The sign of the Grizzly Creek trail head in Glenwood Springs, Colorado on April 7, 2021. The trail reopened after being closed last August due to a severe wildfire. (Hyoung Chang, The Denver Post)
Eight months after the Grizzly Creek wildfire burned nearly 33,000 acres in Glenwood Canyon, the surprising thing isn’t how much timber was blackened along the popular Grizzly Creek hiking trail near where the fire started. The surprise is how much wasn’t.
On Thursday, a week after the U.S. Forest Service reopened the Grizzly Creek trail, there were pockets of burned trees, toppled timber, lines of fine ash where fallen trees went up in flames and other signs of the conflagration that swept some 8 miles along Glenwood Canyon on both sides of Interstate 70. Yet much of the hike remains beautiful and surprisingly unscathed.
Jacklyn Groen of Gypsum was relieved to see how much life remains in a favorite hiking destination for her and her husband. She estimates she’s hiked Grizzly Creek a dozen times over the past three years.
“I see a lot of missing trees and a lot of burned areas, which is sad, but there’s still so much life here,” Groen said, sitting at a wooden picnic table she was relieved to see intact. It’s a spot she has often visited for peace and contemplation. “I’m so grateful. So much green. So much hope, more than I expected to see.”
The boundaries of the Grizzly Creek fire went far beyond the Grizzly Creek drainage, which is located about 5 miles east of Glenwood Springs. It affected the Hanging Lake area 4 miles to the east, leaving scattered pockets of burned trees and piles of ash, without destroying iconic Hanging Lake. (The Hanging Lake trail remains closed but is set to reopen on May 1.)
The soothing sound of water rushing over boulders in Grizzly Creek can be heard while heading up the trail. A remarkable number of butterflies bobbed and flitted about. Here and there a blackened, lifeless tree stood among pine trees still festooned with green needles. In other spots, a healthy green tree was surrounded by blackened, leafless timber. Wildfire, apparently, is a very capricious force.
On the canyon walls above, scattered areas of blackened trees were noticeable, set against the beautiful sandstone cliffs that make Glenwood Canyon so special.
While the first 1½ miles of the hike is remarkable for how much life remains, hikers going further pass through pockets of severe damage. Not quite 2 miles up the trail and again at around the 2.4-mile mark, the trail passes through areas where all the trees, the ground and even the rocks are black. Some of the trees burned into their roots until they fell over, yanking rocks out of the ground that are still stuck to what is left of their root systems.
In contrast to how much life survived lower on the trail, those sections higher up are sad to see. But even in its fire-damaged state, Grizzly Creek remains a beautiful hike, and it should become more beautiful in the coming months. David Boyd, public affairs officer for the White River National Forest, said ground vegetation in burn areas should come back quickly because the fire didn’t destroy roots, seeds and microorganisms in the soil.
“Those are still alive,” Boyd said. “We’ll see a natural recovery, and in some places we already are. This spring and summer we’ll see a lot of plants coming back. In forested areas where the trees died, we’re going to see new plant growth. That supplies a lot of food for deer and elk and other wildlife.”
Most of the blackened, dead trees will be left where they are, Boyd said, although crews have sawed through some that fell across the trail so hikers can pass.
“The majority of the trees, we’re not going to be removing,” Boyd said. “We’ll let it happen naturally. Eventually they will fall, and that’s a risk when you’re hiking in those areas. It may take years before they’re all down on the ground, but eventually they will fall and decompose.”