Pikes Peak's South Slope is a "secret garden," a gem that's been shuttered for a century.
Though tantalizingly close to Colorado Springs' bustle, it features only a few signs of mankind: Utilities roads, dams, pipes and a sprinkling of reservoirs. The rest has been claimed by nature. There are sensitive wetlands, mossy hillsides, high alpine terrain and thick woods populated by creatures ranging from bighorn sheep to native birds and fish.
For well over a decade, outdoor enthusiasts have been pleading with publicly owned Colorado Springs Utilities, which owns the sprawling property, to open the area to the public.
They envision trails running along the shorelines of reservoirs, and abundant spots for picnickers. Perhaps most exciting to hikers and bicyclists, a proposed trail would connect Jones Park and Cheyenne Cañon to Barr Trail, creating a new route to Pikes Peak's summit, and a new "loop."
All it would take is about 5 miles of trail. Proponents often call this the "Missing Link," though its official name thus far is the Lake Moraine Trail.
Unfortunately, opening the South Slope has been a slow process. Utilities has a legitimate business interest in protecting the pristine watershed, and there are many environmental concerns.
A plan completed in 1999 was meant to be the guiding force behind opening the area responsibly. Instead, Utilities dragged its feet, then hired a private consultant in 2007 to develop a new plan. Last year the Utilities board (Colorado Springs City Council) approved the latest plan, which includes the Missing Link and other trails, as well as areas for picnicking, fishing and non-motorized boating.
But that doesn't mean you can finally visit. Actually, the only way in is to pay a fee and sign up for one of a few guided summer hikes. And that's not changing for at least a couple years. While the will to open the South Slope is certainly there, the money isn't.
Short, sweet, expensive
Funding for South Slope development likely will come gradually, from grants. Many people, however, are impatient. Especially when it comes to the Missing Link, considered a "second priority" in the development plan. If it was left up to Colorado Springs' Parks, Recreation and Cultural Services department, which is heading the development effort, the Missing Link probably wouldn't even be a conversation until 2013 at the earliest.
Instead, the Medicine Wheel, a local nonprofit that advocates for the mountain biking community and builds and maintains local trails, has, with the city's blessing, taken on the Missing Link as its own project. Jim Schwerin, group president, says that at an estimated $250,000, the Missing Link project is by far the most expensive the group has ever taken on. (The second-most expensive, in Bear Creek, cost about $35,000.)
The group, which has 480 supporters, is trying to raise the money through grants and individual donations. Only about $1,200 has been raised so far. But Schwerin says when athletes find out about Missing Link, they want to help.
Here's why: The "top priority" trails and facilities will cater to people who want to hike a few miles, throw a picnic by their car, or drive to a reservoir for shoreline fishing. The Missing Link, on the other hand, will serve cyclists, hikers and trail runners who want to summit Pikes Peak or traverse a 20-mile-plus alpine loop that starts in Manitou Springs, goes to up Barr Trail to Barr Camp, across Missing Link Trail to Lake Moraine, down Jones Park Trail into Cheyenne or Bear Creek canyons, then to the Intemann Trail and back to Manitou.
"It serves a whole different demographic," Schwerin says.
Because it is extremely remote, and the terrain difficult, the Missing Link will be built by contractors. Schwerin says the trail is mapped; if his group can raise enough money by early 2012, he says, it could be a reality by that autumn.
"The people who have heard about it are very excited about it," he says.
The voter-approved, sales tax-funded Trails, Open Space and Parks program has set aside $210,000 to develop the South Slope.
It's nowhere near enough. What's more, Sara Bryarly, a landscape architect for the parks department, says TOPS was recently denied a $700,000 state grant. Without the money, the South Slope will have to rely on smaller grants to build trails, restrooms and parking areas in the main South Slope recreation area (near Victor). So far, no grants have been awarded. TOPS will hear back about a couple smaller grants in spring and early summer.
Bryarly says TOPS might allocate more to developing the South Slope in the future. But that money is also needed for other projects, like building trails in the new White Acres and Corral Bluffs open spaces, or improving the Manitou Incline trail if it goes public.
"All these projects start competing with each other," she says, "and sales tax is down [from pre-recession levels]."
Bryarly predicts it will take at least a couple years to complete even the first phase of the South Slope project, because money is tight, and construction can only take place during summer.
Volunteers are expected this year to build one short trail that borders McReynolds Reservoir, but the other trails and facilities will require contractors to build. Until the money comes through, that's all on hold.
And so is the official opening of the South Slope.