Trail Blazers

A look at the first trails in Summit County and who pioneered them

By Mike Zobbe

In the 1970s, there was no paved bike path system in Summit County, no Peaks Trail, no Blue River trail. Mountain Biking was still in its infancy, with pioneers in Crested Butte and Marin, Calif., burning the grease out of the coaster brakes of their cobbled-together clunkers.

Summer recreation was a poor stepchild of the ski season and shops and restaurants were quiet for the most part during the warm months. The backcountry was used by a small but growing number of hikers, jeepers, equestrians, dirt bikers, cross-country skiers and snowmobilers.

Summit County, despite the slow summer season, was growing fast. Keystone and Copper Mountain were developed during this time and Breckenridge expanded onto Peak 9. I-70 and the Eisenhower Tunnel were completed, opening the gates to a flood of traffic that had previously been held in check by Loveland Pass. Real estate was taking off; many of today's "old neighborhoods" were platted and the tax base was skyrocketing, but little money had been spent on recreation.

In 1976, Summit County received $204,000 from the Federal Treasury for "payment in lieu of taxes." This money is paid to compensate governments for land that is not on the county's tax role. Nearly half of the windfall, or $96,000, was earmarked for recreational purposes. So the county commissioners decided to set up a committee and survey the citizens to see what they might like to see done with the cash. Thus, the ball that is trails-based recreation planning that still rolls to this day, was kicked off the ledge at the top of a hill.

One of the people who was a part of that committee was Rick Hum. Hum came to the county to ski on a six-month sabbatical from his position as vice president of banking operations of Citibank. The lure of mountain life gradually took over and he stayed. He had been working off-and-on for the county, using his bachelor's degree in mathematics doing statistical analysis in the planning department. Hum was the ideal man for compiling the survey. He had a head for numbers and a love for the outdoors.

The results of the survey showed unconditionally that trails were a high priority (although tennis courts ranked first), with bicycling/ski touring trails ranking second, and hiking/ski touring trails ranking third. Horse trails ranked 12th, and motor bike and "ski doo" courses ranked 16th. The recreational committee decided to fund a project to develop a full plan for all types of trails throughout Summit County. Hum was hired as trails coordinator to work with the county planning staff and the Forest Service.

To gather more input from the public, the county hosted several forums in 1977 and '78. They were well attended and a great deal of input was received. Most of what people wanted in the late '70s would be familiar to people today. They wanted good backcountry maps; new and improved trailheads; signs to improve access, encourage proper use, and protect fragile areas; a system of interconnected trails; volunteer projects; and maintenance and improvements to existing facilities. With all this input and lots of legwork, the first Summit County trails plan, a 70-page document, was submitted in April of 1978. The plan starts by asking, "Why a trail system?" and answers with a timeless response, "People continue to live in, to move to, and visit areas like Summit County because of the high quality of life enjoyed in such areas (which) can be improved by improving physical health, providing enriching experiences and improving the understanding of an individual relationship with the natural world."

Not all of the trails we enjoy today came about as a direct result of the new plan. Some had been completed in earlier years or were already in the works, but were incorporated into the overall scheme of things. For example, the Wheeler Trail was originally a stock drive. In Summit County's ranching days it was used to drive sheep from the Copper Mountain (then called Wheeler flats) area to South Park. Funding for turning the stock route into a recreational trail came as a result of its "national" recognition. One of its main protagonists was Gudy Gaskill of the Colorado Mountain Club, who later became the long-time "mother" of the Colorado Trail.

The concept of the Colorado Trail came about in the mid-'70s when then-governor Dick Lamm proclaimed the formation of the Colorado Trail to provide a non-motorized link from Denver to Durango.

The Miner's Creek trail and the Peaks Trail (then called the "Frickenridge" trail, a name many old-timers in the county still use) were planned to provide access to the Wheeler Trail. It made sense, then, to continue the Frickenridge-to-Breckenridge to provide a link from Frisco to Breckenridge that was envisioned in the trail plan.

What of Summit County's paved bike path? In 1979, mountain biking was just a bunch of crazies on clunkers, so a "bike path" meant pavement. When I-70 was planned and the route through Ten Mile Canyon was selected (it almost went through the Gore Range, between Buffalo and Red Mountain), Federal highway standards dictated that bicycle traffic was not desirable on interstate highways. (Anyone who has ever ridden a bicycle on an interstate shoulder can tell you that.)

So, when the interstate was built on the route of the old highway from Frisco to Leadville, there was no bike route through Ten Mile Canyon. Since the county held the right-of-way on the old railroad bed through the canyon, it was not difficult to bring highway dollars in for the construction of the canyon's bike path to Copper and beyond, over Vail Pass to Vail.

This first step in the concept of a paved path separate from roadways led to the countywide system of paved bike trails. At the time, bicycling was considered more than just a recreational activity; it was an alternative means of transportation (think Arab oil embargo). Also, cross-country bike touring was enjoying a surge in popularity and the paved trail system was seen as a way for tourers to enjoy the scenic and historical value of the area.

