Boulder County residents, elected officials and employees on Thursday were the first people — without hardhats — to take a peek at the soon-to-open trails in the southern section of Heil Valley Ranch after they were closed about a year and a half ago after the Calwood Fire.
About 30 people, including county employees attended a site visit to see the recently completed facility upgrades at the Corral Trailhead and Main Trailhead and the other flood and fire recovery efforts. The tour was held in anticipation of the reopening of the Corral and Main Trailheads — and all connecting trails on the south side of Heil Valley Ranch — which will reopen June 16. Part of the Wapiti Trail will remain closed to protect a golden eagle nest in the area, but a detour is available.
“Recovery takes time,” said Kevin Grady, ranger at Heil Valley Ranch with Boulder County Parks & Open Space. “Of the eight trails, all of them were impacted. We were able to open up three and a half of the trails with most of the mileage by summer (of 2021). Everyone is getting excited for the last trails to open.”
The watershed recovery and soil stabilization effort cost $6 million and were primarily covered by federal funding. The work to replant trees and restore the Main Trailhead parking lot cost more than half a million dollars, and was paid for using Parks & Open Space infrastructure funding, said Therese Glowacki, director of Boulder County Parks & Open Space.
Although all trails at Heil Valley Ranch will be open from sunrise to sunset, the rebuilt parking lot at the Main Trailhead will close at noon every day through Sept. 30 because of the risk of flash floods. Recreators must arrive to park in the lot before noon and must leave or park at another lot such as the Corral Trailhead or Picture Rock Trailhead after the Main Trailhead parking lot closes.
“Emergency responders in this county right now — we’re at our limits,” said Bevin Carithers, ranger supervisor with Boulder County Parks & Open Space. “We’re fatigued, we’re tired. We’ve done so much to keep the public safe, we want to reduce the potential of having a catastrophe here.”
Carithers said after that Sept. 30 timeline, the parking lot will be open sunrise to sunset. The county will reevaluate the plan hours next year to see whether it can expand the time limits people have to use the parking lot.
“For this year, this is the safest thing we can do,” he said.
During the tour, Bethani Puzo, landscape architect with Boulder County Parks & Open Space, spoke about the changes the county made to the Main Trailhead parking lot.
She said the county spent the past five months redesigning the area, standardizing all parking stalls and adding three stalls that meet Americans with Disabilities Act standards.
After the Calwood Fire ripped through the area and burned more than 10,000 acres and damaged or destroyed 26 structures, the county chopped down trees along about eight miles of trails and roads to mitigate future safety hazards and then flew the trees to a site where they were chopped into mulch. The mulch now covers about 2,000 acres of where the fire burned.
“Research over the decades has shown the most effective thing you can do is get some kind of cover on your soils and immediate cover is going to be a mulch,” said David Hirt, senior plant ecologist for Boulder County Parks & Open Space. “That mulch serves a purpose. It lessens the impact of the raindrop and it slows the pathways of the water.”
Sharla Benjamin, project manager with Boulder County Parks & Open Space, said the county watershed restoration work like adding culverts and dams will help slow future flooding fueled by Geer Creek.
“The flood is still going to happen,” Benjamin said. “What we can do is take the energy out of it, and we can slow it down and spread it out.”
At the end of the tour, Glowacki thanked county workers and volunteers for their work to make the reopening happen.
“We at the Parks & Open Space are so excited to be able to reopen the trails in the southern part of Heil Valley Ranch because we know the public has really missed access to them, and we hope they can recreate safely as we go into the summer season,” she said.