Meet the woman who designs Colorado’s highest trails

What do you see when you look at a trail? Dirt and rocks? A line sketched across the landscape by 100,000 footsteps? The adventure of some not-yet-visible lake or summit or cirque?

Master Forest Service trail designer Loretta McEllhiney sees those things, too. But she also believes that a good trail is about controlling two unstoppable forces: People flowing up a mountain, and water flowing down.

“Sideslope,” McEllhiney says helpfully. That’s why she’s picked this route for a new trail on the southern toe of Colorado’s Mount Elbert: The land here is steep enough that the path contouring across it will be the only place you can walk without tumbling over, and water will drain easily off its downhill edge, instead of scouring a trench down its center. “Sideslope,” McEllhiney concludes “really helps confine people onto a bench.”

The official South Mount Elbert Trail that this route will replace, meanwhile, is a textbook example of what happens when walkers and water run amok. Colorado has 54 peaks over 14,000 feet high — its famous “Fourteeners” — and Mount Elbert is the tallest, rising to 14,433 feet from the bulky Sawatch Range just southwest of Leadville. People once drove to its summit in jeeps, and climbers eager to tag the state’s highest point followed the same straight-up route. Today, above treeline, the trail is a series of nasty-looking parallel trenches and denuded patches of tundra that McEllhiney calls a “catclaw” — 21 feet wide here, 13 there, knee-deep in places.

Over the next three years, professional trail crews and volunteers will close and revegetate 2 miles of this mess, and build more than 3 miles of new tread that McEllhiney and her seasonal assistant, Dana Young, have designed. They’ll use landscape elements like sideslope and structures like rock retaining walls to keep people on the right path and protect fragile alpine plants and thin topsoil. It’s one of 42 new “sustainable” routes on the Fourteeners that McEllhiney has conceived as the Forest Service’s Fourteener program manager.

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