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Rep. Joe Neguse proposes legislation to complete Continental Divide Trail

A Continental Divide Trail marker is pictured in September 2020 along the Gold Hill Trail with Breckenridge Ski Resort in the distance.
Antonio Olivero/Summit Daily News

Rep. Joe Neguse proposed legislation directing the U.S. Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management to work together to finish the Continental Divide National Scenic Trail in time for the trail’s 50th anniversary in 2028.

The trail spans 3,100 miles from Montana to New Mexico going through Colorado and Summit County, but the trail has about 160 miles of incomplete routes due to gaps in public lands. The trail ends up following along roads to connect its separated portions, which can be dangerous for hikers.

“The Continental Divide Trail traverses some of the most beautiful and rugged landscapes in our country, and of course that includes our wonderful congressional district and Summit County,” Neguse said in an interview with the Summit Daily. “Completing the trail, in my view, would kind of fulfill a promise that Congress made more than four decades ago … to provide the American people with world-class recreational opportunities that span the length of the Continental Divide.”

The highest priority of the legislation is a 15-mile gap outside of Steamboat Springs, where thru-hikers must walk along Colorado Highways 14 and 40 at Muddy Pass.

In order to complete the trail, the Bureau of Land Management and Forest Service would work together to acquire lands from willing sellers using authorities such as the Land and Water Conservation Fund. This can be done in the form of outright purchases from landowners or land exchanges.

While the Continental Divide Trail was created by Congress in 1978 as part of the National Trails System, it remained around 60% complete until the Omnibus Public Land Management Act of 2009 was passed. Teresa Martinez, executive director of the Continental Divide Trail Coalition, said prior to this act, land managers didn’t have authority to buy land from willing sellers, making completing the trail arduous. The trail is now closer to 96% complete.

Martinez said the next step was the permanent authorization and funding of the Land and Water Conservation Fund so land managers could get money to purchase these lands.

​”Up until that point, we didn’t have that tool, and it was really hard,” Martinez said. “Even though we had really dedicated land managers, they didn’t have the tools they needed to complete the trail, so no matter what they tried, they couldn’t get there.”

Martinez said the Continental Divide Trail Completion Act is the “final trifecta” of legislation to make completing the trail a priority.

“It really gives the agency partners, who now have all these other tools, the priority setting they need to keep moving forward and getting these acquisitions across the line,” Martinez said.

While Neguse said he does not know how much the project would cost, he said funding should not be an issue since the Land and Water Conservation Fund was secured last year.

“(Land and Water Conservation Fund) funding was designed to be available for projects like this one,” Neguse said. “We’re certainly open to amending the bill to include an appropriation, but we think based on what we’ve seen thus far that there should be ample funds to be able to complete it on the targeted timetable that we have placed into the bill.”

Summit County and the surrounding area is home to some of the highest peaks on the Continental Divide Trail, including Grays Peak, which is the highest point on any National Scenic Trail. Martinez said the section of trail in Summit County won’t change much but that the area between Georgia Pass and Grays Peak could see minor relocations to avoid steeper segments, making it safer and more accessible.

“Summit County has these incredibly high peaks at some of those quintessential Colorado sections,” Martinez said. “When people think about the Continental Divide, Summit County is probably what most people envision.”

After Neguse became chair of the public lands subcommittee earlier this year, he did listening tours across the state to get a better idea of what priorities folks would want to see addressed by the committee. It was in one of those meetings where the idea of completing the trail was introduced to Neguse, whose congressional district contains 230 miles, or 7.5%, of the entire trail.

Neguse said the legislation will also help the economy by creating short-term jobs for trail construction as well as additional long-term jobs for guides, outfitters and service workers in outdoor recreation.

Martinez also said the legislation will ensure the divide is fully protected so that when hikers experience the trail, they see as little impact as possible from previous trail users.

“It allows us to ensure that the trails and that highest-quality landscape itself is protected — not just for our experience but for the wildlife, for the watershed, for climate, for air quality — all so it ensures that my experience will be very similar to someone 100 years from now,” Martinez said. “I think that’s what it means to Summit County is that, what Summit County has in its segment of the Continental Divide Trail doesn’t really exist anywhere else in the world.”

Martinez said she and her organization have an “incredible amount of gratitude” for Neguse for envisioning and creating this legislation to see through the trail’s completion.

Quandary Peak and McCullough Gulch measures divide locals, visitors

A sign in the Quandary Peak trailhead parking lot on Aug, 4 tells hikers about the new reserved parking system. Interstate Parking is partnering with the town of Breckenridge and Summit County to manage parking at the Quandary Peak and McCullough Gulch trailheads.
Photo by Elaine Collins

Earlier this year, officials from Summit County, the town of Breckenridge and the U.S. Forest Service came up with solutions to mitigate the overcrowded parking at the trailheads of Quandary Peak and McCullough Gulch: reserved parking and a free shuttle system, both of which were implemented July 30.

Two weeks later, the new measures are in full swing, and it seems most visitors don’t have any big issues related to the program.

