|The Official Publication of the Toyota Land Cruiser Association.
Since 1976 and Still Going Strong.
by Stan Wright
Around 5 pm on Saturday, a small plume of smoke was reported in central Colorado. The date was June 8th, 2002. Just twelve days later, what became known as the Hayman Fire had consumed over 138,000 acres of Colorado land and forest. The toll the fire took on the area, the communities and the ecosystem will still be evident one hundred years from now. The fire burned so hot in some areas that all the organic material in the soil was lost. Life has been slow to return even ten years later but Mother Nature is resilient and the area is slowly returning to its previous condition.
In time, almost all that was lost or pushed away will return. One thing sure to return are the off-road enthusiasts. Parts of an area known as The Gulches, about sixty miles southwest of Denver, took a direct hit from the Hayman Fire. The area is popular with 4x4 enthusiasts, OHV users and hikers. The three main trails are Metberry, Longwater and Hackett Gulches. All three trails start from the same Forest Service road and lead to the beautiful South Platte River.
The trails were closed after the fire in 2002 but through the efforts of local 4x4 clubs—particularly Predator 4x4 Club of Colorado Springs—some of the area was reopened in 2009. However, the scenery isn't what it was before the fire and The Gulches may never be the same. Maybe they're better now than they were before, maybe they're not. What was once dense Colorado forest is now more like the photos you see taken on the moon—still beautiful but a stark contrast to what the area looked like previously.
For me, this area is special because it's the first real test I gave my Land Cruiser after moving to Colorado and joining the Rising Sun 4x4 Club. I proposed the idea of an annual club run to The Gulches to see this area regenerate itself after the massive fire. Each year will be slightly different than the last. Although some portions of The Gulches are still closed, they don't need to be anymore. Responsible club runs and people willing to spend money in the area will help reopen those closed trails. The South Park Ranger District and the Park County Commissioners need to both be on the same page. Monies are available and volunteers are standing by to jump in and help. Hopefully by this time next year, we can run all three trails all the way to the river.
The 1st Annual "Run the Gulches" trail ride was scheduled for December. With five Toyotas at the rendezvous spot, it was time to head for Metberry Gulch, our first trail of the day. After a brief stop to air down, we were rolling down Metberry at a decent pace. The first part of the 4.4-mile trail lends itself to a faster pace—good for testing out your suspension through the whoops and dips.
The trail is made up mostly of sand, hard pack and remnants from the fire. In some areas, all you see are charred dead trees; some lying on the ground, others still standing. The standing trees are the most dangerous. The fire burned hot enough that it crept into the tree root systems and they are standing in soil that has lost its ability to stabilize the size and weight of the trees themselves. Whenever the wind blows, trees fall. In many areas, fallen trees block the trail so we came prepared to cut, winch or pull downed trees off the trail. Unfortunately, there are others who simply go off the trail and around the fallen trees and in doing so, destroy the fragile new growth trying so hard to reclaim the area.
The trail itself is relatively mild with the only real obstacles coming on the final descent down to the South Platte River. A massive rock slab that you must descend follows a steep and rutted area called Chicken Scratch Hill. The rock is steep enough that even walking down it is difficult. A sharp right turn at the bottom leads to a short, off-camber section that is good for lifting the left rear wheel high into the air. It's a great spot for drivers to test their nerves, especially those of us with IFS, because we lack the articulation needed to keep all four wheels firmly planted on solid ground. There are a few different lines up and down the rock, some more difficult than others.
It's amazing to see where the fire might have run, turned or jumped certain areas. Some small stands of trees were untouched by the flames, while thousands of acres burned around them. There are boulders as big as houses and rock formations as unique as snowflakes.
Wildlife is making a return to The Gulches as well. With new plant growth, mule deer and bighorn sheep have found their way back. There are also black bear and mountain lions in the area. In fact, I got a fleeting glimpse of a black bear on this trip. If you were to slowly travel the trail and use binoculars, your chances of viewing wildlife would increase exponentially. The lack of dense forest gives you the ability to see for miles and it's relatively easy to pick out movement from far off distances.
