close
close

Wind storms leave Wyoming’s backcountry trails in a mess of fallen trees

On some of southeastern Wyoming’s popular hiking and biking trails, a chainsaw—or at least an ax—may be standard equipment.

Recent severe storms blew down a large number of dead trees, and even broke some living trees, spilling them onto trails everywhere.

“There were parts where I had to ‘jungle-gym’ my way through,” Quinton Merrill told Cowboy State Daily on Monday, moments after finishing a three-hour hike that started and ended at the Little Laramie Trailhead parking lot.

The parking lot is located above Centennial west of Laramie in the Snowy Range Mountains. It is a popular departure and return point for hikers.

Merrill, who is from Michigan and is in Wyoming for work, decided to hike early in the season at a time when some parts of the trail are still covered in snowdrifts.

Laramie native Richard Nelson had also just finished a walk and was visiting Merrill in the parking lot. He told Cowboy State Daily that the fatal fall on the trails this spring was about the worst he’s ever seen.

“There are trees that have died from the drought, and then trees that have died from the beetle and trees that have just been blown down by the wind, all piled on top of each other,” he said.

Much of the forest and the trails through it were a mess of “jackstraw,” he said, using a general term for jumbled fallen wood.

A pine beetle epidemic has had a huge impact “ghost forests” of bare, dead trees in the Snowy Range Mountains. And those trees can easily be pushed over by strong winds.

It’s bad everywhere

The damage was not limited to the Snow Range Mountains.

In the Laramie Mountains between Laramie and Cheyenne, crews recently removed 70 fallen trees from the popular Happy Jack trails. And much more work is expected in the coming months, Aaron Voos, spokesman for Medicine Bow-Routt National Forest, told Cowboy State Daily.

Voos added that he did not have exact numbers or data on how many miles of trails were affected. But “large areas of blowdown” are common when high winds hit in the spring and summer, he said.

With forest management staff in short supply, volunteer organizations are critical to keeping trails clear, he added.

  • After recent severe wind storms, one tree pictured here has fallen across the Meadow Loop trail in the Snowy Range Mountains near Laramie, while another has a cracked trunk and is likely to fall soon.
    After recent severe wind storms, one tree pictured here has fallen across the Meadow Loop trail in the Snowy Range Mountains near Laramie, while another has a cracked trunk and is likely to fall soon. (Mark Heinz, Cowboy State Daily)
  • The Little Laramie Trailhead in the Snowy Range Mountains near Laramie is a popular spot for hikers, but there is fallen timber scattered throughout the area – blown over by recent storms.
    The Little Laramie Trailhead in the Snowy Range Mountains near Laramie is a popular spot for hikers, but there is fallen timber scattered throughout the area – blown over by recent storms. (Mark Heinz, Cowboy State Daily)
  • A
    A “widow maker,” a precariously balanced tree broken by recent high winds, looms over the Meadow Loop trail in the Snowy Range Mountains near Laramie. (Mark Heinz, Cowboy State Daily)
  • Piles of crisscrossing fallen trees, called jackstraw, are a common sight in the Medicine Bow National Forest near Laramie after recent storms.
    Piles of crisscrossing fallen trees, called jackstraw, are a common sight in the Medicine Bow National Forest near Laramie after recent storms. (Mark Heinz, Cowboy State Daily)
  • Fallen trees, blown over by recent high winds, are a common sight on the trails in the Medicine Bow National Forest near Laramie.
    Fallen trees, blown over by recent high winds, are a common sight on the trails in the Medicine Bow National Forest near Laramie. (Mark Heinz, Cowboy State Daily)
  • There have even been some live trees blown down by recent high winds in the Medicine Bow National Forest in the Snowy Range Mountains near Laramie.
    There have even been some live trees blown down by recent high winds in the Medicine Bow National Forest in the Snowy Range Mountains near Laramie. (Mark Heinz, Cowboy State Daily)

Railway in poor condition

A volunteer group called Friends of the Medicine Bow Rail Trail has already been busy this month, members Jay Whitman and Amber Travsky of Laramie told Cowboy State Daily.

“Things are bad everywhere. Some of those lesser-known trails will take a while to clear,” Whitman said.

The group recently removed about 90 fallen trees from a portion of the Medicine Bow Rail Trail.

That 13-mile hiking and biking trail runs from the Pelton Creek trailhead on the south side to the Dry Park trailhead on the north, including a 1-mile detour at Fox Park.

The trees were removed from the section running from Pelton Creek to the Woods Creek trailhead, near Highway 230, Whitman said.

And he fears the worst is yet to come.

“Much of the trail north of Woods Creek is still covered in snow,” he said. “But when we get there, I think the part of the trail that goes from Lincoln Gulch to Lake Owen will be the worst.”

Much of the Rail Trail passes through sections affected by the Mullen Fire, which burned 176,878 hectares in the fall of 2020.

That left behind huge areas of lying dead wood, Travsky said.

“There are just so many trees out there that are about to fall through,” she said. “And if a big storm comes, we’re going to get hit.”

Mark Heinz can be reached at [email protected].