In this age of very jaded consumers, only rarely does a product actually exceed the expectations that are created by the advertising campaign that accompanies it. The same is often true in the world of four-wheeling routes. Individuals with widely varying skill levels and equipment regularly make claims about extreme challenges, world-class trails, and even the hardest one yet. The experiences that create these comparisons are as varied as the individuals, further clouding the clarity and the anticipation with which new trails are received. With the proliferation of closure signs, the desire for better trails has placed even more focus on the very few new trails that have been opened to the public and serve to create even more pressure to deliver the goods in terms of a high-quality recreational experience.
On the flip side, the flow of information concerning new challenges has never been faster or easier because of pervasive media and the World Wide Web. Not only is information dis-seminated quickly and completely to interested individuals, it is often accompanied by enough photos so that any false advertising is quickly revealed.
It is against this backdrop of hype and information that the Independence Trail system near Penrose, Colorado, was unveiled to the public in mid-1999. In addition to watching the creation of the trail system with much interest (and letter-writing support), we had checked out all the available Internet adventures posted by people who had run the trail. The typical quote was somewhere between ecstatic and awestruck. Not everyone had a good time, but all agreed that the trails were every bit as difficult as advertised. With each passing account, our desire to experience Independence firsthand increased. After several aborted attempts because of scheduling conflicts and fickle weather, we finally had the opportunity to run this new trail system a year after it opened. If you like extreme rockcrawling challenges, the Independence Trail system delivers on all the hype - and then some.
A short history lesson is in order here. The Independence Trail system has its roots in the closure of another fine Colorado trail. The Rattler Trail near Howard, Colorado (see "Bitten by the Rattler," Mar. '98, 4WD&SU), was closed because of resource concerns. Challenge-minded four-wheelers in Colorado's Front Range area were encouraged to work aggressively with land management agencies to identify a suitable replacement. Scott Riebel, current president of the Colorado Association of 4 Wheel Drive Clubs (CA4WDC), took the loss of the Rattler in a particularly personal way because it had been his personal favorite. Scott was absolutely determined to find a trail worthy of filling the void left by the Rattler closure. Working with the BLM, Scott was urged to take a look at a designated OHV area near Penrose to determine if it was viable. Scott went out to examine the area and came back with this to say:
"I came upon a canyon just a little too quickly. When the dust and my heart had finally settled, I was confronted by what was potentially the greatest four-wheeling that I had ever seen. Boulders larger than my Jeep - countless numbers of them!"
Scott had found his replacement. Then the real work started. With a small group of dedicated individuals, including Jerry and Julie Panek from nearby Predator Four Wheel Drive and Bill and Krista Dixon, Scott set out to make this potential four-wheeling paradise a vehicle-consuming reality.
Creating a designated area suitable for hard-core challenges from a BLM suggestion is a two-pronged task. First and foremost is the challenge of shepherding the necessary paperwork through the not-always-customer friendly federal paperwork maze. Although the Penrose area was identified as an OHV area in the current management plan, an environmental assessment was necessary to designate exactly which routes were to be developed and under what parameters that development would take place.
The second, and much sweatier effort, was the actual physical labor needed to turn a vision of a trail into something a vehicle could actually drive. (OK, drive is a relative word when used to describe locomotion up a hard-core trail.) The creators also built and installed more than two dozen winching points, all carefully anchored in solid rock and painted bright orange for visibility. The whole trail system was outfitted with numerous signs crafted from 1/4-inch steel plate. When the whole effort was complete, approximately 1-1/2 miles of new trail system had been created in the confines of the area's rocky canyons.
We will say this: The creators of this trail system were true rock crazies and absolute visionaries. These tight, boulder-infested canyons and crevasses are the type of routes that normal people see and say, "No way!"
The trail system currently consists of four trail segments. Since the first trail work was completed on the 4th of July, the system took a rather patriotic theme in its naming. The four segments are known as Independence, Freedom, Patriot, and Liberty. With an excellent group of vehicles and cooperative weather (and some serious good fortune), we were lucky enough to run all four of the currently available segments in one long, glorious day.
Our group of 10 vehicles included several of the key contributors to the creation of the trail, with Jerry and Julie serving as our trail guides. We dropped (and we do mean dropped) off the trail head at the top of the mesa and immediately started the steep descent to the canyon below in a rock-strewn side drainage. So far, so good. Rocks - a lot of them - in, on, and around the trail. Maneuvering was slow and careful because there was little room between the boulders on the side of the trail and the vehicles slithering through. We soon passed the Freedom Trail leading back to the top of the mesa. The Freedom Trail is meant to provide a safety valve to let individuals rethink their commitment to probable vehicle damage and get out before encountering the really serious stuff. The Freedom Trail itself is not your typical escape route or bypass; it has several winch anchors that are sometimes necessary to get back up its steep and ledge-ridden track.