This story was created in partnership between WyoFile and Western Confluence, a natural resource science and management magazine published by the University of Wyoming's Ruckelshaus Institute.
Between Laramie and Cheyenne, amid the rocky shrubland and aspen groves of Curt Gowdy State Park, 45 miles of trail unfurl in ribbons of dirt, ramps, jumps and berms.
These aren’t repurposed two-tracks or the kind of grueling paths devised by exercise masochists. The trails were carefully — and in some cases mathematically — designed to utilize the existing granite boulders that sprout up around Curt Gowdy while maximizing angles, curvatures and roller-coaster features to enhance flow. In other words, these trails were built according to the science of trail pleasure.
“So. Fun!” is how mountain biker Melanie Arnett describes Curt Gowdy’s trails. She has lived in Laramie for decades, where she’s watched publicly accessible mountain bike trails grow from slim pickings to a plethora. “It’s just such a treasure,” she said of Curt Gowdy. “I cannot believe this is our backyard.”
She does stay away during the summer high season, she said. That’s when hikers and mountain bikers flock from Colorado’s Front Range communities and beyond, crowding parking lots and campsites.
Her experience underscores some of the fundamental challenges facing land managers, outdoor recreation advocates and conservationists working to advance Wyoming’s outdoor recreation industry. As they attempt to balance the promise of economic and health benefits with deeply held Wyoming values of empty spaces and the preservation of natural resources, many say the way forward will have to be carefully designed.
A test case can be found in Curt Gowdy State Park, which champions say is a model for smart outdoor recreation design, and where a 900% surge in visitation post trail-building tested the landscape’s capacity to handle so much human activity.
A blank slate
Established in 1971, Curt Gowdy is a 3,400-acre park at roughly 7,000 feet elevation that encircles three small reservoirs: Granite Springs, Crystal and North Crow. For much of its existence, the park functioned as a water-activity and camping park, said Todd Thibodeau, a trail builder and mountain bike enthusiast who was a Cheyenne-based senior manager for Wyoming State Parks in the early 2000s. “All of our large state parks were water-based parks,” Thibodeau said, adding that the department in large part considered its function to be “providing water-based recreation and camping at reservoirs.”
He saw potential for expanding that vision through trail-building. Trails are not as affected by storms or lake levels as water sports, he said, and the water at Curt Gowdy could only accommodate a limited volume of people, keeping the park’s average visitation to about 50,000 a year. Trail-based activities like hiking and biking could offer more resilient and diversified recreation to state parks visitors.
Specifically, he was drawn to Gowdy, a park right in his backyard and one where “there was not a whole lot of use of those areas away from the reservoirs,” he said. The park’s windswept landscape at the intersection of high plains and the Laramie Range foothills is an unusual clash of granite outcroppings and wide meadows. There’s even a tucked-away waterfall. “I used to go hiking a lot in the park, and I kept thinking, ‘Wow, you could build an amazing trail system out here,’” Thibodeau said.
So he helped instigate talks within the agency to build state park trails, laying out arguments why users would benefit from more than just campsites and boat ramps. Swayed by the potential of more users, officials decided to test the waters with a pilot trails project in Gowdy. The agency had to do quite a bit of outreach and explaining — including defusing mistaken rumors about the project’s scope — but the public eventually came on board, Thibodeau said.
Over the next dozen years, crews and volunteers created more than 40 miles of purpose-built trail at Curt Gowdy, partnering with trail-building experts from the International Mountain Bike Association to design the network.
Because the effort started as a blank slate, Thibodeau said, “it allowed us to really innovate and do a lot of unique things there that hadn’t really been done in many other places before. And to me, that’s maybe one of the reasons that the trail system has been so popular.”
A tenet of the design is what Thibodeau refers to as the “ski-area model” of trail development, with a focus on loops instead of out-and-back trails. These “stacked” loops offer users many options off of a main trail stem, and a progression of difficulty — with the easiest options available right from the trailhead. It also involves building “play areas” akin to terrain parks for skills development. Importantly, the trails are fun for a wide range of users, including hikers and runners. That diverse array of options was a uniting principle that guided the entire system.
Another characteristic is that trails were clustered south of the road that cuts through the park, leaving the land north of the pavement mostly undeveloped. That, Thibodeau said, leaves the natural resources and wildlife of the park’s north quadrant untouched.
