Fire Rehabilitation signage posted in areas along Rampart Range Road.
More than two years after the Waldo Canyon Fire
caused its closure, Rampart Range Road
has reopened between Garden of the Gods
and Rampart Reservoir
. The fire that started in June of 2012 destroyed more than 18,000 acres of the Pike National Forest
, destroyed or damaged hundreds of homes in the Mountain Shadows
area of Colorado Springs
, and worst of all, claimed two lives. The re-opening of Rampart Range Road opens much of the area to hiking, cycling and horseback riding once again and provides an opportunity to see first-hand the damage done by the fire.
I drove the road recently and was shocked at the breadth of damage. It’s awe-inspiring to see where the fire came roaring out of Williams
and Waldo Canyons
, crossing the wide, dirt road and destroying almost everything in its path while leaving isolated stands of trees virtually untouched. More startling is to stop along the road just past the old shooting range and look into and across Queens Canyon
. Queens Canyon is deep, long and wide, and the energy it took for the fire to travel deep into the canyon and then up and over it and into Mountain Shadows is almost beyond comprehension.
The area was not only affected by fire, but also by water. Heavy rains in 2012 and 2013 caused water to come screaming down the hillsides onto Highway 24 and into Manitou Springs
because, simply, with so much vegetation destroyed there was nothing to stop it and prevent it from cascading unimpeded into homes, businesses and roads.
The combination of fire and water have done damage to the Waldo Canyon burn area that will likely take generations to recover from. As opposed to controlled burns that clear thick, tree choking underbrush, a wildland fire destroys everything, including old growth oaks, pines and spruces. As an adult, you may not live long enough to see the forest grow back to what it looked like two-and-a-half years ago. Hopefully, your children will see the forest return.
I hiked down into Queens Canyon a few days ago, from a little known trail that dropped me roughly halfway into the canyon. The experience was startling: Where the trail hadn’t disappeared due to being overgrown, it has been cut through by wide, deep trenches caused by erosion. The once lush hillsides are bare, with heavily burned trees standing as testament to the fire's intensity. Fallen trees create more obstacles, and large rocks that were once at the top of the canyon and along the road litter the area. The combination of these impediments made for a slow, treacherous hike.
Once at the bottom of the canyon, I found Camp Creek
running, not more than four or so feet wide and typically not more than a foot deep, and showing the evidence of flood damage. Downed trees clutter the banks and the dirt and sediment that washed downstream spreads for yards on either side of the creek — in some places well over a foot deep.
I hiked to the locally famous “Punch Bowls
” — pools carved out of the hard granite from eons of water flowing down the creek — a popular spot to hike to for a swim. Sadly, the Punch Bowls are no longer filled with water; they are filled with silt and sediment to the point where the water is no more than shin deep. Although time and the force of water will eventually clear the bowls of debris, there’s so much debris still upstream that it’s not likely to happen for generations to come.
But it’s not all dismal: Even in the midst of destruction, there are signs of life. Recovery is happening, slowly but surely.
The scrub oaks were changing colors and aspen saplings were visible when I drove the road and hiked trail, many with changing colors. And the occasional late wildflower was still in bloom — sometimes next to the dead, charred remains of a once-mighty pine, spruce or aspen.
Things to know before you go: Generally speaking, everything on the south side of Rampart Range Road continues to be off-limits. Simply put: If you’re driving up from the Springs, the left side of the road is closed; the right side is open. Many of the old parking areas are closed but designated parking areas remain, and there are signs posted warning of the inherent dangers of hiking in a burn area. Read and heed. Camping and campfires are prohibited throughout most of the area.
For the first time, Rampart Range Road will close from Garden of the Gods to Rampart Reservoir for the winter season. Although specific dates haven’t been announced, expect the road to close sometime in early December and to re-open sometime around April.
If you do nothing else, at least travel Rampart Range Road to look at the fire and water damage, and gain some appreciation for the power (and fury) of nature.
Next week, I’ll tell you where it’s (relatively) safe to hike along Rampart Range Road.
For more information, including a map, go to the Pike National Forest website
Bob Falcone is a firefighter, arson investigator, non-profit board president, college instructor, photographer, hiker and small business owner who has lived in Colorado Springs for 23 years. You can follow him on Twitter (@hikingbob), Facebook (Hiking Bob), or visit his website (Hikingbob.com). E-mail questions, comments, suggestions, etc to Bob: firstname.lastname@example.org