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Work begins on Mount Wilson approach trail

Three-year project will create single route toward summit of local fourteener
A project to improve the trail to climb Mount Wilson will reduce impacts to Navajo Lake and the fragile alpine basin in the background. (Jim Mimiaga/The Journal)

If you follow the West Fork River to its high alpine headwaters, you will be in a position to climb Mount Wilson, a difficult fourteener in the Lizard Head Wilderness Area.

But mountain climbers hiking past Navajo Lake and up the north slopes towards the airy summit have been causing erosion and trampling fragile alpine terrain, including rare plants.

The multiple approach trails to Mount Wilson were never really planned and are the result of many hikers traveling the same routes over time, said Emily Olsen, Rocky Mountain Region Director for the National Forest Foundation, in a phone interview.

“More people are visiting remote peaks and we are seeing more resource damage,” she said.

This has resulted in a multitude of social trails, causing erosion and heavy impacts to vegetation and wetlands.

The Mount Wilson approach trail has been prioritized for improvement through a collaborative effort by the National Forest Foundation, Find Your Fourteener, Colorado Fourteener Initiative, Ancestral Lands Conservation Corps, Colorado Parks and Wildlife and others..

“Trail crews are on the ground, and will continue work until the snow flies,” Olsen said.

The three-year project began in July. Ten trail builders are working to create one defined route that goes around Navajo Lake, across the basin and up the north slopes toward the summit.

This year, the trail work will focus on the lower portion of the north slopes, and a short re-route around Navajo Lake to protect the lakeshore and sensitive alpine wetlands.

“This is a highly technical and logistically difficult multi-year project,” said Loretta McEllhiney, Colorado Fourteeners Program manager, in a July 26 news release. “The goal of the project is to provide a single sustainable trail and protect sensitive alpine habitat on the lower portions of the mountain leading to the more technical sections of the summit approach.”

A delineated route will be more stable, reduce erosion and rock fall, and discourage damaging social trails.

The climb to Mount Wilson summit is a Class 4 route with considerable exposure and rockfall potential. The trail being addressed will not go to the summit.

The collaborative Find Your Fourteener program is in its fifth year and seeks to address much-needed trail stewardship and ecosystem restoration on Colorado’s Fourteeners.

The COVID-19 pandemic shutdown created increased interest for spending time climbing mountains, and led to unanticipated impacts.

A single route up Wetterhorn Peak, a Fourteener near Lake City, was established as part of the Find Your Fourteener stewardship program of the National Forest Foundation. (Jim Mimiaga/The Journal)

“An all-time high 415,000 hikers climbed a Colorado Fourteener last summer,” said Lloyd Athearn, executive director of the Colorado Fourteeners Initiative, in the news release.

The surge of summit fever is a 44% one year increase, and 18% increase over the prior high season of 2018.

“With land managers already predicting another record-breaking recreation season in 2021, the need for stewardship and protection of Colorado’s Fourteeners is more urgent than ever,” Athearn said.

Pooling resources and funding between agencies allows for more recreation areas in need to be addressed.

“Partnerships with organizations like the Colorado Fourteeners Initiative and the National Forest Foundation provides for quality and sustainable recreation opportunities that might not otherwise be possible,” said Derek Padilla, Dolores District Ranger, San Juan National Forest. “By leveraging the resources available to agencies, the partners have increased agency capacity by engaging multiple partners to achieve a common goal.”