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Can I Get a Connection?

For decades the dream of a mountain bike trail connecting Nederland to Winter Park has been the holy grail of local riders. Last year, that dream moved one step closer to completion with the opening of the Toll Trail. What will it take to finish the project?

By Dan England

On a clear, sunny day in 2013, Jason Vogel suggested to Will Toor they go for a bike ride.

It wasn’t an unusual suggestion. Vogel was the president of the Boulder Mountainbike Alliance, and Toor was known for his love of mountain biking: His Facebook profile picture features a pic of him on a ride.

But Toor was also a Boulder County Commissioner, in his second term (he held office from 2005–12), and this time, Vogel had ulterior motives: He wanted Toor to realize the potential of the Tolland Ranch property west of Nederland. And do something to turn that potential into reality.

Toor already knew the land and was in negotiations, on behalf of the county, with the Tolland family to somehow purchase it and preserve it. He knew how special it was and what it could do for mountain bikers in Boulder County. The private property, bought by Charles Toll, the state’s attorney general in the late 1800s, is 4,700 acres, the largest in the South Boulder Creek Watershed, and features Amtrak passage, an elk corridor, and a historic schoolhouse. Most of it is, by nearly all standards, simply breathtaking.

Still, if Vogel meant to sell Toor on the idea of a trail, he could have picked a better method. The two started up the West Magnolia trail system outside of Nederland and rode to the Eldora ski resort on a social trail that was, Toor remembers, “wildly difficult.” A recent windstorm had scattered trees in its path, forcing the riders to hop off their saddles and carry their bikes at least a dozen times. Yet Toor was reminded—again—how amazing the place was. The ride, no matter how difficult, solidified the need for a trail.

“The beauty didn’t escape me,” he says. “and if we could get it done, it would be a safe and accessible trail that people would really love.”

Courtesy Elyse Jones

Singletrack Has a Price

The trail created a sense of urgency for the mountain biking community as well. Eldora’s new owners had closed access to a corridor that went through its ski area, preventing bikers from enjoying an iconic ride from Nederland to Winter Park. A paththrough Tolland Ranch would restore that access. At least, that was the plan. More on that later.

Last fall, the 5-mile singletrack so-called Toll Trail—Boulder County hasn’t picked a name yet and Mary Olson, the project lead and landscape architect for the county, notes that the extended process to name the trail is so that “we can honor the history of the area in a more inclusive way”)—opened after years of hard work both outdoors and behind closed doors.

That bureaucratic maneuvering included a recreation easement that was written into the conservation easement, an unusual arrangement that Toor helped grease by talking to officials from nearly every natural resources department in the area and the state in addition to many members of the large Tolland family. The recreation easement, something that even recreation-focused Boulder County hadn’t tried before, would ensure that the trail could be built and that the public would have access to it, two things that aren’t always true with conservation easements. This is why Boulder Mountainbike Alliance Advocacy Director Mike Barrow maintains the trail would not have been built without Toor’s persistence.

But what makes the political wrangling—and the trail—even weirder is that Boulder county officials made it happen.

“It’s very unique for the county,” says Olson, “because it’s not in Boulder County.”

Wait. What?

The trail itself, as it turns out, is in Gilpin County. Boulder County, where Eldora is located, stepped in because it had the resources and permission to do so.

“Trying to protect that land was important,” Olson says. “That was really the focus. We are just so grateful to the family for allowing this to happen.”

The Toll trail does take a toll on mountain bikers who wish to enjoy it. It’s not a park ‘n’ ride. It’s a hard ride for a good hour or more, depending on your fitness, 3 miles up the rutted, unmaintained School Bus route in the West Magnolia trail system to get there.

“It’s tough, and not very fun,” Toor says.

“Man, it’s technical to get there,” adds Wendy Sweet, executive director of the Boulder Mountainbike.

But once riders do huff and puff their way to the Toll Trail, there’s a reward unlike many other trails in the region. “It’s this beautiful, flowy trail with wonderful views, such spectacular views,” Toor says. “It’s a pretty unique place to be able to go biking.”

Barrow, who is 67 and feels the hard approach more than most, still believes it’s worth the trip. “Once you get there, it’s the finest single-track trail that Boulder County’s ever done,” he says.

