The first surprise was parking.
Along the narrow road in North Cheyenne Cañon Park, past the Mount Cutler/Muscoco trail that was full this early morning, we found plenty of space at the new Daniels Pass trailhead.
The path was not without people – we passed several – but the next surprise was to find almost the same number on foot and on wheels. We had expected mostly mountain bikers. After all, Daniels Pass and the adjacent Sweetwater Canyon loops were built with this group in mind, built by mountain bike specialists.
But the new trails in one of Colorado Springs’ top outdoor destinations were also built for others. That was the stated goal of the project years along the way. Previously ridden almost exclusively by downhill thrill seekers, Daniels Pass was reconfigured in an effort to appeal to runners and casual hikers.
From what we heard on this visit, mission accomplished.
“It’s a wonderful addition,” said Susie Milani, a longtime North Cheyenne Cañon hiker.
Hers was a glowing review we heard in the middle of the summer debut of the trail system. Stretching nearly 7 miles, it is the largest addition to the park in recent memory, pushing the boundaries of exploration westward.
“I love it,” said another regular hiker, Dan Sanchez. “It’s as good as any trail here.”
It includes a short rugged trail for hikers to the summit of Mount Muscoco, offering an alternate route to the highest point across all of the city parks.
There was a stop for Milani this morning. “It’s a much better way to do Muscoco,” she said.
There is one option from the top of Daniels Pass, which swings up about 2 miles from the trailhead. Mountain bikers instead approach from Gold Camp Road during longer cross-country rides that now include eight laps of Sweetwater Canyon. They were held on the side of the ridge opposite Daniels Pass.
Here at the top we found a couple of mountain bikers. Before their soaring descent of Daniels Pass, over rolls and turns, through trees and rock gardens, they split beta on a laid out map. Some curious hikers familiarized themselves with the trails.
“Have fun, ladies,” said one of the riders, Doug Hugill, as the group continued toward 3 miles of options in forested Sweetwater Canyon.
Hugill called the system “a gem” and saw it as much needed. He saw it take pressure off trails here in North Cheyenne Cañon and elsewhere, at popular riding hubs like Palmer and Ute Valley parks.
“With so many people in town now, they had to open up new things,” Hugill said. “Plus, the scenery is incredible.”
His buddy, Dave Meyer, agreed. He sounded excited for the trails that make up a new leg of the Pikes Peak Apex, the four-day race returning for a third year in September.
Still, “old-school” riders may miss the steep, gnarly nature of the former Daniels Pass, Meyer acknowledged. Count him among the missing stone obstacles that were lost during the reroute.
Hard feelings reach Sweetwater Canyon. The 200 hectares were central to the city’s swap with The Broadmoor in 2016 which saw the privatization of the meadow called Strawberry Fields.
“Although it can probably be done faster by a young guy on a bike, Sweetwater Canyon is pretty much an all-day excursion for most of the rest of us,” said Kent Obee, a longtime parks advocate. “It’s certainly not a substitute for the easy access to Strawberry.”
Cory Sutela, executive director of the mountain bike group Medicine Wheel Trail Advocates, has sympathized with those sentiments.
“But if you take a step back, I mean, 61/2 miles of new trails, that’s a big addition,” he said in an earlier interview. “I really hope some of these opponents can say, ‘Well, at least something good came of it’.”
And while some riders yearn for more rocks and roots, runners may be happy to find the trail system as is. One is Sara Striegel.
“It’s very drivable,” she said. “It’s not crazy, but it’s still challenging enough. You get the highs and lows without having to use electricity.”
Striegel ran Sweetwater Canyon as he drove up about 20 miles, connecting the trails with others in the park. Along with Mount Muscoco and Gold Camp Road, the system connects to the Columbine Trail, which runs along the canyon. Another spur leads to Helen Hunt Falls.
This speaks to a purpose for the new system — “a game changer by adding some significant loops and connections,” said David Deitemeyer, who oversaw the project with the city parks department.
Another purpose was to provide a “wilderness experience,” he said. Sweetwater Canyon “is kind of unlike any other place in our park system. You just feel so removed from the hustle and bustle of everyday life.”
This is how Milani felt on the trip. She wasn’t sure how far she wanted to go this day, but the possibilities seemed endless.
“I want to explore more,” she said.