OURAY COUNTY – The rain clouds parted and sun shone down at the Top of the Pines last Saturday, as community members gathered at the rustic former Girl Scout Camp in the big ponderosa pines atop Miller Mesa, five miles south of Ridgway, to learn more about the unique county-owned open space preserve and education retreat center, and what the future may hold in store for it.
Among other things, that future may soon include a new multi-use trail system along the perimeter of the 175-acre wooded and meadowed property, perched at an elevation of 8,580 feet with gorgeous views of both the Sneffles and Cimarron mountain ranges.
TOP Board Member Chris Haaland has a special affinity for this proposed new trail project. He probably spends more time than anyone at Top of the Pines in the winter months, when he volunteers his time to groom seven kilometers of existing cross country skiing trails that weave through the ponderosa pines and alpine meadows on the property.
This popular, heavily used winter trail system is not conducive to hiking or biking during the snow-free months, and the lack of summer trails has inhibited full use of the property by the community – especially families, children and senior citizens. So, Haaland and fellow TOP board members are now spearheading an effort to build a new loop trail around the perimeter of the park through rolling, wooded terrain, which would be especially suited for hiking and beginner mountain biking in the summer months. In the winter, it would be set aside for snowshoeing.
The goal of the project is to transform rough, unmarked terrain into usable trails with interpretive signs identifying plants, geology and mountains in the Sneffels Range for the education of the community and school groups.
The trail system would be built over a three-week period next summer by the Southwest Youth Conservation Corps, utilizing a $24,000 grant which TOP plans to apply for in October.
Leading a tour along the route of the proposed new trail, Haaland described the uniquely beautiful park as a “human preserve” which locals and visitors to the area can enjoy as a public portal to the wilderness.
“It does wonders for your soul,” he said, strolling along through the airy woods, as Mt. Sneffels and Wetterhorn peaks played peek-a-boo through the ponderosa branches.
Board Member Paula James describes the 125-acre setting of Top of the Pines as “heart stopping,” with its “stunning views, beautiful forested acreage and enclosed pavilion.”
After scraping by with a very small active board for many years, TOP added five new members in January 2013. “We now have an active board of eight, with new blood, energy and ideas,” James said.
Since January, this new board has been working to clarify and realize its new vision for the facility, which includes not only an expanded trail system but also significant upgrades to the pavilion structure itself.
“What we all would like to see is a regional outdoor education center with camping and rustic lodging, where the community can come, as well as outside groups, to boost the local economy,” James said. “We would also like to be able to do improvements in an environmentally sensitive, sustainable way that would set an example for other projects of its kind.”
Proposed facility upgrades would include a full commercial kitchen, office and storage space, indoor toilets and showers, audio-visual equipment and a dining area accommodating up to 150 people. The renovation includes five phases over the next five years.
The site was acquired by Ouray County in 2002 from the BLM and the Grand Junction Chipeta chapter of the Girl Scouts when they decided it was no longer feasible to maintain a camp there. The property is now managed by Top of the Pines, Inc., a 501(c)(3 ) non-profit, under contract with Ouray County for this purpose.
When TOP, Inc., took over management of the property in 2002, the buildings were all in serious disrepair. The property had been essentially abandoned by the Girl Scouts for decades, with no maintenance or oversight during that period.
A Great Outdoors Colorado grant was awarded a few years ago to essentially clean the place up and enclose the former dining room structure. TOP applied for another GOCO grant in March, but didn’t get it.
However, James said, a representative from GOCO recently visited the center while in the area for the Western Slope Rural Philanthropy Days event, “and was quite impressed.”
“This is not the kind of thing they usually fund, but he encouraged us to resubmit our application and gave us tips to tweak it,” James said. “We are going to go back next year with an amended application and try to get enough money to finish out the pavilion.”
TOP is also looking for individual donations to help with its renovation efforts, and is currently selling tickets for an upcoming drawing with chances to win local beef (1/8 of a cow from local rancher Liza Clark), lodging in Acapulco for five nights and in Santa Fe for two nights. The drawing will be held in early December. To buy tickets or learn more, visit topofthepines.org.
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