It took two weeks of moving rocks and pushing dirt.
This August, Rocky Mountain Youth Corps crews re-aligned a segment of the Gold Hill Trail, which heads west toward the Tenmile Range about 4 miles north of Breckenridge.
The youth corps employees, who range in age from 18 to 25, said their time on the Dillon Ranger District epitomized the summer they hoped for when they signed up for trail work in the Colorado mountains.
“Most intense thing I’ve ever done,” said Sarah Carter, a 20-year-old from Sacramento studying geology at a college in St. Louis. “This is just so outside all of our comfort zones.”
Besides a weekly stipend, youth corps employees are eligible to receive AmeriCorps scholarships.
Ayanna Bridges, a 23-year-old from Ohio, paused from shoveling in the morning sun and said, “Good to be able to spend this much time outside and get paid for it.”
WHY THE REROUTE
The 3-mile Gold Hill Trail overlaps with part of the 486-mile Colorado Trail and the 3,100-mile Continental Divide National Scenic Trail.
The CDT, as long-distance hikers call it, forms a “Triple Crown” of National Scenic Trails with the better known Appalachian Trail and Pacific Crest Trail. The one-mile realignment of the Gold Hill Trail was federally funded with $30,000 earmarked for improvements to the CDT.
Originally, the trail went straight up the fall line and was prone to water damage and severe erosion, said Cindy Ebbert, Dillon Ranger District recreation specialist, who supervised the crews. Annual maintenance wasn’t fixing the problem.
Ebbert and trails specialist Tyler Kirkpatrick redesigned the trail, which is popular with hikers and mountain bikers. For one of the most important factors in trail construction — grade — they used a device called a clinometer to measure trail and slope angles.
“You really want to think about your grade because if you take a trail too steep for too long, then it just becomes another problem,” Ebbert said, “but, you also have to take into account that people want to get to their destination.”
They also turned the trail toward features that would interest hikers and bikers like views of Dillon Reservoir and what little vegetation grows tall near the trail.
Ebbert said the area around this section of trail was clear-cut about five to seven years ago and lies below a 2014 cut near the Peaks Trail — which is popular with hikers, bikers, trail runners, snowshoers and cross-country skiers — that caused public outrage last year.
Dillon Ranger District recreation staff officer Ken Waugh said the district’s partnership with the youth corps is one of its most valuable because it provides outdoor work experience for young people and allows the Forest Service to accomplish much-needed trail maintenance.
Headquartered out of Steamboat Springs, Rocky Mountain Youth Corps primarily covers all of northwest Colorado but also sends crews to other regions of the state and southern Wyoming.
In addition to work experience, the nonprofit emphasizes personal development, leadership skills, job readiness and healthy living.
“Our primary focus is on the positive development of the corps member. We are passionate about immersing young people in the outdoors to perform meaningful conservation projects as an avenue to their individual growth,” said Gretchen Van De Carr, RMYC executive director.
Shelby Weister, a 22-year-old from Vermont who graduated from college in the spring, said she plans on moving to Big Sky, Montana, for the winter and then hopes to go to law school in Portland. She landed on a summer with the youth corps after thinking, “What can I do that’s totally different from four years of college?”
Three people on her crew want to work as park rangers, she said, “and I think the rest of us just wanted to be outside this summer.”
They got their wish.
Youth corps members camp in tents throughout their 10-week minimum commitment. Usually, they car-camp close to trailheads, but sometimes they backpack into more remote locations.
The trail crews work four 10-hour days and often spend their three-day weekends exploring, hiking and climbing 14ers. Though manual labor unsurprisingly makes the corps members fit and strong, Ebbert said she was still impressed with their energy.
The crew members take turn cooking meals and spend a little time each morning on group reflection. They get used to showering once a week at a local rec center and rising and falling with the sun. And, they grow close after spending nearly all of their waking and sleeping time together for two and a half months.
Some crew members said the job is helping them save money for school or traveling; others spoke about how much they learned.
“Really what surprised me is the amount of work that goes into the trails,” said Bridges, who studied anthropology and early childhood development at Ohio State University. “It’s really cool to see the turnout.”
She chose to work with the youth corps before moving to Oregon this month to study natural medicine and yoga, and she had one tip for future youth corps members: bring good rain gear.
Emily Royer, a 21-year-old also from Ohio, said the summer went by fast.
Though she’s excited to return to school, she said, “I’m scared to go back inside for that long.”