When Kevin Mottura and Jennifer Majetic were planning a vacation to Breckenridge, the two added Quandary Peak to their itinerary. The hike would be their first ascent of a 14,000-foot-peak, something Mottura said he’s always wanted to experience. While researching the hike, Mottura said he stumbled on information regarding the new measures.

“I was just Googling,” Mottura said. “AllTrails was saying that we needed a parking reservation. So we just Googled that, and it said there was a free shuttle over here, so that seemed easier.”

The couple said the news didn’t cause any consternation. Majetic said they’d hiked the Manitou Incline in Manitou Springs, where it’s recommended to ride the free shuttle, though she noted they found parking close enough to that trailhead. According to the attraction’s website, a reservation is currently needed to hike the area.

Mottura said that there are similar measures in place at other popular recreation areas.

“They have timed entries for national parks, too,” he said. “We knew that was going on everywhere.”

Both Mottura and Majetic said that when they heard there wasn’t enough parking at the trailhead, they decided it was easier to ride the shuttle rather than find a parking permit.

A Summit Express shuttle carries hikers to and from the Quandary Peak and McCullough Gulch trailheads Aug. 4. The shuttle, along with reserved parking, is part of an effort by multiple stakeholder groups to mitigate public safety issues at both trailheads.
Photo by Elaine Collins

The situation is different for locals. Nick Johnson, who lives near Breckenridge, said the new measures are prohibiting him from accessing the Quandary Peak trailhead. Johnson said he hiked the trail a few times last summer and likes to do so every other week after work during the summer.

“My big thing is, basically, because of the way that I have used the Quandary trailhead in the past, it seems like I’m not really allowed to use it anymore,” Johnson said. “As I understand it, the parking permit for the second time slot of the day ends at 7:30 p.m. I usually hike after work, meaning I’m starting around 5 p.m. and out there until 9 p.m. or later, which as I understand it, puts me at risk of getting a ticket.”

Johnson noted that the free shuttle system currently doesn’t operate that late, so he could use it to get to the trailhead but would need to coordinate a ride for when he heads back home.

Johnson said Quandary Peak is one of his favorites to climb because of the amount of elevation gain in a short span of time. He noted that the trailhead sees a lot of traffic — particularly on the weekends, which is why he usually visits the area in the evening on weekdays.

Other hikers, like Wade McCaugherty, have no hard feelings about the new measures. McCaugherty, who is from Broomfield, hopped on the shuttle at 6 a.m. to hike the Quandary Peak trail on Friday.

When planning his trip to the county, McCaugherty said he learned about the new measures through AllTrails but noted that not everyone is getting the same information.

“I think there are people that didn’t hear about it or don’t know about it; so when they get up there, they park, and then they get fined,” he said. “There was a couple with their two kids that asked me if it was alright to park up there, and I just told them what I read online — that there’s a fine somewhere around $100. I told them that I parked at the Airport (Road) parking lot and grabbed the shuttle.”

This is one issue local leaders are still figuring out. During a Summit Board of County Commissioners’ work session meeting Tuesday, Christine Zenel, resource specialist for Summit County’s Open Space and Trails department, suggested that the county and all of its partners zero in on where their information campaign leaves gaps.

“People are getting their information mostly from outside sources — 14ers.com and AllTrails, those third-party platforms — so I think we talked about dialing more into our marketing strategy to make sure they’re getting the right information,” Zenel said.

A parking violation is pictured on the hood of a car near the McCullough Gulch and Quandary Peak trailheads Aug. 4. Overcrowded parking at both trailheads has led to a number of public safety issues, and if not parked in designated reserved spots, visitors will be ticketed.
Photo by Elaine Collins

Summit County Undersheriff Peter Haynes reported that his department has issued about 90 violations so far — and that most are to hikers not from the area.

“We’re trying to track in-state, out-of-state and in-county (violations),” Haynes said. “No one in county — that has a vehicle registered in the county — has been issued a citation on the road, which is great. At least locally, they’re getting the message. About 65% of the tickets out now are definitely out of state — and if we surmise all of the rental plates that we’re writing to, it’s probably as high as 80% of out-of-state people being cited parking on county roads. That’s definitely the demographic we’re missing.”

Summit County Director of Communications Nicole Valentine said she and her team are working off a comprehensive spreadsheet to ensure that various platforms have updated information about the new measures. The team is also working with Google.

In addition to spreading the message to a broader audience, the team is ironing out other small kinks — but for the most part, everyone was in agreement that the measures seem to be successful at mitigating some of the area’s public safety issues.

“This was fast and hard and difficult, but this to me feels like a big success,” Summit County Commissioner Elisabeth Lawrence said. “I think all of us would say that. I hope that you all feel that way. I know that it felt rushed, but we knew this was coming for years as we continued to see that Quandary was getting busier and busier.”

A sign sits near a parking lot close to the McCullough Gulch and Quandary Peak treailheads Aug. 4 instructing hikers not to park on county roads. Overcrowded parking at both trailheads has led to a number of public safety issues, and if not parked in designated reserved spots, visitors will be ticketed.
Photo by Elaine Collins