Happy Trails – Marshall Mesa

By Suzanne Webel

Many years have elapsed since my original trail log of Marshall Mesa, and a lot has happened there in the meantime. The grand opening of the new Marshall Mesa Trailhead seemed like a good impetus for revisiting an old friend.

In the interest of giving positive feedback wherever possible, let me hasten to praise the City of Boulder Open Space & Mountain Parks for some good things they’ve done here. If you remember the funky liquor store and the tiny Ethiopian restaurant that used to draw crowds to the east side of the intersection of Highway 93 and Eldorado Springs Drive, you’ve just “dated” yourself. If you remember the bizarre black office building that sprouted overnight like a mushroom in their place but was never occupied, in a few years you, too, have become “dated.” In a fit of inspiration, OSMP bought the condemned building (it sat on burning and unstable coal mines), demolished it, and in 2006 built – TA DA! – the first (for them) modern, functional trailhead complete with landscaping, picnic tables, restrooms, water, and – drumroll, please – designated pull-through horse trailer parking! This is truly the highest and best use of that property, and we hope it remains a nice trailhead (P-1) for years to come. It replaces the old Marshall Mesa Trailhead, which was barely a wide place along the road, where there were none of the above amenities but lots of potential for accidents and conflicts (this old access point is now closed). More than 55 people, including four mounted equestrians and about ten unmounted ones, four dogs with their guardians, a stalwart wheelchair-bound trail advocate, and several staff members, attended the official ribbon-cutting ceremony in December 2006 and spoke glowingly about the new trailhead and the successful process behind it.

Other good news about this area includes three of the four new trails they’ve just built as a direct outcome of the 2005 Marshall Mesa – Southern Grasslands Trail Study Area Plan.  The lovely new Marshall Valley Trail (1) runs along the base of the cliffs east to a point where it joins the old Marshall Mesa Trail. The new Coal Seam Trail (2) connects the new Marshall Mesa Trailhead with the Community Ditch Trail to the south. And the new Cowdrey Draw Trail (3) extends the Marshall Mesa Trail from the big switchback eastward along the side of that barren hillside to S66th St. Together these new trails add about 2.3 miles to the OSMP system.

There is another new trail also… but its outcome represents a sadder tale. Dubbed the “Highway 128 Trail” for its unfortunate proximity to the fenceline separating it from that truck-laden eponymous speedway, the new “High Plains Trail” (4) connects the Greenbelt Plateau Trailhead (P-2) with the Coalton Drive pullout (P-3). Advocates for this trail worked for many years to get this trail pulled away from the highway even a tiny bit (as in, maybe a hundred yards), in order to buffer it somewhat from the noise and pollution. We thought we had finally succeeded — only to discover that at the eleventh hour that some extreme environmentalists managed to trump the official favorable Trail Study Area decision and get the trail moved right back next to the highway again, in order to “protect” a few prairie dogs. Rumor has it that the trail designer walked off the job in protest, but alas, the ecos’ alignment prevailed. Ride it at your peril.

The vast majority of the Southern Grasslands TSA (the entire interior of this area) will now be open only to holders of Off-Trail Permits, which are available on request from OSMP. Unlike the subsequent Eldorado Mountain-Doudy Draw TSA Plan which did no go well for equestrians at all and where we are not even eligible to apply for Off-Trail Permits, you may be able to get one to explore the Coal Creek valley. If you are successful in getting a permit, and OSMP creates an access point, please disperse your use (e.g. don’t ride single file, and don’t create social trails). Notwithstanding the fact that this entire area has been grazed and gravel-mined, electrified with huge powerlines and cris-crossed with old roads, it is considered “valuable wildlife habitat” that is pristine and must not be disturbed.

Developments that did not go well for equestrians include closing the gate along Marshall Road that we used to use to connect to/from points north, closing the old road and connections from S66th St to Coalton Drive; and closing the old “Matterhorn Underpass” at Highway 93 (in my 1996 trail log I referred to the “endangered” barn swallows that nest therein as being a bogus reason for closing this feature, and the same “endangered” barn swallows were still among the bogus reasons given a decade later). OSMP has given us, instead, a questionable at-grade crossing of Hwy 93 at the intersection of Hwy 128, and an awesome underpass of Highway 93 at Community Ditch (we’re certainly hoping that “endangered” barn swallows don’t start to build nests in the new ditch underpass!)

Other trails to watch for in the coming years (open circles on the map) include a trail along S66th St to Coal Creek Drive (small roads with little traffic, now that the landfill is closed), and a trail around Marshall Reservoir (this trail was approved in the Marshall Mesa/Southern Grassland Trail Study Area but has still not been built).

If you are not familiar with this area, go! — and then, please participate in future management plans on behalf of equestrians.

Total Distance: 2.5 – 8 miles, in a variety of loops
Difficulty: Easy
Dogs: Voice and Sight control
Jurisdiction: City of Boulder Open Space & Mountain Parks
County: Boulder
Maps: USGS topo Marshall (pretty obsolete at this point); OSMP trailhead map; this one!