The trails are also designed with the landscape’s natural features as opposed to just cutting through them, Thibodeau said. Builders utilized boulders and berms to create playful features; It’s these whoop-de-doos, jumps and bridges that have raised Gowdy’s profile as a mountain bike destination. The International Mountain Bicycling Association gave the trails an “epic” designation, and publications like Bike and Outside magazine have sung its praises. The Crow Creek trail, meanwhile, has become an enormously popular hiking path; it leads to the park’s idyllic waterfall.
The success, of course, entailed significant time and money. Construction lasted years as crews, including volunteer labor, meticulously smoothed out grades and moved many tons of rocks. State parks pursued and secured grants and private donations. The state’s investment in Gowdy trails falls between $1.75-$2.3 million in 2023 dollars, said Wyoming Office of Outdoor Recreation Manager Patrick Harrington, not including ongoing maintenance.
Build it, and they came
The pilot project was deemed enough of a success that State Parks also built new trails in Glendo, Hot Springs, Bear River and Sinks Canyon. In Gowdy, the trails have boosted business for bike and outdoor gear shops in Laramie and Cheyenne, Harrington said, and Thibodeau credits the trails with sparking a youth mountain biking culture in Cheyenne. And, Thibodeau said, it shouldn’t be overlooked that it offers locals like himself a sweet place to ride and recreate.
Harrington worked as the park’s superintendent starting in 2018, at the tail end of trail construction, and has ridden the trails extensively. He calls Gowdy “the little gem in southeast Wyoming” and said it “was one of the initial pieces that started launching sort of a mountain bike revolution, trail user revolution in southeast Wyoming.”
Arnett experienced this revolution first hand. When she moved to Laramie in 1998 to pursue a master’s degree in botany, she had been mountain biking for a decade. But there weren’t a lot of trail options in her new town, so she mostly hiked and ran in the early years. “It actually took me a really long time to figure out where to ride my bike,” she said.
Around 2006, a friend convinced Arnett to ride Gowdy’s trails, which crews had started building. Cattle grazing in the park necessitated constant on-and-off riding to pass through gates, and she didn’t love sharing the park with so many bovines. “I was pretty underwhelmed,” she said. However, as more trail miles — as well as cattle stiles — became available, “it started getting really fun … and in recent years, it’s just gotten so nice, it’s such a great resource for us.”
The trails are fun and flowy, Arnett said, and built in a way that helped her progress as a rider by gradually building up her skills. She even got involved in a women’s skills camp called Rowdy Gowdy, which she helped coach for years.
Arnett wasn’t alone in discovering Gowdy. As word got out, visitation ticked up. By 2019, the park that once attracted around 50,000 visits tallied 221,000. Then in 2020, as the COVID-19 pandemic pushed folks to embark on domestic road trips, that tripled to 622,000.
That season was “crazy,” said Harrington, who was Gowdy’s superintendent at the time. “We would have parking lots full at 9 in the morning on a random Tuesday,” he said. It was a year that put Gowdy’s capacity, and design principles, to the test.
Spikes in usage are typically associated with resource impacts like rogue trails, improperly stored human waste, dangerously crowded parking lots and overwhelmed staff and facilities. In many popular destinations, land managers have struggled to keep up with maintenance, staffing and infrastructure needs in the face of growing demand. Skeptics of recreation development have also expressed concern about distressing animals, causing irreversible harm to cultural resources like Indigenous sites and overdeveloping wild places.
In Gowdy, Harrington said, “We definitely saw throughout the pandemic, that capacity of Gowdy, that we reached that capacity.”
Though the mountain biking trails and campsites received heavy use, managers said the most drastic explosion was actually in day hiking, with the bulk of people heading out on Crow Creek trail to Hidden Falls. What happened on Crow Creek during the height of COVID, Harrington said, is twofold: up to 300 people a day used it and — because they were social distancing — hikers spread out. That resulted in widening and erosion of the trail and huge parking demand.
In fact, Thibodeau and a crew were shoring up the Crow Creek trail this spring by building stairs, reinforcing grades and armoring sections. The trail had been “hammered,” Thibodeau said. In 2020, State Parks also used federal relief money to add a temporary parking lot and campground to handle the added pandemic demand.
These days, Thibodeau and Arnett both say they generally avoid Gowdy on Saturdays and during the summer high season. The agency keeps an eye on high-use areas like Crow Creek, said acting director of State Parks and Cultural Resources Dave Glenn. “I don’t know if we’ll ever say, ‘Hey, we’re full, go home,’” he said. “But there’s times that we are looking at it going, ‘There’s too many people on these [trails].’”
