The Dark Canyon Trail is getting a makeover thanks to some U.S. Forest rangers, tons of volunteers and a pack string of tough old mules.
Rangers working out of the U.S. Forest Service office in Paonia coordinated Dark Canyon Trail Days, a multi-agency, multi-phase project to upgrade and repair a section of the popular trail about a quarter of a mile up from the trailhead at Erickson Springs Campground.
"Starting in July we had our first groups come in," Barrett Funka said. "My philosophy as wilderness and trails manager is to start on our most used trails, start at the trailhead and just work our way in. As we get this trail here finished up this year, when some of the bigger things are done, then we'll work on our next busiest trail."
The work focused on repairing a long, straight stretch of trail about 200 feet or so up the trail from the bridge that crosses the Anthracite Creek near the trailhead at the campground.
The Dark Canyon Trail is one of the most popular local hikes in the North Fork Valley. Hunters will fill the campground and have horses up and down the trail in September, and fisherman can be spotted in the pristine Anthracite Creek throughout the summer and fall.
Dark Canyon Trail Days produced work on parts of the trail that haven't seen a maintenance crew for quite a while.
"It's been a long time," Funka said. "At least 10 years. Basic maintenance has been done, it's been logged out, but the more heavy work hasn't been done in a long time and we're doing it. And we're going to do it across the district."
The forest rangers working the trail were assisted on multiple projects by volunteers from different agencies and from all around the country.
They partnered with the Western Slope Conservation to get the word out. A national organization called the Wilderness Volunteers then came in.
"That was 12 citizens from all across the nation that wanted to give back to their public lands," Funka described. "They backpacked about four miles into the Dark Canyon to the forks of the Anthracite and then they worked for five days in the wilderness. I pack supported them with horses and mules and they just worked back from there, doing general maintenance."
After that the rangers teamed with the Youth Conservation Corps and high school-aged kids worked on the project.
"Their energy and enthusiasm this year was through the roof," Paul Kimpling, the crew lead and YCC coordinator, said. "They really enjoyed contributing to the forest in many ways. What was unique about this group was they were super prideful to work for the U.S. Forest Service.
"They would wear their hardhats and were just excited to work every day," Kimpling added. "It was a fun season and we got a lot of work done. It's great for them to get work experience and to be out in the forest. They learn a bunch of new things."
Other volunteers came from the Western Colorado Conservation Corps, the Colorado Mountain Club and Outward Bound.
"We've just been building a lot of capacity here," Funka said. "We've been putting in a lot of hours on our trails."
Hikers can walk from the trailhead at Erickson Springs 14 or so miles up to Horseranch Park and the top of Kebler. The trail also connects all the way to Marble.
Like all of the trails in western Colorado, the Dark Canyon Trail was originally traveled by mule teams.
"This trail is an old Ute trail," Funka said. "Before the road was built over Kebler Pass it was the only way to get from Crested Butte to Paonia, Hotchkiss or even Delta. There'd be big strings of mules coming down through here."
Funka is familiar with pack animals. Before taking the ranger job in Paonia, he worked for the Rocky Mountain Regional Pack String.
"I was a packer for them for years," Funka said. "My horse knowledge and packing knowledge has been vital for the work here. Horses and mules are still a vital asset to our mission and to the work we need to get done out here."
Mules from that pack string were out in force two weeks ago during one of the Dark Canyon Trail Days work days.
Glenn Ryan and his wife Alice Ryan cowboyed two strings of animals, one with six mules and the other with three.
At the trailhead, Funka and his crew filled bags of road base and gravel that they packed onto the animals, then the Ryans walked the strings up to the causeway where forest ranger Jen Stagner awaited.
Once the animals arrived, Stagner went along the string and emptied the bags onto the trail before raking it all into place. The mules walked back to the trailhead, refilled the bags, and took them up to the trail.
And so on into the afternoon.
"We can't do our jobs without horses and mules anymore," Funka said. "They're vital. We're one of the few districts around that uses them like this. They're expensive, there's some cost, but in the scheme of things it's not much money."
When the rangers aren't working on trails, they're spending the long winters looking for funding and writing grant proposals.
"We're not getting any more money every year," Funka said. "We spend all winter looking for money, writing grants."
Trail maintenance and volunteer work are pieces of a larger puzzle for the rangers.
"We're trying to bring a little attention to the fact that we're trying to get some serious presence on our trails," Funka said. "We're getting some serious work done on our trails that hasn't been done in a while."
The final event of Dark Canyon Days is Saturday, Aug. 27. Volunteers are already lined up to help, but if anyone wants to lend a hand, they can be at the Paonia U.S. Forest Service office at 8 a.m. to carpool.
Work begins at 9 a.m. Check out the Facebook page of the Western Slope Conservation Center to get updates. Anyone who wants to help is encouraged, and any amount of effort will be gratefully accepted.
"It's as mild to as wild as you want it," Funka said.