The bike-friendly singletrack area, Heil Ranch, will get a new trail section after the Cal-Wood Fire forced a closure more than two years ago. During the closure, a pair of golden eagles moved their nest closer to the Wapiti trail than is allowed by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Since then, a detour has taken users on a steep, eroded and generally less desirable access road to avoid the nest.
Now, to the excitement of hikers and bikers, Boulder County is ready to establish a permanent replacement. But the proposed design for the new trail, which was released in late April 2023, has dampened that enthusiasm.
The new section would be significantly shorter than the original Middle Wapiti route, at only a third of a mile long, the mountain biking community has lamented. That’s because it would only partially replace the current detour route, as it reconnects with the access road halfway down. The trail would also include 11 switchbacks, which can be a hassle for descending bikers who want to keep up speed.
After the reroute was posted on social media, public comments flooded in on social media, and later in the form of a petition, pleading for fewer switchbacks and a longer trail that connects to the trailhead.
The strong reaction from the cycling community to the Heil Ranch redesign, which is not a major trail, highlights how much pent-up demand there is for bike-friendly singletracks in Boulder, and how infrequent this kind of opportunity is.
Since the Bike Ban of 1983 – which led to a ban on bikes on any trail along the Flatirons – there has been a sense of missed opportunities when it comes to mountain biking in Boulder. While there have been many positive developments, especially at Heil Ranch, the bike community believes there is a lot more potential. For instance, in 2021, a proposal for a route to connect Eldorado Canyon and Walker Ranch was shot down by Colorado Parks and Wildlife after many years of planning.
While just over half of the trail’s users are bikers, the county trail staff working on a reroute say they aren’t solely focused on accommodating bikers. Instead, their focus is on creating a new trail that can weave through protected species and landscapes while minimizing environmental impact.
“It’s often times threading the needle. You have rare grass on one side and a golden eagle nest on the other,” said Therese Glowacki, director of Boulder County Parks and Open Space, in response to a question about the new trail project at an open space advisory meeting on April 27.
Glowacki said that for a typical trail project, there would be a public comment period. However, in the case of the Heil Ranch reroute, she said there wasn’t a feedback phase because there were no alternative options due to the conservation constraints like rare grasses scattered around the area. (The county is now discussing a potential new route.)
The bike community believes there is a lot of potential at Heil Ranch for new trails, and many were disappointed by the lack of stakeholder input during the reroute planning process.
Wendy Sweet, executive director of Boulder Mountain Bike Alliance (BMA), an advocacy group that was formed in 1991 in response to the bike ban on trails in Boulder, said she supports a reroute to protect the eagles. But she wants more information about the other constraints that influenced the initial design since her hope is to see more trail after this reroute, not less.
“We don’t know what the resource constraints are on the east side of the access road,” Sweet said. “What is over there and what is the data that shows how users can interact with sensitive habitat?”
A counter proposal from the biking community
Mike Rutter, BMA trail programs director who spent 15 years building trails for Boulder County Parks and Open Space, took it upon himself to offer a counter proposal that reduces the number of switchbacks and goes all the way back to the trailhead instead of reconnecting with the access road like the initial design.
“What we proposed could be up to two miles of new single track, and in Boulder County that’s not negligible,” Sweet said.
On Friday, May 5, the group launched a petition to help get public support for its proposal. About 550 people signed it and over 120 left comments within the first five days.
The BMA-proposed trail would eliminate most of the switchbacks. It believes reducing the number of switchbacks would also make the installation cheaper. Hundreds of BMA volunteers could be mobilized to help with labor, according to the organization. (In 2019 and 2020, BMA volunteers spent over 500 hours on the Middle Wapiti trail that is now closed.)
Switchbacks on steep terrain help reduce erosion and minimize the impact on protected habitats. Still, trail users are known to crosscut them, which can defeat their purpose.
Jarett Roberts, recreational facilities division manager with the county, said the county is planning to use downed trees from the fire to create natural barriers along the trail to curb that kind of activity.
According to Sweet, of BMA, visitor numbers at Heil Ranch have declined since the detour opened. In 2020, the total number of visitors was 130,000. That figure dropped to 66,000 in 2022 when the trail reopened in June according to the latest visitation report.
Many of the commenters on the petition say the access road detour has made the route so undesirable it isn’t worth the trip.
Boulder County posted on Facebook after the petition launched that it has heard the feedback and is looking at possible alternatives. Staff said they expect to share an update but provided no timeline.
“There may ultimately be some similarities between the department’s route and BMA’s design; however, we are working from the perspective of providing a good trail experience while protecting natural resources, rather than aiming to review BMA’s design,” said Acting Director Janis Whistman.
No matter the final design, users can expect to step foot on the new trail in late summer 2024.