Still, this was not a runaway case of “build it and they will come,” Glenn said, since “they” are already coming. To him, Gowdy is more of an example of the kind of product they will use — and one the state can manage to minimize negative impacts. “We have the ability to build something and attract folks to it,” he said, “or they’re just going to go and do it on their own.”
Tale of two cities
These two choices are embodied in a cautionary “tale of two cities” Glenn often tells.
First: Moab, Utah, which he remembers visiting in the 1980s with friends and their outdoor toys, including early mountain bikes. A uranium mill had closed, and Moab was economically depressed, he said. But his friends weren’t welcomed with open arms. He remembers a local telling them to “get out of town, you effing hippies!”
Despite Moab’s lack of services, they had a good time, and they kept returning. And over the years, Glenn said, he watched as Moab was caught flat-footed as its wealth of red-rock resources attracted increasing crowds. “They buried their head in the sand,” Glenn said. “And they got overrun.”
The second: Fruita, Colorado. Fruita was a sleepy oil and gas town near the banks of the Colorado River. It possessed ample high-desert Bureau of Land Management parcels, but not much economic vitality. That changed when community members partnered with land managers to build trails and bike paths in a deliberate way, Glenn said, with amenities for the growing number of users like paved paths that connect communities. Today, “It is the mecca of mountain biking in the Intermountain West,” Glenn said.
The way Glenn sees it, planning for increased use, rather than fighting it, is the path that will lead to greater prosperity and success. And it’s one step toward balancing growth with preservation — “the nut I’ve been trying to crack the last six or seven years.”
Plan, disperse, adapt
After witnessing the surge of visitation at Gowdy, Harrington agrees. “I think that’s the lesson learned, is that you can get out in front of it a little bit and start managing for these higher levels of visitation.” Though visitation has cooled since 2020, Harrington believes the spike gave State Parks a taste of what’s to come.
And while a good design is the foundation of a sustainable product, the planning isn’t one and done either. The state also needs to adapt. Back when Gowdy’s trails were first being built, managers guessed that Gowdy’s visits would roughly double, Thibodeau said. Instead, they increased twelvefold.
To handle increasing growth, Harrington said his office wants to direct crowds to different landscapes and concentrate “them into those places that can sustain those higher uses.” It’s all guided by State Parks and Office of Outdoor Recreation’s philosophy: disperse crowds to alleviate heavy pressure, concentrate them away from sensitive areas and educate users on responsible stewardship.
And while Wyoming can hold Fruita up as a model of planning, it can also learn from the ways Fruita has continually adapted to growing visitation and use.
One of Fruita’s most popular trail networks is 18 Road, in the BLM’s North Fruita Desert. 18 Road’s popularity exploded around 2010, and in 2018 a partnership group acquired a grant to develop a trails master plan. The plan, signed in 2022, was both reactive to current conditions and in expectation of growing use, said Amy Carmichael, the assistant field manager for recreation in the BLM’s Grand Junction Field Office.
The plan’s goal is to “produce a diversity of quality mountain bicycling opportunities that add to visitors’ quality of life while contributing to the local economy and fostering stewardship of natural and cultural resources,” which sounds a lot like what Wyoming leaders want to accomplish.
The plan also aims to address negative impacts of popularity. The final document proposes to build an additional 25 miles of new purpose-built trails plus reroutes, event loops, parking and campsites.
Fruita mountain bike advocate and photographer Anne Keller agrees with Glenn’s assessment that Fruita designed amenities to serve visitors, but she thinks the community could offer more hospitality-based businesses and better trailheads. She’s also deeply concerned about protecting locals from being displaced by tourism-fueled gentrification. “It’s a really existential thing that I think about a lot,” she said.
Wyoming Sen. Cale Case (R-Lander) has similar misgivings about outdoor recreation development. Although he stands to benefit from the industry’s growth as a hotel owner, he is also concerned about rising housing costs and jobs that only offer low pay and no benefits, he said, alongside the overdevelopment of wild places.
Harrington thinks more of the right kind of development, not less, is one of the ways Wyoming can ensure balance.
In Gowdy, the design keeps the biking trails from feeling choked even on busy days, Harrington said. But if Gowdy is too busy for your liking, nearby areas like Pole Mountain and Happy Jack offer many options, he said. Along with smart design, connections between these and other Wyoming areas can spread the growing number of users out, he said. “The more we build, the less impact we’re ultimately gonna have,” he said. “Overall, the better the user experience is going to be.”
DISCLOSURE: Melanie Arnett is married to Dan McCoy, interim director of the WORTH Initiative, which is a sponsor of Western Confluence.