The trail ends at a beautiful clearing near the South Platte River. We stopped for a quick lunch of foil wrapped burritos—that were packed in our engine bays at the start of the run—and fresh brewed coffee. My UZJ100 is equipped with a power inverter connected to an auxiliary battery. One of its many uses is to run a coffee maker, which I prefer over instant coffee whenever I have the choice. I always take a good natured ribbing for brewing Starbucks coffee from the back of a mall crawling 100 series but no one ever has a problem filling up their mugs with fresh coffee or reaching into the fridge for creamer!
It was evident that this area is seeing plenty of use. The Rising Sun 4x4 Club always leaves an area cleaner than we find it and after picking up some trash, we were on our way out of Metberry Gulch and down FS Road 360 to Hackett Gulch.
Hackett is more difficult than Metberry but is still relatively mild by most standards. A lot of man-hours were put in to reopen this trail after the Hayman Fire, although it wasn't as badly burned as Metberry or Longwater. Trail reconstruction and erosion mitigation efforts were put forth and in 2009, a stock SUV or truck could have made it to the county line. That probably isn't the case any longer. Sections are rutting and the area is seeing its fair share of use again. Heavy rains and snowmelt are also taking their toll. For some, this might be a positive, as the obstacles will become harder and the trail will return to its pre-fire difficulty level.
I mention the county line (between Park and Teller Counties) because Hackett Gulch is considered closed in Park County. In fact, it was never reopened after the fire. The problem is that there is no way of knowing where one county ends and the other begins. Teller County was willing to work with Predator 4x4 to allow for the reopening of the trail within their county. A post and cable system was installed marking the closure. However, a new trail was made around the cable in no time. That new trail eroded quickly and someone went in and removed the entire post and cable system.
That in itself was a fairly large task. The cable was at the top of a long, winding hill that descends to the river. The hill is fairly steep and there are two lines to choose but you can't see what either one has to offer. This where the county line should be but no one I spoke to before the trip seemed to know for sure. Our initial plan was to turn around at the county line, which we were told was located on a big hill. However, there is no safe location to turn around on this particular hill and going to the bottom was the only real choice. One line down the hill brings you to a drop-off ledge about three-feet high, followed by a sharp right turn. The other line bypasses the ledge and leads you to a smaller drop and tight lines between the trees. The two trails then connect up and make for the most difficult portion of the trail—fairly large boulders with no option other than tire placement up and over them. Sliders and skid plates helped to avoid damage through this section.
Once we reached the turn-around, we hiked down to the river and documented the trail conditions, taking photos of the river crossing area and cable removal. There was also an area where vehicles were crossing the river and simply driving over a cable intended to keep vehicles out of the far side. All this information was sent to Stay the Trail and the Colorado Trail Patrol in hopes that a new system will be put into place to keep people from crossing the river and further damaging the river bank and stream bottom. To be fair to those going down to the river, there are no signs saying the area is closed and no indications that you shouldn't cross the river. There is even an old sign that says, "Don't stop while crossing the river." This area was once a great fishery but the sediment and ash that washed into the river has left it void of life for many years. Aquatic life is slowly returning and so too will the fish but it's best to stay out of the water for now.
We were able to get turned around and back through the most difficult part of the trail without incident. The original plan called for us to run all three gulches but the sun was setting and a fierce Colorado winter storm was on its way from the north. We decided to save the last gulch for next year. With a little luck, it will be completely open once again.
On our way out of Hackett, we spoke at length on the HAM radios about what we could do as a club to ensure that these trails stay open and receive the attention they deserve. We shot ideas back and forth about ways to mitigate the river crossings, improve signage and what our plan would be going forward. I would love for this to be an annual club run. I envision a family style run where our children can say they remember what the area looked like twenty-five years ago, when new growth was still trying to take back the area that one irresponsible match destroyed. As recreational outdoor enthusiasts, it's our responsibility to ensure that the next generation can enjoy these runs as much as we do now.
The trail to Metberry Gulch stretches out through the scarred landscape.
Stan Wright's coffee wagon on Hackett Gulch.
Scott Yoder descends the slab.
The Hackett Gulch trailhead sign advises to report vehicles driving off the trail.
Dan Kucera angling to work his way up the slab.
Photos courtesy of Stan Wright