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Hiking Waldo Canyon then and now 

Five years after the devastating Waldo Canyon wildfire burned over 18,000 acres, destroyed almost 350 homes and killed two people, the U.S. Forest Service reopened Waldo Canyon to recreational use earlier this week, even though the official word from Forest Service officials — as recently as this past spring — was that Waldo Canyon wasn't going to open anytime soon.

Waldo Canyon,  as well as the nearby Williams and Queens Canyons, and Rampart Range Road were closed immediately after the fire. Rampart Range Road and Queens Canyon reopened in 2014, but Waldo, and the parts of Williams Canyon that are not privately owned, remained closed until this week.

I had hiked the area many times prior to the fire. It was a beautiful place to hike, full of colorful flowers, towering trees and, on a good day, teeming with wildlife. 

One of my favorite hikes began at the top of Williams Canyon via an unmarked trail across from the large water tank on the right side of the road. This was one of a few ways into Waldo Canyon that didn't involve using the main trailhead on Hwy. 24. From there, the trail descended into Williams Canyon and then followed a creek south. About a mile down, another small creek came in from the west, with a trail alongside it. I'd follow that trail along the creek until it turned south and then switch-backed up, eventually meeting the Waldo Canyon Trail where it circled around a ridge around the canyon. It was a nice hike, with great views, and I've missed doing it since the fire.

click to enlarge Looking across Williams Canyon, and at Pikes Peak - BOB FALCONE
  • Bob Falcone
  • Looking across Williams Canyon, and at Pikes Peak


After hearing Waldo Canyon re-opened, I went to the Rampart Range Road trailhead and hiked down the trail to see what things look like. The trail is still there — and still easy to locate — and the first few hundred feet of the trail is easy to follow since that area hadn't burned. After that, however, the trail is difficult to follow — I bushwhacked to the bottom of the canyon through the downed trees, loose rock, etc. At the bottom, there's a faint trace of what I think is the original trail, but it's hard to make out with large tree trunks strewn across the trail.

The intersection with the trail connecting to Waldo Canyon was once a secluded, shady spot. Now it's a wide open wasteland. The trees have been burned away, or knocked down by flooding and erosion. I tried to follow the narrow side canyon to the west to locate the trail that would bring me up above Waldo Canyon, but couldn't make it more than a couple hundred feet. There are huge trees down across the canyon, which at its entrance is so narrow that a single large tree is enough to touch both sides end-to-end. I had to turn back, though, given more time on another day, I probably could've found my way over or through the obstacles. The hike back is pretty quick, but it's still difficult to spot the trail from the bottom of the canyon to the road — I ended up bushwhacking up the steep hillside until I found the trail once again.

The hillside and the bottom of the canyon are beautiful with a carpet of wild grasses, wildflowers and scrub oak changing colors. In stark contrast to the dead and heavily damaged tress, several living trees remain standing. 

click to enlarge The bottom of the canyon is both beautiful and distressing. - BOB FALCONE
  • Bob Falcone
  • The bottom of the canyon is both beautiful and distressing.

If you're thinking about hiking into the area, there are some important things you need to know.

Though the canyon is open to use, the trailhead on Hwy. 24 west of Manitou Springs is still closed, and will remain closed. The Waldo Canyon Trail itself also remains closed — If you want to get into Waldo Canyon, you'll have to do it from Rampart Range Road. Camping and campfires are prohibited in the entire burn scar. But rules against parking on Rampart Range Road outside designated areas have been lifted. Also, expect seasonal winter closures of Rampart Range Road to continue, typically taking effect sometime in December.

click to enlarge My first hike into Williams Canyon since the fire - BOB FALCONE
  • Bob Falcone
  • My first hike into Williams Canyon since the fire

Simply speaking, access into the burn area is at-your-own-risk, and you'll have to find your own way in and out — the same as most other lands managed by the Forest Service. Be brutally honest with yourself about your ability to handle the terrain, and with your way-finding abilities before you make the trek.

Expect the same conditions I encountered on what few trails lead into the canyon from Rampart Range road — steep, hard to find or follow, and potentially dangerous — if they're still there. The risk of getting lost is very real in these conditions, and hikers should use extreme caution to keep safe. The risk of injury is also somewhat high due to the steepness of terrain, and the ever-present skree from the crumbly Pikes Peak granite. Not only that, there are still thousands of dead trees standing and any of them can fall over at anytime.

Of course, the standard hiking safety rules still apply: Don't hike alone. Tell someone where you're going and when you expect to be back. Bring water, snacks and layers of clothing, as well as a flashlight and a whistle (don't count on your cell phone to be usable while in the canyon).

Waldo Canyon was, and is, a beautiful place. And the opening will allow people to appreciate its beauty once again. Just be careful.

Happy Trails!


Bob Falcone is a retired firefighter, photographer, hiker, college instructor, business owner and author of Hiking Bob's Tips, Tricks and Trails, available via his website. He has lived in Colorado Springs for 25 years. Follow him on Twitter (@hikingbob), Facebook (Hiking Bob), Instagram (@HikingBob_CO) or visit his website (Hikingbob.com). E-mail questions, comments, suggestions, etc to Bob: info@hikingbob.com.

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