Colorado Parks and Wildlife

This summer when you visit a state park and head up a favorite trail, I want to give you something to think about besides the wildflowers and wildlife you may encounter on your journey.

Please think about the trail itself, the work that went into its creation and the people who made it happen.

I’m thinking about it myself in regard to the Dixon Trail at Cheyenne Mountain State Park in Colorado Springs, which opened last fall. It will be brand new to many of our park visitors this summer.

It was a new experience for me, watching all the effort that went into its design and construction. And I think hikers would be as surprised as I was at the magnitude of the project.

I first heard of plans for the Dixon Trail when I started as a park ranger in 2008.

“Cool,” I thought. “I don’t work there, but I may have to try it.”

Then in 2014, I became the senior ranger at Cheyenne Mountain State Park and learned we had crews working to connect the top of the mountain with the existing trail system.

I went to the top to see where they were working and to study the trail design. I was immediately overwhelmed by the gorgeous views.

In my bliss, I completely overlooked the magnitude of work in store for us to create the Dixon Trail to the top and the Dragon’s Backbone and Mountain Loop Trail – the spectacular trails that reward everyone who makes it to the summit.

The work started with a trail design by Mark Hesse, who founded Rocky Mountain Field Institute.

Trail design is not just drawing a line and putting in a trail; many factors went into the design.

The Dixon Trail designers had to map out a reasonable grade for hiking, account for erosion and for talus slopes. Plus they had to avoid obstacles, natural and manmade, including private property in-holdings and endangered owl habitat.

Once they had overcome design issues, they had to confront the sheer physical challenge of building a hike up extreme terrain at altitude. The trails are not accessible by off-highway vehicle, so all tools were hand-carried. Talk about a dedicated group of volunteers. Imagine how hard it was to carry heavy tools uphill for 3-6 miles before they even started the work of the day.

Volunteers with the Rocky Mountain Field Institute, or RMFI, worked up top on the Dragon’s Backbone and the Mountain Loop trails. Down below, a park volunteer trail crew we called the “Trail Dogs” worked up from the existing North Talon Trail.

Together they chiseled out what we now call the Dixon Trail. Our volunteer trail coordinator, Jack Busher, has been on the project since day one. Remember, that first day was 11 years ago.

Volunteers for Outdoor Colorado brought crews from other trail groups as well as their own volunteers to work during several summers.

If it wasn’t difficult enough, Mother Nature added a twist in 2016 when the tussock moth killed many trees that border the Dixon Trail. Winter winds knocked the dead trees down, blocking the trail in many places. Enter the parks volunteer fire mitigation crew. They began carrying chainsaws up the trail to remove obstacles and potential hazards.

This type of work continues by the volunteer crew as well as staff.

Behind the trail-building scenes, park staff was developing and installing signage, confirming GPS locations and mapping, working with fire and rescue crews on response logistics and identifying potential hazards.

There was even a long process for naming the new trails because it required research and reaching a consensus among various stakeholder groups. The Dixon name was chosen to honor a historical trail up the mountain used by homesteader Thomas Dixon. The new Dixon trail does not follow the original trail exactly, but the history behind it remains.

The Mountain Loop was named for its location and shape: It loops around the top of the trail system. The Dragon’s Backbone comes from folklore that Cheyenne Mountain was formed by a dragon that landed and drank all the water on the mountain, leaving it too heavy to fly. The trail follows what would be the backbone of the dragon.

The new trails have been open since October and are seeing a lot of use, especially as the weather improves.

And we aren’t done working on them. Besides typical maintenance, we are looking at adding overlooks and natural benches.

In fact, a bench on the Dragon’s Backbone honors Mark Hesse, the designer who died before seeing his creation finished.

So, as you hike around the switchbacks, through the meadows and along the steep inclines, perhaps think about Mark and all those who made the trails possible. And toast them with a swig from your water bottle.

Darcy Mount is senior ranger at Cheyenne Mountain State Park in Colorado Springs.