Hikers arriving on the recently reopened Green Mountain Trail on the west side of Rocky Mountain National Park know they can expect to see vast swaths of devastation from the East Troublesome Fire two years ago. There is certainly an enormity to this.
But there are also wonderful, breathtaking surprises: spectacular stretches of wildflowers along the trail that cover the ground with vibrant, tumultuous green eruptions of pink, yellow and white blossoms, telling a story of new life and renewal on a apocalyptic background of blackening and charred wood.
Hundreds of lodgepole pines lie where they were toppled during the fire that occurred on October 21, 2020, when 100 mph winds pushed the fire into the park near the entrance to the Grand Lake. Other lodgepoles remain standing, mostly stripped of their branches. Most of them are charcoal black, but some are light tan, having been stripped of their bark when Colorado’s second-worst wildfire swelled from 18,550 acres to 187,964 in less than 24 hours.
Among the scorched stumps and fallen trees with exposed root systems that were violently torn from the ground by hurricane-force winds when they blew, vibrant colors proliferate along the trail. Stalks of enchanting pink willowherb bloom among bushes adorned with yellow and white flowers. In some places, mosses grow in shades of orange, yellow and green where there is moist soil.
The contrast of death and new life is sure to stir the emotions of all who come.
“This is the first place we took our kids on a hike, back in 1992 or 1993,” said Denise Bretting of Loveland, who hiked the trail with her husband on Tuesday. “It’s a special place. Seeing it differently makes me sad, but that’s what forests do.
Before the fire, the trail was densely wooded. Mark Bretting was struck by the scale of the destruction, feeling full recovery will be a long time coming. “It’s amazing,” he said.
Laura Graefe was visiting from Cedarburg, Wisconsin, with her husband, Jim, and two daughters in their twenties.
“It’s sad, because of the burn, but it’s also beautiful because of the wildflowers coming back,” Laura said. “The flowers against the burnt and charred trees are beautiful.”
“It’s fascinating,” added Jim, thinking of the fire. “Just the reach, the ladder, everything in its path is gone.”
To reopen the Green Mountain Trail, five walkways were rebuilt over water crossings and to protect wetlands, according to park public affairs officer Kyle Patterson.
“Hazardous items have been removed from the trail as a result of the fire, such as downed trees, burned trail infrastructure,” Patterson said. “Nails, spikes and screws protruding from remnants of the burned trail infrastructure have been removed to protect trail users. Trail work was hot and dirty, due to lack of tree cover, blackened ground, and bridge material (which came from) burned trees nearby.
After hiking 1.8 miles, the Green Mountain Trail intersects with the Tonahutu Trail in an area aptly named Big Meadows. The East Troublesome Fire raged east to Tonahutu Creek, and it was from the upper portion of this drainage that the fire “spotted”, spreading into the Spruce Creek drainage of the east side of the park by means of airborne embers that flew over the continental basin. Divide. Eventually the fire halted its advance 3-4 miles from Estes Park due to aggressive firefighting efforts and a fortuitous turn of weather events that included fresh snow cover.
When the Green Mountain Trail reopened two weeks ago, the Tonahutu Trail also reopened up to Bear Lake on the east side of the park. This traverse is a major 15-mile undertaking that takes hikers over the Continental Divide at 12,363 feet, and like the Green Mountain Trail, it was off-limits since the fire.
This week, however, the upper portions of the Tonahutu Trail beyond Big Meadows were closed again for “continuing evaluation,” and they will not reopen this year, Patterson said. No reason was given for the reversal.
Nevertheless, the reopening of the Green Mountain trail presents good options for a day hike:
- Taking the Green Mountain Trail to the junction with the Tonahutu Trail at Big Meadows is a 3.6 mile round trip jaunt with an elevation gain of 600 feet.
- From the Green Mountain-Tonahutu Junction, walking another 0.6 miles north along Big Meadows is a pleasant walk, although we recommend carrying mosquito repellent if venturing into this area (which we learned at our expense). At the new Tonahutu closure, which is at the junction with the Onahu Creek trailhead, you can return to the Green Mountain trailhead (4.6 miles round trip).
- For a longer hike, turn left on the Onahu Creek trailhead at the new Tonahutu closure. This will eventually bring you back to the Green Mountain trailhead (7.3 miles).
“It’s mostly a forest walk with all the silence and solitude that comes with it,” Erik Stensland wrote of the Green Mountain-Onahu Creek loop in his comprehensive guide, “Hiking Rocky Mountain National Park “, published the year before East Troublesome. the fire has radically altered much of this landscape.
It’s not as much of a forest walk as it used to be, and it won’t be for very long, but it’s well worth exploring. Some people even say they can smell wildflowers.
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