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Red Hill: An outdoor amenity years in the making

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And it’s not yet finished

By Trina Ortega

Sopris Sun Correspondent

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The 3,000 acres of public land known as Red Hill contains 14.5-miles of established trail for Carbondale area residents to explore, and to play, get fit and reflect in. Like it or not, there’s a reason Carbondale continues to get named in magazines as one of the nation’s coolest towns. The chamber of commerce’s  “Basecamp for Adventure” moniker reflects what makes this little slice of heaven special, and Red Hill is a signature piece of the recreational draw.

With the recent studies in how to improve pedestrian and cyclist access to Red Hill; the proposed Sutey Land exchange (which could potentially connect an additional 560 acres of public land on the northern portion of Red Hill); and the town’s Gateway Park on the Roaring Fork River, the allure of Red Hill is growing.  

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The volunteer-run council that helps manage Red Hill estimates that user days per year are in excess of 55,000 and town officials regard the Red Hill recreation area as one of Carbondale’s prized backyard amenities.  

“Its proximity and offerings allow our community members to enjoy our natural environment in a convenient manner,” Mayor Stacey Bernot said. “I’m appreciative to our local partners who continue to work towards the betterment of this area and improving the safety for those that enjoy it. Having Red Hill right outside our door reinforces how Carbondale continues to build on our basecamp brand for so many great recreational opportunities.”

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But before today’s polypropylene-clad trail runners and padded-out mountain bikers tested their aerobic mettle on the high-desert landscape just a mile south of downtown, a lot of volunteer time, paperwork and compromise went into what has become this outdoor wonderland.

From the Utes who migrated from camp to camp in the Elk Mountains to the pioneers, Red Hill has long been an important place for vision quests and wagon routes, as well as wildlife and views of Mt. Sopris and the Roaring Fork and Crystal rivers.

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Despite its proximity to town, there are reaches of Red Hill that remain secluded, and people like Davis Farrar recognized that as population grew, the demands on Carbondale’s surrounding public lands would also increase. It was one of the reasons he originally set out in the mid-1990s to help form a management plan for the area.

1979

Farrar moved to Carbondale in 1979 and served as a Garfield County and town of Carbondale planner. It was during that time that a CRMS outdoor educator, the late Jack Snobble, urged Farrar, as a town representative, to consider how Red Hill was a benefit to Carbondale citizens.

“I didn’t really know much about Red Hill at that point,” Farrar said. Shortly after, town staffers met with BLM reps and signed a memoranda of understanding but not much happened, according to Farrar. They put up a sign, but the town was in a growth boom and the MOU expired.

By the mid-90s, Farrar had become more interested in Red Hill; he had bought a mountain bike (two, in fact) from Steve Wolfe, who had a little bike shop in the basement of the Centennial Building on Main Street, and he pedaled up the steep Three Poles Trail. “A friend of mine took me up there, and I thought, ‘This isn’t a mountain bike trail, this is a goat trail.’” That was Blue Ribbon, one of the main routes that leads to Mushroom Rock and once was even a road. Back then, not many people were hiking or riding mountain bikes on Red Hill. It was frequented by homeless folks and high schoolers looking for something to do on the weekend nights.

“When I was first was going up there, Red Hill was the woodsy spot for the high school kids, for their beer parties. You’d go up, and on a regular basis you’d see remnants of a fire still burning. You’d find all kinds of gross stuff at Three Poles and further up,” Farrar said.

Red Hill plan

When he stopped working for Carbondale, Farrar took a year off and decided he wanted put together a plan for Red Hill. He thought the area was “pretty cool” so he set out on foot, knocking on landowners’ doors to get a better feel for all of Red Hill, which did not have any management direction under the Bureau of Land Management. Most Carbondale residents are familiar with the “front side” of Red Hill that includes the popular Mushroom Rock hike. But the Red Hill land stretches for 3,000 acres in a donut shape around private land up County Road 107. It’s land-locked by private property along Cattle Creek to the north and Crystal Springs Mountain Road to the east, and the Highway 82 corridor on the south and west. Other than a few points of steep, eroded land that kisses Highway 82 near Aspen Glen, the only legal public access is the Three Gulch Trailhead is off of County Road 107 (north of the intersection of Highway 82 and 133).

