Like cats, trails don’t come any prettier than the Calico.
From its northern launch point just off the Dunton Road north of Rico, the trail meanders through moist meadows bursting with greenery, across burbling brooks and beneath pines before it climbs south toward Eliot Peak and Fall Creek.
This summer, thanks to abundant rainfall, it’s exceptionally beautiful, its verdant vegetation studded with the reds, pinks, and whites of wildflowers.
Unfortunately, all the rain has turned portions of the trail itself into a gluey mess. But the recreational users who travel the narrow and twisting Dunton Road to get to the trailhead aren’t eager to turn around and leave when they arrive.
So they plow ahead through the mud – or tromp out new routes around it. Now, officials with the Dolores District of the San Juan National Forest are asking users to give the trail a rest.
While they aren’t issuing a closure, they’re urging users to avoid the section of trail between the north trailhead off Forest Road 471 and the base of Elliot Peak, 1.5 miles south of the intersection with the East Fall Creek Trail. Recommended detours include the East or West Fall Creek trails.
“What we noticed, basically starting in May when winter returned to our area and moisture returned, is that all of our trails were seeing damage by all users, whether horseback, mountain-bike or motorized,” said Tom Rice, recreation program staff officer with the Dolores Ranger District. “It was lot more damage than we would typically see this time of year, starting as early as May.”
However, high-elevation trails such as Calico did not see much recreational use until June, when snow started to melt. That’s when problems began to occur. “A month or so ago, with the real wet conditions we had on the ground, we saw damage to a lot of our trails,” Rice said, “but this one has taken longer to dry out because of the exceptionally wet conditions up there.
“This particular section of Calico we noticed about the week of July 13. We started to spend more time up there and saw this section was seeing damage just due to the amount of rain. It’s alpine country, with a lot of springs, and it holds moisture differently than other trails.”
Calico is a highly popular trail, he said. “It gives some pretty stunning views of the Wilson Range. Within a short period, less than 4 miles, you can be above tree line.”
But, as with many other sites, its popularity is proving to be a drawback. In a short period this summer, the trail has sustained considerable damage, Rice said, and the Forest Service is becoming increasingly concerned about the cost of repairing it.
Wheels grinding through moist dirt have left deep ruts that hold water – and thus stay muddy longer. In some places, users have detoured around the muddy sections, carving new trails through vegetation.
“We expect general damage to trails because all of us have impacts to the ground,” Rice said. “When you have a year like this year, with exceptionally wet conditions, people may take the experience they’ve had in drier years and not realize the damage they’re doing.”
The single-track trail is open to motorized use, and is also popular with mountain-bikers and horseback riders, he said. All are contributing to the damage. Hikers are less of a concern, he said.
“Pedestrians obviously are lighter on the land than horses and motorbikes.”
Rice said people may not realize how much trail repair can cost at such a site.
“We have to mobilize a crew into an area that’s relatively remote and difficult to get to. They can either camp up there or go in on a daily basis.”
The Forest Service may need to haul in dirt if it can’t get enough from the vicinity, he said.
“A lot of the work we need to do is to try and stop some of the erosion we have right now, as well as deal with reroutes we’re starting to see on the ground around these real wet areas. So we have to repair not just the trail itself but the reroutes – corral those in so you don’t get a new trail.”
The agency built a boardwalk across one section of meadow and hopes to build more such walks, but conditions weren’t right this spring.
“The long-term solution through that area includes more of those boardwalks, whether earthen or treated lumber,” Rice said. “We wanted to do more of that work this year but it was so wet. It takes heavy equipment – small trail dozers – and we were unable to get them in there.”
However, he added with a laugh, “I’m glad that it rained.”
“We think we can repair it. It’s going to cost some money. We didn’t want to have the costs rising so that is why we are really urging people to stay off the trail.”