A 21-mile trail through the Medicine Bow National Forest has a new benefactor in the form of a nonprofit organization with a specific purpose.
Friends of the Medicine Bow Rail Trail was formed late last year by a core group of devoted volunteers whose mission is to maintain and celebrate the rail-line-turned-trail that runs from the Colorado border to Lake Owen.
Dave Nelson, president of Friends of the Medicine Bow Rail Trail, said he’s been riding the trail with his wife, Annie, since 2010. Their volunteer efforts were inspired by necessity, as they frequently encountered fallen trees blocking the trail, mostly killed by the mountain pine beetle epidemic.
“In the aftermath of the pine beetle, trees had fallen across the trail at an alarming rate,” he said. “We would go out with 14-inch Corona tree-pruning saws and clear 30 stems in a 5-mile section,” Nelson said.
At trailheads, they encountered fallen trees that had damaged fences, picnic tables and other infrastructure.
“We started fixing split-rail and barbed-wire fence, too,” he said.
The U.S. Forest Service also conducts annual maintenance on the trail, but there were too many trees for land managers to keep up with, he said.
Together with fellow cyclist Amber Travksy, they formed a loose group in 2011 and continued their volunteer work.
In late 2018, they formed an official nonprofit organization, which will allow them to accept more donations and pursue grant funding for their future plans.
The Medicine Bow Rail Trail occupies a corridor that used to be the Hahn’s Peak and Pacific Railroad, which ran from Laramie to Coalmont, Colorado. The line was used to haul gold, livestock, timber and coal in the early 1900s. At 9,000 feet in elevation, it was the highest standard-gauge railroad in the country. The corridor is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
The rail operation was abandoned in 1996 and the rails and ties removed in 1999. The refurbished depot currently sits in Centennial and houses the Nici Self Museum.
In 2001, the Forest Service began construction of a non-motorized trail along the abandoned corridor, which was still in good shape, led by former Laramie District Ranger Clint Kyhl. Rail corridors make good multi-use trails because they’re flat, long-running and often travel through scenic terrain.
Across the United States, as the rail industry consolidated over previous decades, government agencies and municipalities began converting them to trails, with help from the Rails-to-Trails Conservancy. The conservancy estimates 31,000 miles of rail-trails exist in the country, with another 8,000 miles in the works.
Construction of the Medicine Bow Rail Trail, which opened in 2007, required resurfacing the bed, repairing culverts, removing debris and building five trailheads with parking lots and restrooms. There’s also a mile-long loop around Lake Owen and an accessible fishing pier.
Nelson, who was born and raised in Laramie, remembers spending weekends camping with his dad at Lake Owen. He could hear the train whistle preceding the arrival of the train itself, which rounded the lake’s west side. The train would blow its horn as it crossed the road leading to the lake. A caboose donated by WyColo Railroad now sits at the Lake Owen Trailhead.
“Those memories are part of the reason we want to preserve the history of the caboose and the rail-trail for generations to come,” he said.
According to Forest Service spokesman Aaron Voos, Friends of the Medicine Bow Rail Trail’s group volunteer agreement with the Forest Service allows them to work with the Laramie Ranger District to suggest possible projects they’d like to accomplish. The Forest Service then supports the group in its work.
Voos said organizations like Friends of the Medicine Bow Rail Trail are “invaluable” in assisting the Laramie Ranger District in its work.
“It’s really important to have our community involved in their public lands and the upkeep and maintenance of the public lands,” he said. “The rail trail group is one of many that works with us on a variety of projects, and they’re very important to actually getting things done on the ground.”
Nelson’s group proposed five projects to the Forest Service last year, which are now in the works.
Volunteers want to reroute a portion of the trail that detours along a forest service road, repair fencing and install interpretive signs about wildfire. They also want to organize a trail day and anniversary celebration in the fall.
The biggest project is converting the Lake Owen caboose into a rentable shelter. The caboose was donated to the Forest Service 20 years ago and would become the second rentable caboose on national forest lands, joining the Denver Caboose Cabin on the Tongass National Forest in Alaska.
Nelson said he’s met people from across the country who have traveled to Laramie specifically to check out the Medicine Bow Rail Trail, and he’s looking forward to the work ahead.
“With the summer rapidly approaching, we hope folks will come out, bring their family and friends, explore some railroad history, enjoy the wildlife and just have a fun time outdoors,” he said.
Friends of Medicine Bow Rail Trail is open to additional members, and donations are accepted at www.medicinebowrailtrail.org.