“I clearly remember my first trip up there,” recalls Farrar, who knocked on the door of a private landowner and asked if he could set out on foot from her driveway. His goal was to hike up to a ridge and see what was on the northern portion of the BLM land.

It was March 1996 and a fairly big snow year. He hiked up the packed snow on the south-facing slope of the ridge and gained the top in good time. “I get up to the top and look across the back side of the ridge. And I was like, ‘Oh man, this is way cool.’ It was the first time I had looked off into the north side. It was unbelievable.”

He recalls fresh mud in the bottom of some mountain lion tracks. When he returned to the landowners’ house, he was bursting with excitement but immediately saw their faces “turn cold” because they knew their secret paradise could be at risk.

Farrar’s experience as a planner was critical, and he formed a committee that included landowners and recreationists to come up with a recreation management plan. The plan would include access — all via public land — to that north side. It was a tough battle at times, Farrar says, with landowners writing letters to the federal government and to members of congress to stop any trail development, but the council ultimately gained approval to build the 1.6-mile Elk Traverse that connected to a 4.5-mile loop on the north side.

BLM specialist Brian Hopkins came on the scene in 1997 to work with what was then called the Red Hill Committee to form the plan.

“What the citizens and users wanted had to be meshed with how BLM does land-use planning and considers all these other values, such as wildlife, cultural and historic, grazing,” Hopkins said. The BLM worked with the Red Hill group, Division of Wildlife, county and town governments, and the Colorado Department of Transportation to proceed with amending its land use plan for Red Hill. The long and laborious process included environmental impact studies, lots of compromise, a ton of paperwork, a governor’s study period, and a signature from the BLM director. But it resulted in Red Hill being reclassified from unmanaged to a “special recreation management area.”

“Yes there’s impacts [of recreational use], but in terms of benefits, there aren’t anymore woodsies up there. There are no more opportunities for someone to leave an open campfire. That is a huge hazard,” Farrar said, referring to the high school parties. “You can’t drive a vehicle up there, or a motorcycle. All the hobos that lived up there in the drainages up Three Gulch, they don’t like to be around people anyway, but BLM rousted them out.”

Hopkins agrees and notes that even the trails, used largely by mountain bikers leading to the remote north side would not exist. “It likely would have been an area where we would have seen a lot of pioneered trails — not planned — by both hikers and bikers,” Hopkins said. “We would probably have a lot of different conflicts with private lands because some routes would cross over.” In what he describes as an “urban interface situation” like Red Hill, that’s not a good thing. Additionally, closures to protect wintering wildlife (Elk Traverse is closed from Dec. 1 to March 31) would not be in place.

Finally, one more advantage of Red Hill being managed as an SRMA: Despite that there’s not much interest from the gas industry, surface extraction is not allowed (although directional drilling could still be allowed).

“It was a really good process. As far as the BLM was concerned, it was a great way to plan for an area — the way you always hear about, from the grassroots, from people who are out there who will live it,” Hopkins said.

The Red Hill Committee morphed into today’s Red Hill Council, a private nonprofit that operates under a new MOU with the BLM. The seven-member council is made up of volunteers, with Farrar standing the test of time and still leading the charge. He says he would like to see the council up to the full 11 members and welcomes more citizens to join. The BLM also encourages more participation on the council because it relies on that partnership. (The council pays for studies, conducts trail work days, and cleans up the doggie pots, among other duties). Hopkins said the council has been the key entity helping to see through new management policies and will continue in that role.

“Everything hasn’t been resolved 14 years later,” Hopkins concluded, noting walker/cyclist conflicts with vehicle traffic on CR 107 and dog owners who are lax about picking up after their canines. “But it’s still great. With the heartburn that it causes some people who live up there, I still think it’s been a big positive step, even though lot of homeowners would like to see some changes at the parking area. We acknowledge that. All we can do is work with the opportunities as they arise. We’re still hopeful that it’s not just what it is but that it can get better.”

Next steps

To volunteer with or to support the Red Hill Council, email redhillcouncil@gmail.com or visit the council’s Facebook page titled Friends of Red Hill.

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