The Ring the Peak Trail offers lessons for managing Colorado’s rapid recreation growth
The vision for a mountain biking and hiking trail encircling Pikes Peak
Steve Bremner knows the secret to eternal youth. He’s in his 60s, but I wouldn’t have guessed except that a tuft of gray hair betrayed him when it poked out from beneath his beanie. Even the midday sun struggles to expose a wrinkle on his face. Bremner’s magic potion is running.
After lapsing into obesity and chain smoking in his 20s, Bremner started jogging.
Today, he proudly tells me, “I’ve run over 150 marathons and quite a few 100-mile races.”
Bremner’s home in Manitou Springs provides the perfect training ground, with miles of single-track trails nearby at the foot of Pikes Peak.
Along with getting fit himself on these trails, Bremner has dedicated much of his life to sharing his passion for running and spending time in the outdoors and creating more opportunities for the public to enjoy trails.
One of his success stories is the Manitou Incline, one of the most popular hiking and workout trails in Colorado. Bremner is the former president of Incline Friends. Incline Friends worked with the Colorado Springs Department of Parks and Recreation to forge agreements between the Cog Railway, Colorado Springs Utilities, the US Forest Service and the the cities of Manitou Springs and Colorado Springs to allow legal hiking access on the former funicular railway, now known as the Incline. With help from a team of volunteers, Incline Friends raised over a million dollars to overhaul of the old rail route.
After helping raise money for the Incline renovation, Bremner left Incline Friends and began work on his next challenge, the Ring the Peak Trail.
A simple, but grand plan for a trail around the base of Pikes Peak
The vision for the Ring the Peak Trail was simple but grand, a roughly 100 kilometer, non-motorized trail that would circumnavigate Pikes Peak. A motorized route already offered similar 360 degree views of “America’s Mountain.” Leaders foresaw local and national benefits for a non-motorized trail that mountain bikers and hikers could use to enjoy land at the base of one of Colorado’s most iconic 14-thousand-foot peaks. Expanding trail access could help remote communities and local hikers access the peak closer to their homes. Unlike longer trails, such as the Pacific Crest Trail or The Colorado Trail, the Ring the Peak Trail would provide a more feasible challenge for hikers and bikers.
“It would be a great trail for a three-to-four day backpack or an attraction for people to come,” Bremner told me.
A path to creating the Ring the Peak Trail
In 1997, leaders with Colorado Springs Utilities met with trail advocates and rangers from the U.S. Forest Service to discuss the massive potential for recreation around Pikes Peak. Visitors were coming; the city ought to be ready. Taking a proactive approach to planning trails, visitor centers and access points would help Colorado Springs’ managers protect critical natural resources, like the city’s water supply. Two years later, land managers produced the Pikes Peak Multi-Use Plan that granted approval for a new perimeter trail.
Shortly after receiving approval in the Multi-Use Plan, Bremner joined Friends of the Peak, a new nonprofit Gail Snyder and Mary Burger had formed, which began working on the trail. The group of volunteers took on a variety of projects to protect the peak and establish a perimeter trail. They connected shorter existing trails, added signs, built retaining walls that could help prevent erosion and withstand decades of use, replanted tundra near the Pikes Peak Highway, hired contractors for bigger projects and organized volunteer to look after the busiest sections of trail.
Finding volunteers who were willing to haul rocks in their spare time proved easier than convincing certain members of the community of the trail’s value. In two sections of the trail, one on the north side near Cascade, Colorado, and the other on the southwest, near the towns of Cripple Creek and Victor, local property owners expressed concerns about a new trail in their backyards. Twenty years after its conception, Ring the Peak Trail remains roughly 80% complete. Trail users can still complete the loop if they hike along the highway for portions, but Bremner argues “it’s not the same experience.”
Opposition takes shape
While Bremner and other trail advocates view the Ring the Peak Trail’s potential as a “great attraction for people to come to the region,” others feared newcomers. Property owners in Victor, a small, mining town on the southwest side, have been hesitant to allow trail access. Even though a trail already exists around Bison Reservoir, which would help to complete the route, residents and members of a local fishing club don’t seem interested in new traffic.
Part of the problem, explains Becky Leinweber, executive director of Pikes Peak Outdoor Recreation Alliance, is that these reservoirs are one of Victor’s primary sources of revenue.
“Selling water to the Newmont Mine, which still excavates gold and silver, is critical to the town’s economy,” Leinweber explains.
Town leaders feared that the trail could threaten their watershed. Leinweber, who helped form the Pikes Peak Outdoor Recreation Alliance, thinks the tide is changing.
“Through the pandemic [Cripple Creek and Victor] have figured out how important it is to expand their economic diversity. They both have recognized outdoor recreation as an economic driver they want to focus on,” she says.
Working around so many private property owners is difficult. Bremner knows patience is key. “People change their minds,” he says.
