Following the Stream: Urban Trails in Fort Collins

 

People bike and fish along the Cache la Poudre River in Fort Collins. Photo by PLHC Staff

People bike and fish along the Cache la Poudre River in Fort Collins. Photo by PLHC Staff

Fort Collin’s system of trails is one of the city’s most popular features. Every day, runners, cyclists, and walkers use these paths to exercise, commute, and relax. The result of urban growth and the rise of environmentalism in the 1960s, the city began construction of the trail system in the early 1970s. Today, more than thirty miles of paved trails crisscross the town, winding through parks and natural areas. The straight north-south trails run parallel to railroad tracks, and most east-west routes follow waterways.1

The Spring Creek Trail hosts a range of recreational activities as it winds through Rolland Moore Community Park. Photo by PLHC Staff

The Spring Creek Trail hosts a range of recreational activities as it winds through Rolland Moore Community Park. Photo by PLHC Staff

The connection between trails and water cannot be overlooked. The city’s most popular trails, the Poudre Trail, Spring Creek Trail, and Fossil Creek Trail, follow rivers and streams where users interact with the natural environment. When the city conducted a survey of users in 2012, citizens said it was “important for users that the trails be scenic and close to nature.” By placing paved trails in natural areas along streams, city officials fulfill their citizen’s wishes for green spaces and escapes from the built environment, while simultaneously protect residents and their property from damage caused by floods. Trails also provide direct access to water sports on the Cache la Poudre River, such as fishing and tubing. Residents can expect to encounter wildlife such as rabbits, squirrels, and birds and enjoy the sounds of rushing water and the wind through the trees without venturing far from home.2

In Fischer Natural Area, north of Rolland Moore Community Park, a paved spur connecting Stuart Street to the Spring Creek Trail runs between the two ditches, with New Mercer Canal’s access road a short trip up the adjacent embankment. New Mercer is on the left, and Larimer No. 2 is on the right.Photo by PLHC Staff

In Fischer Natural Area, north of Rolland Moore Community Park, a paved spur connecting Stuart Street to the Spring Creek Trail runs between the two ditches, with New Mercer Canal’s access road a short trip up the adjacent embankment. New Mercer is on the left, and Larimer No. 2 is on the right.Photo by PLHC Staff

Some encounters with waterways do not occur along a paved trail, though. Some happen along the many irrigation ditches that divert water from the Cache la Poudre River through Fort Collins. During the last 150 years, the city has expanded greatly to the south and west, and the Cache la Poudre River has become arguably less visible to many residents. Instead, many of the canals originally dug for agricultural use are the visible tributaries of the river through their neighborhoods. Ditches also attract wildlife, and the unpaved access roads irrigation companies use for maintenance sometimes double as walking and biking trails. Some residents may not even be aware that they are walking along a ditch, rather than a natural stream. Canals, such as the Larimer No. 2 and New Mercer also intersect with the city’s urban trail system in parks, which adds to the impression that irrigation ditches are meant for recreation rather than irrigating crops.3

Fort Collins’ urban trails both draw residents to the waterways flowing through their town and, at the same time, obscure the history of those spaces from the people who walk, run, and cycle next to them every day. Occasional dilapidated structures and signs along the trails indicate sites of significant historic events or information about restoration of some environments. The signs, efforts by the Poudre Heritage Alliance and the City of Fort Collins, help to remind citizens of the river that brought people to settle Fort Collins in the first place and the agricultural purpose of canals transecting the city. The trails themselves, though, are indicative of a future in which municipal, recreational, and environmental claims to the Cache la Poudre River’s use will continue to compete with agricultural claims.

  1. City of Fort Collins Citizen Survey Report of Results, April 2012, http://www.fcgov.com/2012citizensurvey/pdf/fort-collins-2012-report-final-2012-05-03.pdf?1384281778; Trevor Hughes, “Fort Collins continues ‘chipping away’ at trail connections despite limited resources,” Coloradoan, May 29, 2012; Miles Blumhardt, “Trail System as Popular as Ever in Its 20th Year,” Coloradoan, April 30, 2000; Jean Helburg, “An Anecdotal History of the Parks and Recreation Department: Fort Collins, CO,” The City of Fort Collins, 2009, 40-75, accessed 25 April 2014, http://www.fcgov.com/recreation/pdf/anecdotal_history.pdf.
  2. Stephen Meyers, “Road Crossings, Trail Expansion Big on Wish Lists,” Coloradoan, March 6, 2013; City of Fort Collins Citizen Survey Report of Results, April 2012, http://www.fcgov.com/2012citizensurvey/pdf/fort-collins-2012-report-final-2012-05-03.pdf?1384281778; Trevor Hughes, “Fort Collins continues ‘chipping away’ at trail connections despite limited resources,” Coloradoan, May 29, 2012.
  3. Even early on, Fort Collins residents often ignored the agricultural uses of irrigation ditches. They built homes and outbuildings right up to the edge of canals, causing conflict between the irrigation companies who owned the ditch right of way and the residents, who saw the canals as vehicles for waste disposal, recreation, and unwanted nuisances.

Recent News