Memorial Trail overlook, 1 mile from the trailhead. The fire was on the opposite side of the canyon (behind the plaques)
On July 2nd, 1994, during a hot, dry summer, lightning struck near the base of Storm King Mountain
, located next to I-70 just west of Glenwood Springs, Colorado. The South Canyon Fire
began to smolder but, due it’s isolated location and lack of growth, was considered a low priority by fire officials and was not actively attacked in the early stages. By July 4th the fire had consumed only three acres, but a decision was made to attack the fire the following day.
By July 6th, there were wildland firefighters on the mountain fighting the fire. That day, the weather changed later in the afternoon and high winds moved through the area. The firefighters suddenly found fire below them, and the fire raced up the entire face of the steep mountain in a matter of minutes.
Twelve firefighters were over-run by the fire and died where they fell. Two more died a few hundred feet away, trying to escape the blaze on another slope. It was largest loss of firefighters' lives in a wildland fire in modern times until the 2013 Yarnell Hill Fire
killed 19 firefighters under similar circumstances in Arizona.
Today, you can hike the route the firefighters took during the South Canyon Fire in 1994, but you’ll have the benefit of a trail, where the firefighters had to bushwhack into the fire.
Starting at the trailhead, along with a metal box on a pedestal with a sign-in book, there are several plaques that tell the story of the fire along the route. The area around the sign-in box and the plaques is typically adorned with mementos from firefighters who visit the trail — T-shirts, uniform patches, pins, etc.
Sign in box at the trailhead
The trail immediately starts uphill until running along a ridge line. One mile from the start of the trail, on the west side of a steep canyon, the first part of the trail stops at an observation point. The observation point, facing east over the canyon and towards the other side of the narrow canyon, has three more informational plaques describing the fire and the loss of the firefighters lives. If you’re at this spot in the late afternoon, with the sun at your back, you can see the white crosses on the other side of the canyon marking where the firefighters fell.
You can turn around and return to the trailhead from the observation point — a two-mile round-trip — or, to the left of the plaques, another trail drops steeply down into the canyon and continues up the opposite side.
This trail is left barely maintained on purpose, so hikers can get somewhat of a feel for the terrain and difficulty the firefighters, who had to bushwhack through scrub oak, faced.
At the top of the canyon, approximately 1.6 miles from the trailhead, is another marker. From here you can go left for a third of a mile to a small plaque memorializing where the two helitack firefighters died.
The plaque is well above the two crosses marking where they fell since that location is very difficult to get to. When I attempted to get to reach them, I was only able to get within 50 feet.
Returning from the helitack memorial, about a tenth of a mile past the trail up from the canyon bottom, another short, steep trail leads down to the other twelve crosses, in groups of two or more. Much like at the trailhead, each cross is adorned with mementos left by firefighters who have hiked the trail and visited each site. The first cross encountered from the top of the ridge is the most shocking in that it's so close to the ridgeline (and safety) it becomes apparent that the firefighter only needed a few more seconds to escape with his life. (The trail continues past the last cross but does not go back to the trailhead. You'll have to return on the same trail.)
Video from the overlook:
Video of 12 of the crosses:
Storm King Mountain Memorial Trail, 12 crossesPosted by Hiking Bob on Saturday, August 1, 2015
To get there: Take I-70 west, past Glenwood Springs, to Canyon Creek — exit 109. Turn right at the top of the off-ramp and then an immediate right on the frontage road. Take the frontage road to it’s end at the trailhead.
While you're in the area, you may want to visit a memorial to the Storm King 14
at Two Rivers Park
in Glenwood Springs, or take the opportunity to hike to Hanging Lake —
one of the most popular trails in the state. It's located off of I-70 in Glenwood Canyon, just east of Glenwood Springs.
Bob Falcone is a retired firefighter, photographer, hiker, college instructor and business owner who has lived in Colorado Springs for over 23 years. He is the president of the Friends of Cheyenne Canon and a member of the El Paso County Parks Advisory Board. 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.