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Blue Sky Trail in Larimer County, Colorado, connects previously fragmented trail systems managed by different entities, into a cohesive regional trail system.

arrowThis project was nominated for a Partnership Award as part of the 2008 National Trails Awards, announced at the 19th National Trails Symposium in Little Rock, Arkansas.


Blue Sky Trail connects fragments into regional trail system

The Blue Sky Trail, completed in 2006, connects previously fragmented trail systems managed by different entities, into a cohesive regional trail system. This trail project accomplishes protection of important natural and cultural resources while providing a robust trail system for the enjoyment of the citizens of Larimer County and beyond.

photo of rocky ridge

Rimrock Open Space; Photo by Scott Bacon


Colorado’s Front Range corridor is a collection of approximately 4 million people in 24 towns and cities that stretch for almost 200 miles along the foothills of the Rocky Mountains. Most of these communities lie within an hour of very high quality outdoor recreation, including fishing, camping, hiking and water sports and more. While this is a boon to the folks that live here, it’s a monumental challenge to natural resource managers trying to balance public recreation with protection of fragile ecosystems. With this pressure from recreation and urban sprawl, successful completion of the Blue Sky Trail project required far-thinking and adaptive planning and management between multiple agencies and partners including Larimer County, the City of Fort Collins, City of Loveland, Colorado Department of Transportation (CDOT), Great Outdoors Colorado (GOCO), Volunteers for Outdoors Colorado (VOC) and private landowners.

The area of the Devil’s Backbone, a significant geologic formation amongst the hogbacks in the foothills west of Loveland, Colorado has been a priority for protection since the Larimer County Open Lands Program began in 1996. The hogbacks, a unique geologic formation of successive layers of sedimentary rock that were brought to the surface with the upheaval of the Rocky Mountains some 50-100 million years ago, are significant geologically and culturally. The Arapahoe and Cheyenne tribes frequented this area, followed by settlers and more contemporarily ranchers, farmers and suburbanites. But with booming residential development, and the coveted views from a house build on the ridgeline of this area, protection of this area was a top priority.

Between 1998 and 2005, the lands that comprise the land protection corridor through which the Blue Sky Trail traverses were purchased by Larimer County and the cities of Loveland and Fort Collins through open space sales tax dollars, grant funding and donations. The 5.5-mile Blue Sky Trail connects numerous protected open spaces and existing trail systems that were previously isolated.

photo of bikes on trail

Mountain bicyclists riding the Blue sky Trail on opening day in 2006

Specifically, the City of Fort Collins Coyote Ridge Natural Area to the east, and Larimer County’s Horsetooth Mountain Open Space (and Lory State Park) to the north and Devil’s Backbone Open Space (managed by Larimer County) to the south are now connected and the trail links over 75 miles of trails and over 8,000 acres of protected lands! Now, one can hike, horseback ride or mountain bike 12 miles one-way on single-track natural surface trail between the Devil’s Backbone Open Space west of Loveland to Lory State Park west of Fort Collins and only have to cross one quiet subdivision road.

Following development of a management plan that included a citizen-driven public participation process, the trail was designed and laid out by Larimer County Open Lands Program with input from various user groups and stakeholders. The Blue Sky Trail was constructed over an 8-month period by Larimer County trail crews (primarily by hand) with assistance from community volunteer groups and individuals.

Larimer County Open Lands Program applied for and was awarded a assistance in constructing 1 mile of the trail from Volunteers for Outdoors Colorado, a state-wide non-profit trail organization that brings trail building expertise and a large volunteer presence to complete weekend long trail projects. Funding was primarily through open space sales tax dollars and a grant from Great Outdoors Colorado. An underpass was engineered and constructed at County Road 38E, to ensure a safe passage without having to cross a busy county road, in partnership with a grant from CDOT’s Transportation Enhancement funds.

photo of people working on dirt trail

Volunteers for Outdoors Colorado helped
with construction of the Blue Sky Trail

Technically, there were very challenging portions of the trail to be constructed including the need to bring the trail from the top of a hogback outcropping approximately 800 feet into a valley over a ¼-mile distance. Steep slopes and sheer rock cliffs required trail crews to consult with county engineers and they jointly designed a cantilevered trail that blends into the natural setting while providing a simultaneously safe and exciting route! In addition, the trail connected to three existing trail systems at the north, east and south ends that required collaboration between city and county staff to ensure a seamless transition and appropriate connections.

The importance of connectivity is not just an issue of recreation and a world-class trail system, but of ecological protection. With large-scale protection of contiguous lands the result is a sum greater than its parts. This large land protection area serves as prime habitat for many species of wildlife and native and rare vegetation. The Colorado Natural Heritage Program has identified imperiled butterfly species endemic to the hogbacks and populations of Bell’s twinpod, a plant that only exists in Larimer and northern Boulder counties in the world. The area also supports native grasslands, shrublands and ponderosa pine woodlands which are important habitat to many wildlife species including severe winter range for mule deer and golden eagle nest sites. By protecting this landscape, these intact ecological resources and the significant viewsheds will be forever protected from fragmentation and development.

For more information:

Larimer County Open Lands Program
1800 South County Road, Loveland, CO 80537
(970) 679-4562

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