small ways, or perhaps in significant ways. Deep in their memory, they all have a story to tell about the displacement or destruction of natural areas.

In 1995 I moved to Broomfield. I bought a new house in an area that was previously just old farm fields and prairie. For at least the first two years I lived there, my still-small neighborhood was surrounded by these fields. I would go walking through those fields after work almost every day, enjoying the views of the mountains and the way everything felt so wide-open and spacious. I would observe many different birds flittering about from shrub to shrub. But all this came to an end after two years of development and expansion, and the fields were covered in tract homes and playgrounds.

What is your story about losing a favorite place to development or pollution?

While you’re making progress up to the tower, enjoy connecting to the people as well as the scenery. Say hello. Make eye contact. Strike up friendly conversations.

How does it feel to share these woods and this mountain with other people?

Were there any assumptions and attitudes about other people on the trail that were challenged by your observations?

When I began my descent down the steps of the fire tower, I ran into a man and his two children on their way up. I had passed them an hour earlier, as the father had stopped to point out some kind of plant to them.

His son, who looked to be about 12 or 13, had stopped halfway up the staircase, terrified and crying. His head was slung in shame as he was unable to move up or down. I slowed down as I passed them, and looked with empathy at the father as he tried to comfort his son.

“I remember feeling the same way about these kinds of places when I was his age.” I said.

“Yeah, it’s tough having a fear of heights.” The father answered. His eyes and voice were full of compassion and softness.

In that moment, we were more than just hikers. We connected as parents, as human beings, and as decent people wanting the same things for ourselves and our children.

2 responses so far

2 Responses to “More People On the Trail – Good or Bad?”

  1. Michelle Francison 25 May 2010 at 1:30 pm

    Is nothing safe from capitalism, including nature? I feel very strongly that people shouldn’t have to pay to enjoy natural surroundings. Turning Mother Nature into a commodity is akin to making her a prostitute. I for one would rather not cheapen the experience of all the Colorado wilderness has to offer us.

  2. [...] Some of the MeetUp members I hiked with were annoyed at the constant traffic of bicyclists and groups and some didn’t seem to mind at all. Some didn’t like the road noise close to the trailhead. Everyone has their own unique experience and everyone has their own truth about what it means to see so many people enjoying the trail through the wilderness. It’s an interesting contemplative practice in itself. (See, “More People On the Trail, Good or Bad?”). [...]