[July 2019 | San Juan Silver Stage] By Samantha Tisdel Wright
THE MOUNTAINS AROUND OURAY, Colorado, are stitched together with dozens of hiking trails and four-wheel-drive roads leading up into the high country.
Most of these routes were originally built by miners more than a century ago, and compacted by the hooves of donkeys carrying supplies up to the mines and ore back down. Today, these same roads and trails lure hikers, bikers, jeepers, and ATV enthusiasts into the fragile alpine splendor of the San Juan Mountains.
Two volunteer groups in Ouray County have made it their mission to care for these rugged high-country routes, and mitigate the impacts of overuse as more and more visitors flock to the area seeking outdoor adventure.
The Ouray Trail Group is an all-volunteer nonprofit organization formed in 1986 whose 100-plus members care for 83 trails (over 200 miles) across the county. Collectively, OTG members put in thousands of hours of hard labor each year to ensure safe trails for the hiking (and biking) public.
The trail work takes them anywhere from Ironton Park, just off of US Highway 550/Red Mountain Pass, all the way out to the Big Blue Wilderness on the West Fork of the Cimarron. OTG was also instrumental in the creation of the Ouray Perimeter Trail, a popular five-mile trail system that links existing trails with newly built ones to create a loop around Ouray.
Trail maintenance is hard but rewarding work. “What amazes us in some areas is how the original miners built those trails,” said longtime OTG member Gary Dunn. “All we are doing is fixing something that was built over a century ago.”
While OTG volunteers take care of hiking trails all around Ouray County, the newly-formed Six Basins Project has a much more specific mission: to preserve the natural beauty and historic character of the six basins in the Canyon Creek Drainage of southern Ouray County (Imogene, Richmond, Silver, Sidney, Governor, Yankee Boy Basins), and the Jeep roads that provide access to them.
The founding members of Six Basins Project are Ouray business owners who rent Jeeps and ATVs to tourists. “If we are contributing in any way to degradation in the area, we want to make sure we offset that,” said board president Craig Hinkson.
Leveraging funds collected through a self-imposed Jeep rental tax, plus additional grants and donations, the organization works on projects that provide education through signage, and improves sanitation through the establishment of new restroom sites in heavily visited areas impacted by the recent influx of ATV traffic.
Six Basins has also acted as an intermediary between Ouray County and the U.S. Forest Service to overcome disagreements over who has jurisdiction over high-country roads, in order to address urgent issues of road degradation, speeding, and overcrowding.
Last summer, the group funded the construction of a new composting toilet near the Corkscrew Pass staging area in Ironton Park, which had become festooned with toilet paper after an old outhouse there was decommissioned by the USFS. This summer, they are are getting ready to spend $120,000 to put in a new picnic area and public restroom complex with flush toilets near the base of Yankee Boy Basin.
“Most of our focus is on mitigating the motorized damage that comes from overuse by ATVs,” said Hinkson. “We want them to slow down, and appreciate the history of this area. Our goal is to use education to make people understand why not to tear things up, why this area is special.”