The next step was to connect Breckenridge to Frisco with a paved path, and in February of 1977, an application for Federal matching funds of $42,370.91 was submitted to link Breckenridge to Farmers Korner. The town of Breckenridge and the county committed the other half. The path followed a sewer easement because it was the easiest and simplest way to deal with private property issues (this is why the original path crossed the highway at Gold Hill, were the sewer line crossed). It was completed in 1980.

Another grant for matching funds was submitted in December of 1977 for $150,000 to build the remaining links that would connect Frisco, Keystone, Dillon and Silverthorne. The paved system we use today was completed by the early '90s.

Paul Semmer, armed with a master's degree in recreation planning, came to the county in 1978 looking for a job. The timing couldn't have been more perfect. Living in Fairplay until he could find housing in Summit County (sounds familiar), he applied for a job with the county and was hired just in time to be a part of the new trail plan.

One of Semmer's first jobs was to host the trails portion of one of the public forums occurring at the time. Cross-country skiers, snowmobilers, hikers, four wheelers and horseback riders all had their desires. Out of this came the recommendations that still stand today: Snowmobilers and jeepers were encouraged to use the forks of the Swan area and the Spring Creek area north of Silverthorne. The Mile High Snowmobile Club came in to assist with signing trails.

Semmer also had a great deal to do with the alignment of the Colorado Trail. When the mandate for the concept of a non-motorized trail from Denver to Durango came from the governor's office, the Forest Service knew that the trail would have two portals in Summit County: Georgia Pass to the east and Searle Pass to the west. Three alternatives were given serious consideration: Swan-Guller, French-Cucumber, and Bald-Searle. The Swan-Guller route was chosen because there were a high percentage of existing trails and roads, and it had fewer of the private property issues and motorized/non-motorized conflicts than the other routes.

Semmer, by now working for the Forest Service (probably thinking he had the best job on earth), began flagging sections of what would become the Colorado Trail in 1982. Once complete, using dusty roads to walk the Colorado Trail through Summit County became a thing of the past, thanks in part to the many miles of legwork logged by people like Semmer.

In 1976, Bill Koch had won an Olympic medal in cross-country skiing at Lake Placid, bringing the sport into the limelight. With a national awareness of physical fitness at one of its peaks, cross-country skiing was cool. Into this boom came Gene Dayton.

Dayton had attended Florida State University on a swimming scholarship. He received his master's degree in recreation planning, and on the advice of Wille Scheffer (of FIS fame), moved to Summit County in 1967. He came with the intention of beginning a wilderness program for the disadvantaged. So, while learning to love nordic skiing (he was not a skier before he moved), he also founded the Breckenridge Outdoor Education Center.

While running and skiing in the area, Dayton discovered miles of old flumes left behind by miners who built them to transport water to the mines. The same lightbulb that would go off over mountain bikers' heads 10 years later came on over Dayton's: "These would make great trails."

In a proposal included in the trail plan, Dayton made note of the "inherited gift presently recognized by a few. This heritage is in the many miles of level terrain in a seemingly vertical environment." He spoke of the flumes being "so prevalent that it is virtually impossible to hike into the hills without crossing one."

Dayton envisioned converting the flumes into a system of marked ski touring trails, using them to get people out of their cars and onto skis. He also marked and set track on many kilometers of trails in the Lehman Gulch area near the bottom of Peak 9 in the late '70s. The blue diamonds nailed to the trees tell the story of the extent of the system. The now popular Burro Trail was the main access into this system, which is now known only to a few.

Today, we all reap the rewards of the hard work and vision of these people. The interconnected trail system that enables us to go from town to town, either on pavement or dirt, is a direct result of the plan compiled by Hum and those who worked with him.

The Colorado Trail that so many of us enjoy either on foot or on a bicycle is a result of many miles of footwork by Semmer. Although Dayton's vision of a cross-country ski system using the old mining flumes did not come to immediate fruition, these relicts of the past have been discovered by a new generation of locals on mountain bikes, and yes, skis and snowshoes.

Hum, who was a county commissioner in the early '90s, lives in Denver and works for the state coordinating educational program. Semmer is still with the Forest Service, working as a community planner and is a prime mover and shaker in many important issues that faces our community today. Dayton runs the Breckenridge and Frisco nordic centers, and still has vision for the sport he loves.

How does this all tie in to the challenges faced by backcountry recreators today? Yesterday's visionaries could not have foreseen the boom of mountain biking, or the powerful snowmobiles capable of going almost anywhere there is snow. They could not have foreseen the present popularity of dirt bikes, or the rise of the ATV. The sheer numbers of people, no matter how they choose to recreate, would have seemed fantastic 20 years ago.

To me, realizing the work and dedication that has gone into the creation of our trail system is important because it's so easy to take it for granted.

It is high time we all recognize the efforts of the early pioneers. The trail and open space departments of today are a direct legacy of the early planners who worked so tirelessly. Think of what things would be like without them.

We cannot afford to take our trails for granted; they give us too much. They feed our souls and preserve our sanity in this increasingly soul-numbing and insane environment we continue to create for ourselves here in Summit County.

Mike Zobbe moved to Summit County in 1982. He is an avid cyclist, backcountry and nordic skier, and lover of the outdoors. In 1990, he founded the Summit Fat Tire Society. This is his first piece of published journalism.

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