Hikers on the recently reopened Green Mountain Trail on the west side of Rocky Mountain National Park know they’ll see extensive devastation caused by the East Troublesome wildfire two years ago. There’s no doubt that’s a big part of it.
But there are also stunning, thought-provoking surprises: a spectacular stretch of wild flowers along the path that surrounds the ground with vibrant green and tumultuous eruptions of pink, yellow and white flowers, telling a story of new life and renewal against a darkened and apocalyptic backdrop. charred wood.
Hundreds of pole candles lie on the ground when 100 mph winds drove the fire into a park near the entrance to Grand Lake on Oct. 21, 2020. Other lodgepoles remain standing, mostly stripped of branches. Most of them are coal black in color, but some are light black as they are debarked. Colorado’s second-worst wildfire has exploded from 18,550 acres to 187,964 acres. In less than 24 hours.
Vibrant colors spread along the trail amid charred stumps and trees with exposed root systems violently uprooted by hurricane-force winds as they fall. Among the bushes decorated with yellow and white flowers, the trunks of magical pink woods bloom. In some places, mosses grow in shades of orange, yellow and green in moist soil.
The juxtaposition of death and new life will surely thrill all who come.
“This is the first place we took our kids backpacking in ’92 or ’93,” said Denise Bretting of Loveland, who hiked the trail with her husband Tuesday. “This is a special place. I’m sad to see it differently, but that’s what forests do.”
Before the fire, the trail was heavily wooded. Mark Bretting marveled at the scale of the devastation, feeling a full recovery would take a long time. “It’s unbelievable,” he said.
Laura Graefe was visiting from Cedarburg, Wis., with her husband Jim and two daughters in their 20s.
“It’s sad because of the burn, but it’s also nice to have the wildflowers coming back,” Laura said. “Flowers are beautiful against charred, charred wood.”
“It’s fascinating,” Jim added, thinking about the fire. “Just the scope, the scale, everything in its path is gone.”
According to Kyle Patterson, the park’s public affairs officer, five footbridges were rebuilt to reopen the Green Mountain Trail over water crossings and to protect wetlands.
“Dangerous items such as downed trees and burned trail infrastructure have been removed from the trail by the fire,” Patterson said. “The nails, spikes and screws from the remains of the burned trail infrastructure were removed to protect trail users. The trail work was hot and dirty because of the lack of forest cover, blackened soil and bridging materials (which were from nearby burnt trees).”
After a 1.8 mile hike, the Green Mountain Trail intersects with the Tonahutu Trail at an area called Big Meadows. The East Troublesome Fire moved eastward into Tonahutu Creek, and the fire “tipped” from just upstream of that drainage and spread to the Spruce Creek drainage on the east side of the park via aerial embers flying over the Continental. Divide. Eventually, due to aggressive firefighting efforts and a fortuitous turn of weather events that included fresh snow, the fire stopped progressing 3 to 4 miles from Estes Park.
When the Green Mountain Trail reopened two weeks ago, the Tonahutu Trail also reopened to Bear Lake on the east side of the park. This traverse is a massive 15-mile effort that takes hikers over the Continental Divide at an elevation of 12,363 feet and, like the Green Mountain Trail, has no restrictions since the fire.
Patterson said this week the upper sections of the Tonahutu trail beyond the Great Meadows were closed again for “ongoing evaluation” and will not reopen this year. No reason was given for the withdrawal.
Nevertheless, the re-opening of the Green Mountain Trail offers some good day-hike options:
- Taking the Green Mountain Trail to its junction with the Tonahutu Trail at Big Meadows provides a 3.6-mile round trip with 600 feet of elevation gain.
- From the Green Mountain-Tonahutu junction, the 0.6 mile hike north along Big Meadows is pleasant, although we recommend carrying mosquito repellent if you venture into this area (we learned this the hard way). At the new Tonahutu Park at the Onahu Creek trail junction, you can return to the Green Mountain Trail (4.6 miles round trip).
- For a longer hike, take the Onahu Creek Trail at the new Tonahutu turnoff. This will eventually lead you back to the Green Mountain Trailhead (7.3 miles).
“It’s primarily a forest hike, with all the silence and solitude,” Eric Stensland wrote of the Green Mountain-Onahu Creek loop in his comprehensive guidebook, “Hiking Rocky Mountain National Park,” published a year before “Eastern Troublesome.” the fire radically changed much of this landscape.
It’s not quite a forest walk like it used to be, and it won’t be for very long, but it’s worth exploring. Some people even say they can smell the wildflowers.