Featured Wilderness: A Winter Walk in Colorado's Proposed Hayes Creek Wilderness Area

Forest Near Hayes Creek; Brian GeigerWith only a few hours to spend, I was skeptical about getting much of the flavor of the proposed wilderness in Colorado's Pitkin County. Will Roush was waiting for me at the Wilderness Workshop office in Carbondale at 8:30 on a Thursday morning. We grabbed a map, and away we went, driving south along Highway 133 and straight into the heart of the 94,300-acre Clear Fork Divide, a roadless area comprising Assignation Ridge, Thompson Creek, East Willow, Clear Fork, and our destination, Hayes Creek.

At just 6,170 acres, Hayes Creek might seem like the runt of the litter, but this area is actually a keystone in the wild connection between the southern Rockies and the Colorado Plateau. This mid-elevation ridge links a wild area of more than 122,000 acres, providing an ecological bridge for the rich low-elevation lands to the west and the protected wilderness areas in the upper Roaring Fork Valley.

Sixteen miles south of Carbondale, we found a place to pull off the road just a few yards up from the trailhead: Forest Service Road 517, also known as Huntsman Ridge Road. Looking across the road to the south, we could see the Raggeds Wilderness in the distance.

Starting up the snow-covered trail, we quickly found ourselves under a canopy of aspen, subalpine fir, and Engelmann spruce, which typify these mid-elevation mountains.

The trail is open to all forms of transportation during the summer months; the evidence was hiding just under the snow cover. Every so often, we would step into a rut formed by the off-road vehicles that still threaten this area. Huntsman Ridge Road is closed to motor vehicles in the winter to help guard against further erosion, but the terrain makes clear that continued off-road vehicle traffic will further degrade the trail.

Such damage may soon be history, because Hayes Creek is part of a plan to preserve more than 100,000 acres in Pitkin and Gunnison counties in Colorado. U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet is examining the proposal as the basis for a wilderness bill. We hope he will include Hayes Creek in a measure to protect similarly treasured lands in the White River National Forest, Gunnison National Forest, and surrounding Bureau of Land Management areas of central Colorado's Rockies. The proposal has broad community support, growing out of a multiyear effort by a coalition of local, state, and national conservation groups to secure wilderness designation for these outstanding mid-elevation lands.

Huntsman Ridge Road aside, Hayes Creek shows virtually no impact from humans because of the relative lack of trails and the steep hillsides. Although we didn't see any wildlife in our short time on the trail, the area is excellent habitat for deer, elk, bear, and lynx.

How to Get There

Our hike began at Forest Service 517/Huntsman Ridge Road, which starts on the north side of Highway 133 just 0.2 mile east of McClure Pass. Parking is available at the trailhead or on the south side of the highway at the top of the pass.