New place to hike near Eagle |

New place to hike near Eagle

Dominique Taylor/Vail DailyVolunteers, from right, Lisa Miller, Jill Mckinney and Jamie Daily work together to clear brush, rocks and trees from what will be a new trail Saturday at Sylvan Lake in Eagle.

EAGLE, Colorado ” The people in his work crew joked that Steve Austin had done so much volunteer trail building around Colorado he has tools named after him.

The teasing isn’t that much of an exaggeration. For the past 21 years, Austin has trekked from his Denver home to volunteer on public lands projects throughout the state.

“It’s just what I do all summer since I retired,” he says.

For the past two decades, Austin has bushwhacked miles of hiking trails, shored up countless walls and built numerous timber retaining walls. It is hard work, but he keeps coming back for more.

Last week, Austin and 55 other volunteers converged at Sylvan Lake State Park to build the first section of a trail that will eventually stretch five miles from the visitor center, located below the Brush Creek fork, all the way to the lake.

The work crew was gathered by Volunteers for Outdoor Colorado, a nonprofit organization with the stated mission to “motivate and enable citizens to be active stewards of Colorado’s public lands.” Since its foundation in 1984, the group as completed nearly 300 trail and habitat projects valued at more than $15 million. More than 50,000 volunteers have assisted in that work.

In return for their labor, volunteers enjoy the camaraderie of a large camp-out with a food provided by the nonprofit.

“All our volunteers need to bring are gloves, work clothes and water,” says Kara Silbernagel, a Volunteers for Outdoor Colorado staff member.

The Sylvan Lake effort is one of 20 projects undertaken by the organization this summer. That amounts to a project a week between May and October, Silbernagel says.

The organization has criss-crossed the state this summer, from the Denver metro area to Navajo State Park in southwestern Colorado. Silbernagel says the group works in cooperation with Colorado State Parks, the U.S. Forest Service, the Bureau of Land Management and various municipalities to identify needs and allocate resources.

For instance, during last week’s Sylvan Lake project, state parks personnel were on hand to operate heavy equipment needed to move rock and haul timber to the site.

The Sylvan Lake State Park trail is one of the more logistically difficult projects done this summer. Last weekend’s trail-building session took place on some of the trickiest terrain the trail will traverse: the steep hillside located south of the creek across from the group camping sites.

Terry Gimbel, a volunteer who is a retired state parks ranger, laid out the route. She says users had beaten down a path through the woods, but the steep terrain eventually prevented them from going more than a few yards. “This is a key piece to get done, because there are so many structures involved,” she says.

By “structures” she means timber walls that will stabilize the area below the trail and prevent erosion. Building the walls was tough because timbers had to be hauled down a steep hillside, across the creek and back up the opposite hillside. Crews fashioned a timber-hauling zip line to solve their problem.

Once the timbers are where they need to be, it takes expertise to design a wall that will serve its purpose and withstand the elements. Gimbel said Bob Finch, another former state parks employee who works for the nonprofit, oversaw construction of the 5-foot high walls. Finch had to anchor timbers to the hillside and angle the walls as they rose. Volunteers hauled buckets and buckets of dirt to complete the construction.

Because of the technical nature of the project, Gimbel said crews were expected to complete only around 400 feet of trail this week. Future crews will then be called in for more typical trail-building as the path is extended down the hillside and across meadows to the visitor center.

Emily Aranow, of Denver, was one of the volunteers who spent last weekend at Sylvan Lake State Park. “After you do a project like this, when you go out hike and climb five steps, you look at them and appreciate that someone had to build those steps,” she said.

Chad Shupien, a house painter and English-language teacher from Denver, spent six days backpacking the Chicago Basin in southwest Colorado before joining up with the Sylvan Lake crew.

“I have a pretty flexible schedule for volunteering. I go hike and use these trains a lot,” he says. “This is a way of giving back.”

The notion of giving back to the trail system was an often-repeated mantra among the volunteers. “Now, we expect to see the people from Eagle down helping us when we are working at Cherry Creek State Park,” says Aranow.

Retiree Murel McGrath, of Denver, says volunteering also is a great way to really appreciate the public lands Colorado has to offer. “You find interesting places you didn’t know existed before,” she said. “Now we know Eagle is a beautiful little town.”

To learn more about Volunteers for Outdoor Colorado visit the organization’s Web site at

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