Other organizations, like the Palmer Land Trust, are taking a more active approach, using strategies like trail easements — agreements between land managers and private property owners. With an easement, property owners would allow trails to run through their properties; in exchange, land managers complete the maintenance. Tax breaks can help to sweeten the deal.
Why a new trail?
While leaders in nearby towns like Manitou Springs embrace tourism, it’s easy to understand the hesitation among some people to increase development for recreation. Manitou Springs began as a health resort for tourists, proclaiming the restorative benefits of Colorado’s dry, sunny climate, the town’s mineral springs and scenic beauty. In recent years, with throngs of more than half a million visitors who drive or take the train up Pikes Peak, it’s fair to say that skeptics fear tourists will overrun their towns. The problem is that many of Colorado’s permanent residents came here as tourists themselves, seeking to live in scenic locations, rather than visiting one week out of the year.
There’s little use trying to reverse the boom in outdoor visitors or exclude newcomers who share the love for public lands. Instead, leaders need to take responsible steps to reduce impacts on the environment and give growing numbers of people multiple outdoor recreation options while protecting public lands.
Jeff Mosher, the Marketing and Events Director in Cripple Creek, recognizes this.
“Closing areas works to solve many of the problems of high usage: trash, illegal camping, shooting or search and rescue costs, but it doesn’t meet the needs of the people who own property, which is the general public,” Mosher says.
Building a new trail may seem like a costly addition, but with other routes on Pikes Peak — like the Barr Trail — at capacity, new trails can help alleviate the strain on a single route. A full loop Ring the Peak Trail could allow more hikers to access the west and south sides of the peak, which see far less traffic than the east side — the side closest to Colorado Springs. As Colorado’s Front Range expands at a blistering pace, the U.S. Forest Service must adapt.
“Because of the proximity to Denver and Colorado Springs, the Pike National Forest is really an urban forest property,” Mosher says.
He highlights an interesting dynamic in forest management techniques across the U.S. “The west is more focused on conservation and preserving the land. The east coast is more focused on management near large population centers and how to provide information and services to people,” he says.
Looking at success stories in the east, could provide a path for successfully controlling more visitors.
Friends groups and nonprofits have jumped into action, but there’s still a major gap in federal funding. Leinweber says one of the biggest hurdles to finishing the trail is getting the Forest Service to see it as a top priority.
“They are so strapped for staff and funding. They are having a hard enough time maintaining what they have,” she says.
The COVID-19 effect
Across the state, the COVID-19 pandemic has led to a reflection on how to manage public lands as more people than ever have flocked in parks, forests and open-space areas. Widespread reservation systems have helped to limit crowds. It’s likely that some of these controls will remain long term. In the nearby South Platte Recreation District, rangers are converting over 300 dispersed camping sites to designated sites. Leinweber is cautious about using a pay-to-play system.
“We always have to balance fees with equity. We want public lands to be available to everyone,” she says.
Bremner made clear the importance of education as a part of completing the new trail. His organization recognizes the need for funding mechanisms to ensure long-term maintenance and mechanisms to educate trail users about “leave no trace” ethics. In 2016, leaders at Friends of the Peak partnered with the Trails and Open Space Coalition, earning a grant they hoped would complete the Ring the Peak Trail. Planning meetings did help to increase community support and generate new ideas, but the gap remains. Nothing is off the table.
A learning process
What’s Bremner’s advice for other communities that want to develop more trails for runners, mountain bikers, hikers and backpackers?
“You have to talk to individual property owners,” he says.
Like most places, the area around the Ring the Peak Trail is complex. There are many people and organizations with different wants and needs. Bremner describes the land around Pikes Peak as a “hodgepodge of different owners,” including the U.S. Forest Service, individuals, local towns, land trusts and folks who live thousands of miles away. Bremner’s experience highlights the difficulties of outdoor planning. Trail advocates shouldn’t expect unanimous approval. Fighting to bridge uses on public and private lands can take years, with many hours on the ground working a pickaxe.
What makes it worth it? For Bremner, a trail advocate, user, and Manitou Springs City Council member, trails are vital for improving outdoor access.
“Sure you can bushwhack,” he tells me, “but it’s difficult.”
The point of stewardship or conservation shouldn’t be to remove people from the equation altogether, but to find ways to balance different perspectives and minimize damage. Combining new trails with proper education and maintenance can help to improve both access and sustainability. Until others come around, or land managers find a new route, Bremner continues to share the wonder of the region, organizing an annual fun run of the patchwork route.
If you want to get involved with the Ring the Peak Trail or any local trail group, there are numerous volunteer opportunities with Friends of the Peak or their partner organization Trails and Opens Space Coalition.
If you can’t participate in a trail work day, Bremner says to “join the board or donate.”
Even though the Ring the Peak Trail is incomplete, it’s still possible to enjoy the sections that are open. On a bike, the highway sections are easier to complete than when hiking. Show leaders that trails are a vital resource by using them and caring for them. Educate other users about outdoor ethics. Off the trail, stay connected and attend community meetings.