The Devil’s Playground – South Canyon

If you Google “mountain biking in Colorado”, Glenwood Springs does not appear on the list of popular destinations.  Those destinations include Fruita, Crested Butte, Gunnison, Salida, Winter Park, Telluride and more . . . but not Glenwood.

There is a group that is trying to change that; Roaring Fork Mountain Bike Association (RFMBA), which is a chapter of the International Mountain Biking Association (IMBA). Active since about 2008 this group plans, executes and maintains mountain biking trails throughout the Roaring Fork Valley.

Ken Keister - Red Mtn Trail

Photo courtesy of Ken Keister, Red Mountain Trail

Supporters tout the economic benefits of becoming a mountain biking destination. And one probably only needs to look to Moab or Fruita to see that mountain biking is indeed a popular sport and seems to be growing.  As a matter of fact, Glenwood Springs High School now has a mountain biking team of at least 20-30 enthusiastic young people. Several coworkers are mountain bike enthusiasts and I enjoy riding, albeit vicariously, with them through their GoPro cameras.

Last Wednesday, April 29, I attended an open house at the Glenwood Springs Community Center sponsored by RFMBA to explain their current plans for the Red Mountain/Jeanne Golay trail upgrades. The improvements on this trail seem reasonable.  It would run nearly parallel to the existing road that traverses Red Mountain to the cross. The plan, if I understand it correctly, would keep the trail at about a 5-7 percent grade and improve some fall-line trail where some erosion is taking place.  My biggest concern is parking in this area although the City owns the right-of-way that is currently being used for parking. An additional concern, with increased usage will be proper toilet facilities.  My guess is that these are not new to the RFMBA and they may have thought them through.

South Canyon Trail Proposal

Propose South Canyon Trail

At the City Council meeting of April 2 (before I was elected) Council also approved a $15,000 appropriation to study the South Canyon area for potential mountain bike trail use.  I am also aware that the Historic Preservation Commission is planning an interactive historic trail for the old South Canyon camp and settlements that were in the area.


Donald “Rusty” Ford near his the site of his former home in South Canyon.

Today, I had the privilege of a tour of the South Canyon area with Donald “Rusty” Ford.  Rusty, understands this area as few residents of this area currently do.  He spent much of his youth in this area. Rusty is a coal miner and the “son” of a coal miner.  He spent 31 years in the mines of the area, mostly in Coal Basin.  He was there when Mid Continent Resource’s Dutch Creek No 1 mine exploded. Those memories still haunt his dreams.


Smoke rising from the Coal Seam in South Canyon

Rusty loves South Canyon and the hills come alive as he tells of his escapades going into tunnels with his pal Joe Llewellyn or tossing rocks into a gaping hole left by the coal seam fire, and never hearing it hit bottom.  There is a part of South Canyon he calls the “Devil’s Playground” and it does seem to be that.  Apparently, this is the area in which the Coal Seam Fire started.

Rusty reached out to me, as a member of City Council, to express his concern for human safety.  The tunnels of the South Canyon mines criss-cross the area, some directly under the road, and many of them are burning. It will be critical, as we move forward with any plans, whether they are for historic trails or mountain bike trails, to understand this area and map it well to ensure public safety. 

We simply cannot take chances with human life. I understand the fascination with this area, with the fire underground. It is human nature to want to get just a little closer look. 

My request of RFMBA is to take this concern seriously as their plans and study move forward. Take advantage of the memory and the facts that people like Rusty have of this area.  The Coal Seam is still burning.  

And as for Rusty . . . I hope to continue more of his story later!

9 comments on “The Devil’s Playground – South Canyon

  1. STEVE DAMM says:

    Good article, I love that area. Please contend for public access with safety. I hope we can preserve the shooting range.

  2. nice article Kathryn. That would be great if south canyon got opened up more for recreation. There is a nice little boat ramp and restrooms down just downstreAm and across the river too.

  3. Sheryl Doll says:

    I agree that we should review the safety of the area before developing it. When we took a tour of the Coal Camp area a few years ago, the guide warned us that the hills around Coal Camp may look solid, but they could be a crust covering a dangerously hot burned-out hollow. Also, will the trail impede the planned development of the history of Coal Camp?
    Kathryn, thanks for sharing this with the community.

  4. Kathryn Trauger says:

    Thanks for the comments everyone!
    Steve – agreed the range must be part of the plan. Valuable for citizens and law enforcement.
    Trent – I just discovered this area!
    Sheryl – The trail folks are hoping to work with the Historic Preservation Commission and make the historic tour/trails even better and get some of their folks interested in the history of the area to gain a better appreciation. In some areas, we may need to do like they do in Yellowstone with walkways or something. It needs to be surveyed and ultrasound used or some technology – to detect the presence of tunnels and thickness of the ground. and adequate signage provided to keep people on the trails.