And it’s not just for bikers. “The trail is a multiuse trail. It’s open to equestrians, bikers, and pedestrians,” says Olson, who adds it’ll only be open seasonally—generally from early summer though mid-fall.

A Broken Connection

Despite all the good news, the Toll Trail is also a heated point of contention. The connection to Jenny Creek Road, which most agree is vital to allow a ride from Nederland to Winter Park, has not yet been approved because the U.S. Forest Service, which controls the land, has concerns about the connection that may prevent it from happening.

“We don’t say it’s if the connection to Jenny Creek is approved,” Sweet says, “it’s when.”

As of now, the Toll Trail, for all its beauty, dead ends at a picnic table and a fence less than a half-mile away from Jenny Creek. Sweet says you can see the road from the end of the Toll Trail, and that it makes no sense because the Toll Trail was built, at least partially, to reestablish a connection from Nederland to Winter Park. It’s the only way to get over the Continental Divide. Others confirmed this, especially Toor, who was, after all, there at the time of discussion.

“If the trail wasn’t intended for that connection,” Sweet says, “it would be a loop or a lollipop. It wouldn’t be a dead end.”

The forest service doesn’t have plans to build or allow a connection to Jenny Creek Road for now, says Reid Armstrong, public affairs officer for the Arapaho and Roosevelt National Forest. One of the biggest concerns of the connection is the fact that it would drop mountain bikers into trails used by motorized vehicles. Jenny Creek Road is open to all motorized uses, and nearby Jenny Creek Trail is open to two-wheeled motorized use. Both roads connect to Rollins Pass Road, and all three combine to create a popular motorized system.

This would likely create conflicts between the two groups, Armstrong says, and eventually, mountain bikers would probably create social trails to bypass those roads.

“They will not want to use trails by motorized users,” Armstrong says.

Social trails are an issue in any recreation areas for hikers or bikers as they can contribute to the rapid degradation of habitat critical to elk and other species, she adds.

“Those creating these trails are typically huge advocates for wildlife, but higher-speed trails are having an impact on where wildlife feel comfortable migrating.” This is a special concern, given that the elk use the land as a corridor.

Courtesy Elyse Jones, map Courtesy MTB Project

But Toor and other advocates argue that the forest service’s inaction would cause a social trail, not building a solid, established connection that would allow bikers to ride over the divide.

“There’s a saying that it’s not the people who need the trails,” Sweet says, “it’s the land. Trails are the way we get people to experience the land in a place that’s appropriate and keep them out of places that’s not appropriate.”

Sweet believes it’s rare to find social trails near established trail systems, even if some are near motorized trails. In fact, social trails were an issue on the Tolland property, which is why the family supported the idea of recreation on its land, in the hopes of discouraging further use of them.

“The only time you see that proliferation [of social trails],” Sweet says, “is when there aren’t established systems anywhere.”

Barrow says he believes the forest service is more concerned about thinning forests for wildfire mitigation, a real concern given recent history in the region.

“They’re focusing on fuel mitigation,” he says, “and it’s hard for me to argue. They just don’t have the resources now.”

Armstrong, however, says the growing demand for trails means the forest service is scrambling to meet the demands for all users, not just mountain bikers, and a trail to Jenny Creek would take time and money. “The goal is to have opportunities for everyone somewhere,” she says.

Barrow says not building a short connection would deny younger riders an iconic opportunity to bikepack, a popular activity among mountain bikers, in the same way that hikers love to backpack long routes.

“The 20-somethings looking for a big ride, that’s the stuff,” Barrow says. “It would be a great community asset and address a more backcountry feel for those who would have the juice in their legs to do it.”

Regardless of what happens with the connection to Jenny Creek, the Toll Trail still offers a chance for a great ride. In fact, last fall, one month after the trail opened, on a sunny fall day, Toor hit it. The trail was a lot smoother than the ride up the Bus Route ride he took with Vogel, though he’s now more than 10 years older and still recovering from a mountaineering accident a year and a half ago.

“There’s still some work to do,” he says of himself and Jenny Creek. “But we were able to go for a beautiful bike ride.”

For decades, the dream of a mountain bike trail connecting Nederland to Winter Park has been the holy grail of local riders. Last year, that dream moved one step closer to completion with the opening of the Toll Trail. What will it take to finish the project?

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