Clear Creek Trail Extended into Canyon

by Aidan Lewis

“Let’s cut some cable!” On Wednesday August 25 at a new parking lot near the mouth of Clear Creek Canyon, Jefferson County officials, outdoor enthusiasts, and builders gathered for a “cable cutting ceremony” to celebrate the opening of a new segment of the Peaks to Plains trail. The day was hot with the afternoon sun beginning to set behind the foothills. Jeffco Open Space representatives distributed information and merchandise while attendees stood around in small groups talking and took advantage of trucks offering free food such as ice cream and tacos. 

Speakers at the ceremony included all three Jefferson County commissioners. Lesley Pahlkamper applauded the partnerships between many organizations and levels of government which came together to build the trail. She was proud of the trail’s contribution to the county’s goal of trail interconnectivity and praised the scenery of the area as “stunning.” Another called it “unbelievable.” Tracy Kraft-Tharp brought attention to the project’s “surgical approach” to construction which sought to preserve vegetation, Clear Creek, and the mining and railroad history of the canyon. In fact the cable being cut was a historic mining cable found during construction. Speakers referred to the work as a “legacy project,” a major investment to create an important “opportunity to enjoy the outdoors” for present and future generations. 

The parking lot itself is one of two constructed during this phase of the project and features 128,000 permeable pavers which will allow storm water to seep into the ground instead of quickly running off. It has restrooms, large boulders to sit on, shade structures, and a bike rack decorated with car parts retrieved from the Canyon. The rack was designed and built by project construction workers. One worker told the author he enjoyed working by the beautiful surroundings and seeing wildlife at work. His role included grading dirt and setting up fences. The project turned out beautiful, “I did a great job,” he said.

It is true that the trail is designed thoughtfully with respect to aesthetics. Concrete pavement is stained a rust brown color to match the rocks of the canyon, retaining walls were faced with native rock, and remarkably little interruption of the existing terrain occurred. As the paved trail winds seamlessly through the narrow canyon, it remains smooth and relatively level. It is accessible to walkers, cyclists, and is even ADA compliant. 

The trail is beautiful but the environment surrounding it is the real attraction. As visitors travel from Golden along the preexisting Grant Terry Trail and then onto the new trail segments, they will notice themselves leaving the foothills biome and becoming surrounded by the classic pine trees and steep mountain slopes of the Rockies. Especially as one rounds the bend where Highway 6 goes through Tunnel 1 and the trail continues to follow the creek, one feels far into the mountains. In the absence of traffic, the rushing water provides a peaceful sound. Rich Grant, travel writer and Denver resident was absorbed in the beauty surrounding him. He was impressed by the closeness to the city of the genuine “mountain experience.” “In my wildest dreams I never imagined it would be this good,” he said.

Off of the main trail, accessible by suspension bridge, is the Welch Ditch trail. Hikers will find much wood underfoot here as the trail occupies a converted flume which diverted water from Clear Creek for agriculture and other human uses. In fact, this very ditch, which according to local historian Jenny was named after wealthy industrialist Charles Clark Welch, once supplied water to the Colorado School of Mines. Welch also assisted in the foundation of the school by donating the land that it sat on. The ditch he imagined also supplied water to Lakewood and Applewood where apple orchards and other agriculture were present. The wood used arrived by train from the pacific northwest and was waterproofed with creosote extract. The charming smell of this substance still adorns the trail today. 

Construction of the trail was a multi year process in part led by project manager Scott Grossman. The engineering was a “marvel,” he said as challenges followed every step of the construction process. Threatened species, limited working space, working near whitewater, and a specific design vision all complicated the project. The most difficult piece though was the construction of a segment cantilevered from the side of a rockface. It was an experimental approach used because of its potential benefits in even more narrow segments of the canyon. While successful in its implementation, Scott said he would not like to use the method again. He is proud of the legacy the project leaves and has visions of a future where kids from Golden bike way up into the canyon, can hike around, and return home safely by way of the trail. And in fact already kids, local residents, and athletes from Mines could already be seen using the trail on opening day. What’s next for Scott? Design meeting at 8am Thursday for the next segment of the trail; another 3 miles, due to open late 2024.

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