Ranger trails: A natural stairway to heaven
No Thoroughfare Canyon sticks out among the dozen or so canyons at Colorado National Monument as a special place for hikers and campers in search of something different in the high desert.
Red-spotted toads live there. So do frogs, collared lizards, waterfalls and flash floods. In our high desert climate, this narrow, eight-mile canyon along the park’s eastern border tends to attract a lot, relatively speaking, of precipitation.
But the only moisture I saw a few weeks ago in No Thoroughfare was dripping off the face of Clyde Jex.
It was only 8 in the morning, and the 65-year-old Grand Junction hiker was sweating profusely. He’d covered several miles already on a winding trail famous for its coolness, but also for its sudden jumps in elevation.
Jex tramped headlong up the canyon like an enormous insect, scritch-scratching with hiking poles and grinning profusely. This was his daily constitutional, a 90-minute to two-hour morning hike.
He recently discovered something brand new on No Thoroughfare trail.
Located 1 1/4 miles from the lower trailhead, an 82-step staircase of exquisitely placed logs and rocks now switchbacks 50 feet up and around the canyon’s famous pool.
This magnificent example of wilderness-type engineering, a project that a more casual hiker would take for granted, impressed Jex.
“These (steps) ARE great!” he said, descending the stairway he’d climbed early this same morning.
Trail-building crews completed the staircase this year in an effort to make this section safer, plus easier for hikers. It’s a steep grade — more than 30 percent — that involved substantial excavation of sandy soil where erosion had ruled and hikers routinely slid down on their butts to avoid falling. That meant digging deep holes for a 110-foot-long retaining wall of native stones, most of which had to be chiseled and buried beneath the steps, called log checks.
“We try to make trails sustainable,” Conrad Clements, the park’s trails work leader, said recently. “This site seemed to be suffering from really bad erosion. The tread surface was granular, so it was almost like walking on ball bearings, and really steep.”
Clements’ crews hauled 40 logs to the site, cut them to 3 1/2-foot lengths, placed them at a seven-inch rise up against the retaining wall, and anchored them with iron rebar.
The project hinged on what is called “dry stone” masonry, a type of construction used for thousands of years in northwest Europe, particularly among Scotland’s wall builders.
Instead of the conventional application of mortar to bind stones or bricks together, the park’s trail builders follow a traditional method requiring mostly hand tools to shape Precambrian (metamorphic) rocks so they fit tightly and securely without any adhesive material.
If you don’t believe this sort of job to be a labor-intensive assignment, check out the upper trailhead of No Thoroughfare (off Little Park Road) where trail builders currently are hard at it. This commonly flooded section soon will have new rock steps and drainage structures to help prevent further erosion.
Wielding pry bars and strong backs, young men and women lift and place rocks, some the size of an office desk, into deep holes that hikers will never see so that the actual trail steps don’t budge. Just watching them will make you hungry for an energy bar.