Vail trailhead hosts aim to educate hikers
New Vail Trail Host program aims to create a better hiking experience, alleviate neighborhood impacts
How to volunteer
Visit vailgov.com/departments/human-resources/volunteer-opportunities, or apply in person at the Welcome Center in Vail Village, on the top deck of the parking structure.
VAIL — Moses Gonzales volunteers as a Vail Community Host in summer and winter, guiding visitors around Vail Village and Lionshead.
This summer, Gonzales will have a bit of a locale change. He’ll be providing info to hikers headed to local trailheads as one of a dozen or so Vail Trail Hosts stationed at popular hiking spots, including the perennial favorite Booth Lake Trail.
It is part of the town’s new Vail Trail Host program, which aims to create a better hiking experience and alleviate impacts to neighborhoods near popular trailheads.
“It’s so fun,” Gonzales said. “If you make (visitors) have a good experience, they’ll come back. And that’s what we want — for them to come back and see us again.”
About 31,000 people headed up Booth Lake Trail into the Eagles Nest Wilderness last summer, according to the U.S. Forest Service. While that’s a fraction of the 180,000 annual visitors to Hanging Lake Trail near Glenwood Springs, officials fear that the increasing crowds at Booth Lake Trail are degrading the wilderness experience for hikers.
Vail has an economic stake in ensuring that the hiking remains a great experience. A 2017 study conducted by research firm Burke for the Vail Local Marketing District Advisory Council found hiking was the top activity for all three of Vail’s target visitor personas: Active professionals (79% went hiking), Dynamic Families (87%) and Super Boomers (84%).
Another problem is the impact on local neighborhoods, particularly in the Booth Lake Trailhead area, where parking becomes an issue on busy summer days. The hosts will be tasked with providing the right parking info, and, when appropriate, encouraging guests to park in the Vail structures and take the free bus to East Vail.
They’ll also provide info about trail descriptions, trail preparedness, dogs, and perhaps nearby trail alternatives that might be less crowded and just as rewarding, said Amanda Zinn, Vail Trail Host program coordinator.
The current Vail Community Host program, which stations volunteers in Vail Village and Lionshead in summer and winter, assists some 60,000 people annually.
To start, the new Trail Host volunteers will have a presence at the East Vail trailheads — Booth, Pitkin, Bighorn and Gore Creek — as well as along the paved Gore Valley Trail near the golf course, where they will roam on electric bikes. They’ll be working Wednesdays, Saturdays and Sundays.
“We love our trails,” Zinn said. “We want to preserve them, and we want guests to enjoy them as well — just in the right way.”
For their efforts, hosts will be rewarded with a $350 credit toward town of Vail parking, Vail Recreation District activities and Vail dining. Vail is still seeking more Vail Trail Host volunteers.
Besides the $16,000 to fund the volunteer trail program, another $10,000 will go toward installing portable toilets at the Booth Falls trailhead.
The host program and toilets are short-term measures to alleviate the problem. The town and Forest Service are working on longer-term solutions, which eventually could include a reservation system, as was recently adopted for Hanging Lake Trail. Vail has approved $30,000 toward the longer-term study.
Community chips in
A new Forest Service program, the Front Country Ranger Program, will provide similar help on trails across Eagle County. Several municipalities across the county are providing $120,000 to fund four Front Country Rangers, as well as one additional person devoted to helping maintain trailheads and campgrounds, for this summer.
Eagle County contributed $58,212 and Vail gave $38,748 toward the program. Avon, Gypsum, Eagle, Minturn and Red Cliff also contributed proportionately to their overall budgets.
The Front Country Rangers “are focusing their efforts mostly on being good Forest Service hosts, patrolling and helping visitors understand what the rules are out there,” said Paula Peterson, recreation staff for the Eagle-Holy Cross Ranger District of the White River National Forest.
They’ll be patrolling several busy hiking trailheads near communities, including East Vail trailheads; Berry Creek to June Creek in Avon and Edwards; Homestake Valley; and Minturn, including Martin Creek and Grouse Creek
Facing funding limitations, the Forest Service welcomes the community effort to help maintain a great experience for hikers, said Marcia Gilles, deputy district ranger for the Eagle-Holy Cross District. Local communities understand that trails are an important part of the visitor experience, and communities benefit from ensuring that visitors have a high-quality experience, Gilles said.
The Forest Service also gets volunteer help from the Eagle Summit Wilderness Alliance, a volunteer group committed to the health and preservation of three wilderness areas, including the Eagles Nest and Holy Cross Wilderness Areas.
“We can’t do it without our volunteers, partners and community,” Gilles said. “We share in managing our lands together.”
The latest official numbers show that 12 million people visit the White River National Forest annually, but Gilles suspects the number is now closer to 14 million or 15 million.
Gonzales has been in the valley for more than 40 years, and has seen the number of hikers at trails such as Booth Creek grow quite a bit, especially in the last 15 years. This year, he hopes he can help people continue to have great days on the trail.
“There’s a lot of people who use those trails,” he said. “I thought it would be cool to be out there and give them some direction.”