Following the wildfires of 2020, a number of trails in Rocky Mountain National Park now head through areas that were severely impacted by wildfire. Learn what to expect and how to stay safe.
Hiking in Burn Areas in Rocky Mountain National Park
In 2020, two of the largest wildfires Colorado has ever experienced burned through Rocky Mountain National Park swallowing 29,000 acres, which is roughly 9% of the park. These fires burned through some heavily traveled hiking areas which are sure to reopen when it is safe to do so. Because there are certain risks and challenges associated with hiking in these areas, it is important to ensure you are well educated about them before hiking through them.
Following a fire, it is not uncommon for the National Park Service (NPS) to close off these areas for an extended time. So if you come in the spring or summer of 2021, some of the trails which were impacted by the fires will be closed. This is primarily for the purposes of safety as the NPS wants to ensure that the trails have been cleared of fallen trees and other debris and also to try and ensure that the trail and the surrounding area is stable. Another factor that may influence them is being sure that the fire is completely out. Once in a rare while fires can actually survive the winter, burning underground and then reappearing many months later.
How A Fire Burns
When most people think of the damage caused by a wildfire, they envision the entire forest being burned to nothing, but the reality is usually more diverse. Wildfires often burn in pockets. Some areas remain untouched, others next to them may simply be singed and in other areas the fire seems to burn completely, sterilizing the soil. Many areas are somewhere in between. Here’s a map of the most recent fire and how different areas burned.
Because of the patchwork way that a fire burns, it creates a very diverse pattern of regrowth. In some areas the vegetation will immediately begin to grow in the spring, while other areas that burned much hotter may take years or even decades for the soil to heal before much can grow.
Before the fires, most of these forests were very uniform with trees of the same age and type making the forests much lest resilient to pests, wildfires and droughts. While the short-term destruction is painful to see, the long-term result is a very diverse and often much healthier forest than it was before.
Through the Ash
When a trail first opens after a wildfire you’ll notice most clearly the patchwork nature of the fire with some areas barely touched and other areas burned more severely. In the more severe areas you might find that a thick coat of ash covers the forest floor. It will stick to your boots and clothes, on very dry days it will blow up into the air when you walk through it and cover you in a thick gray coat. It is not the most pleasant of experiences. Prepare to get dirty when hiking on these trails and it wouldn’t be a bad idea to bringing a face mask just in case it’s blowing around. After about a year vegetation will return and the gray ash will slowly vanish.
Just because a trail has been opened, that doesn’t necessarily mean that it will always be safe. You need to be on guard when hiking through burn areas for falling trees, especially on windy days. While the park will likely have cut a 6’ opening for the trail, there is not enough time and personnel to cut down all of the surrounding trees that could easily fall. Also, a tree that looked strong one day, may not be so strong following a windy night. Stay alert and avoid hiking in these areas on windy days, even if others are doing it.
In a similar way, they can’t ensure that the soil will stay stable. Wildfires can burn the vegetation that was holding the soil together. Because of this and other factors, falling rock and landslides are very common in burn areas. This is especially true during and after rain storms. Be especially alert on rainy days as there is nothing to hold the soil in place in some areas. Look for areas that could potentially slide. It could be parts of the trail itself or an area above the trail. Treat these areas cautiously. Because of the loss of vegetation you can expect the trails to be much more muddy than other trails in the park.
Areas that were severely burned may take a long time to heal and for trees to regrow. As a result, these areas often have very little shade and can be extremely hot during the summer. Be sure that you have enough water before you head into one of these areas and that you have a hat, sunscreen, and sunglasses.
As the vegetation returns, so will the wildlife. It is not uncommon to find elk, deer, moose and other large animals grazing on the new vegetation in the forest. They can be hard to spot them with all the blackened trees, so you’ll need to pay extra attention in order to give them the space they need.
It may be decades before these areas once again become deep forests but life is returning at its own pace. As you hike through these areas, pay attention not just the destruction caused by the fire, but to the life that is returning. First will come the insects into the dead trees, then the birds after the insects, then ground plants followed by grazing animals, etc, etc.. Each area will return at a different pace. See if you can notice what is happening and what is regrowing in these areas. It’s really pretty exciting to see the slow transformation taking place. One thing is for certain, it will not be the same as it was. Life seems to always come back in new ways.