Land, Water and People: A week in the wilderness


Monsoon season in the Colorado high country. It is 4 p.m. and a heavy rainstorm has settled in for a few hours at our backcountry camp near Blue Lake in the South San Juan Wilderness. At 11,400 feet the clouds seems very close. Everything about the natural world seems very close up here after a week in the Wilderness.

A crew of 15, myself and 14 volunteers from Volunteers for outdoor Colorado (VOC), backpacked into this beautiful and remote part of the San Juan Mountains next to the Continental Divide several days ago. We are here to conduct badly needed maintenance and restoration work on the El Rito Azul Trail to Blue Lake. The most heavily used trail on the Rio Grande National Forest’s portion of the South San Juan Wilderness, El Rito Azul, has challenging soils, drainage difficulties, and is in need of some much needed love and attention. With heavy use on the trail by hikers, equestrians and outfitter guides, the wet, fine-textured soils often develop into mud pits. People and stock tend to avoid the mud and create trail braiding and widening by creating new trails parallel to the main trail. We are here in the high country to close and restore the user created trails and address drainage issues to improve the overall trail conditions.

As the afternoon rain sheets down, we are all warm and dry under the large blue tarp we’ve set up to serve as our kitchen tent and gathering area. Among us are people from as nearby as Monte Vista and as far afield as Bend, Oregon. With ages ranging from the mid-20s to over 70, we are a diverse group of engineers, PhD students, retired doctors, educators and more.

After a hard, but productive, day wielding trail tools, building drains, working in the mud and moving heavy rocks, we are enjoying snacks made by our talented volunteer crew chefs, looking over maps of the area, debating over the species of wildflowers we’ve seen that day and sharing stories of our first cars and our most interesting experiences in nature. It doesn’t seem to matter how long it rains. The clocks are gone and our pace of life is different out here. Eventually the clouds break and people scatter for evening dips in the lake, short hikes onto the nearby Continental Divide National Scenic Trail, evening fishing or quiet reading in tents.

On our last morning in the wilderness we enjoy hot coffee and breakfast and pack up our camp. The tools and kitchen equipment are loaded into paniers to be taken out by the Forest Service’s Regional Pack String. It is not long before Trepper, the wrangler, comes over the hill on the back of his horse Quincy, followed by the string of six beautiful and well-kept mules. We help Trepper load the mules and begin our hike out of the woods.

Over the week the crew of dedicated volunteers maintained close to two miles of trail, restored a half mile of social trails and built or maintained 48 drains. The work was hard and badly needed. Some may wonder why people would volunteer to give a week of their Colorado summer to such hard, physical work. Across the group there was a collective mindset of a sense of stewardship and a feeling of responsibility to help give back to the public lands they recreate on, use and enjoy.

One first time volunteer, John W., said it himself, “As an avid outdoor Coloradan I have been looking for a way to give back to the places that have given me such joy. VOC provided a perfect platform to work with an organization that takes preserving our wild lands and training the dedicated people working there seriously. Thank you VOC for keeping our wilderness wild.”

I tip my hat to the volunteers themselves. They are a critical piece to helping us collectively keep our wilderness spaces wild, open and accessible for current and future generations. Thank you.

Sally Wier is the Volunteer & Partnership Coordinator for the San Luis Valley with Volunteers for Outdoor Colorado, the Rio Grande National Forest and the BLM SLV Field Office. She can be reached at [email protected]

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