The Written Ward - Why Waldo?

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COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. (KKTV) - Five years have now passed since the Waldo Canyon Fire. There will be lots of anniversary coverage about the destructive and deadly fire, and the brave efforts to stop it from being even more devastating.

I want to talk about the trail through Waldo Canyon. It was one of my favorite places.

It was as challenging as it was scenic – as breathtaking for its views as it was for its steep uphill sections. For many of us Waldo Canyon was absolutely the best local hike. It started at that trail head west of Colorado Springs on the side of Highway 24. The first part was a quick climb up well-maintained, wide wooden steps. The initial uphill battle certainly got your attention right out of the parking lot.

From there it looped and wound up and down over hard dirt tracks, rocky trails, and soft forest floor. The full loop was about 7 miles. If you did it quickly it was a real test of a workout for most of us. If you took your time it was a beautiful glimpse into what the great outdoors is like in so many parts of our incredible state.

I think over the last 12 or so years I took about 35 different visitors along on a hike so they could have the Waldo Canyon experience. These were friends and relatives from other cities, other states, even other countries. Every single one of them loved it. It was always such a great Colorado experience, so close to home.

I could leave my house in the morning and be parked at the trail head within about 25 minutes. I could hit the trail on a weekday when it wasn’t crowded at all, and still get to work on time by mid-afternoon.

11 News Chief Meteorologist Brian Bledsoe and I used to do just that several times a year as part of our preparations to hike Pikes Peak late each summer. At our best we were able to run almost the whole trail except for that too-steep stretch at the beginning. We have lots of stories of close calls, tripping on tree roots at a semi-fast speed. I did take a full tumble once or twice and somehow avoided any injury. When we were at our fittest we managed to complete it in about an hour and 15 minutes. That was pretty good for a couple of non-runners. On an attempt in October 2010 we were on a pace to beat that time comfortably until about a half mile from the finish. I felt my calf muscle cramp up on me and it put me on the ground. I could barely walk, let alone run to the end. That ended any chance of beating that personal best time.

We will probably never beat it now – and it’s not just because we’re not in that kind of shape anymore. It’s unlikely that the Waldo Canyon trail will open any time soon. It will be years, if it ever opens at all.

I just talked to the lead investigator from the Colorado Springs Police Department last week. It is still a potential crime scene. The fire was human-caused, but they have taken away the evidence they need. The real problem is the condition of the trail and the land around it. There has apparently been a lot of erosion, parts of the trail don’t exist anymore. Vegetation is starting to grow back in the charred territory, but it’s not enough. A quick, heavy downpour in the wrong spot could cause powerful flash flooding through the canyon. That could be deadly for anyone caught in it.

The month before the Waldo Canyon fire I was able to take my youngest niece and nephews, Evan, Ryan and Kate to the trail for their first time. I’m glad that happened. My older niece and nephew, Julie and John had each been there a few times. The last time I ever went to Waldo was with John, on May 30th, 2012. It was just a few weeks before the fire destroyed it.

I had plans to go again. A good friend from England visited that summer. Darrell and his oldest son Patrick had been looking forward to the trip for years. Part of the plan was to hike Waldo Canyon several times over the 10 days they were here. Darrell had done it before on previous visits, and we had been building it up a lot to 17-year-old Patrick.

I was driving to Denver International Airport to pick them up after their flight in from London. As I was leaving Colorado Springs to meet them on a Saturday afternoon - in the rear view mirror I could see a thick, black column of smoke that was just starting to fill the sky.

We’ll talk again soon.

Don