  5. Adam McElvain says:

    1. The reconstruction of the eroded fall-line portions of the Red Mtn trail is wonderful. The few sections higher up that have been re-routed are a beautiful running and mountain biking experience. If it snowed here, this also would be a really fun ski tour trail.
    2. After hearing about them from a buddy, I began riding the 18 Road trails and Mary’s Loop trails in Fruita in spring 2000. Watching the downtown core of Fruita grow since then, and the associated property values increase, has amused me right along side the incredible singletrack I can find there.
    3. South Canyon trails would be neat and all, but I think RFMBA has its Glenwood-area priorities skewed. The points raised above are very valid. Mine shafts and adits are not to be messed with.
    4. While South Canyon undergoes a needed archaeological and geologic survey prior to any rec trail development, there lies closer to Glenwood BLM/USFS land that screams for more singletrack: all of the early-to-melt-out south-facing “Flat Tops Front” BLM land from Mitchell Creek to Iron Mountain; the RFMBA-identified Boy Scouts/Forest Hollow area; more Red Mtn singletrack a la a stacked loop system.
    5. Because of the extremely limited parking at the Red Mtn trailhead coupled with the easy mobility of a bike, going forward parking for mountain bikers should be advertised as “please use the 7th Street Old MOC lot and ride your bike to Red Mtn thank you”.

  6. Chris Geiger says:

    This is Chris with Two Rivers Trails, your Glenwood Springs’ trails group working to support RFMBA in these efforts.

    Thank you Kathy for attending our open house last week and authoring this post, and thank you all for comments; we are really pleased with the level of public interest.

    Consideration and respect of the land, hazardous conditions, cultural resources, existing uses, and neighbors are important to our efforts. It helps us when people point out issues, as here. We want to know what we don’t know so that we can take these matters into account. To cite just one example, we’ve been in touch with the GWS Historical Preservation Commission (and meeting further with its members today) to make sure that we are aware of its goals in preservation of the historic South Canyon coal camp and to explore collaboration in advance of those goals. I don’t believe we should expect that taking “no action” on South Canyon trails will keep people out of South Canyon or away from its historical resources or natural hazards. People are recreating out there now without the benefit of interpretative signs and warnings that should be part of any trail system constructed in that area. A successful trail plan should improve public safety and enjoyment while protecting valuable natural and cultural resources. In the absence of a planned trail system, people will be left to their own devices.

    I want to expand on a few of Adam’s comments. Regarding 3&4, TRT’s priority is to build new, quality soft-surface, multiple-use recreation trails where reasonably appropriate and feasible. We agree it would be great to have more trails in nearby BLM areas. The BLM apparently does not. BLM staffers approached us last year to advise that it will probably not approve new trails near GWS under its existing management plan. In contrast, the City of Glenwood Springs’ council and staff deserve credit and thanks for supporting appropriate trail study and construction on city-owned lands where federal permission is not controlling (e.g. – Wulfsohn, Red Mtn., South Canyon). We are simply being practical in trying to use our resources where most effective, but please note that our GWS Trails Concept Plan, linked in this post, does consider nearby BLM areas.

    Regarding comment #5, we are considering recommending that the city encourage Red Mtn. users to park at the Community Center and access Red Mtn. using the Olson (aka ditch) Trail from Wulfsohn. This will provide access from existing city parking areas directly to a trail and without increasing bike and pedestrian traffic on 7th, Midland or Red Mtn. Road. Ultimately, everything we propose on Red Mtn. or in South Canyon is subject to approval from the landowner, the City of Glenwood Springs.

    Thanks again for your interest and comments.

    • Kathryn Trauger says:

      Chris, Thanks so much for your comments. The public comments I have heard thus far have been overwhelmingly in favor of a trail system that works well with the planned historic trails while taking the unique hazards, that are part of what South Canyon is, into consideration. This area is truly beautiful and unique. I just want to clarify – in case there is any doubt, that Mr. Ford is not against trails in the South Canyon area. He wants to make sure that everyone is aware of the hazards as they move forward with plans. He also wants to make sure that people, including those that use the trails, are aware of the fantastic history of this area. I hope to be able to share a glimpse of this history shortly . . . just enough to pique some interest.

      Thanks, Chris, for the additional information on the BLM areas as well as the additional comments on the Red Mountain Trail.

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