Longmont Resident Seeks to Create New National Scenic Trail Though Great Plains
As a young man, Steve Myers passed through North Dakota while driving from his childhood home in Minnesota to Grand Teton National Park in Wyoming. The seemingly barren expanses stretching as far as the eye could see were in stark contrast to the conventional mountain beauty he was raised to appreciate.
Nevertheless, something about it that stuck with him.
“When I saw the Tetons for the first time they didn’t wow me as much because I had seen pictures of them before and I knew what they would look like,” he said. “But pictures of the plains don’t do it any justice because you can’t feel that space. It was really powerful in terms of existentially breaking everything down to a feeling of ‘I’m just a person on this planet.’”
At the time, Myers had just learned of America’s iconic National Scenic Trails like the Appalachian, Continental Divide, and Pacific Northwest trails, and envisioned a similarly immersive trail through America’s Great Plains. Nearly 30 years later that fanciful vision is actually coming into focus.
While this idea merely percolated in his mind for roughly 20 years, after getting his new construction business settled in Longmont, Myers, then 40, decided it was finally time act on his longstanding dream.
With no clue where to begin, he started a blog in 2010 to act as a kind of sounding board and help him spread the word. To his surprise, it caught the attention of some prominent trail administrators around the county who helped him found the Great Plains Trail Alliance in Longmont in 2014 and begin researching the best route.
As soon as he did, Luke Jordan stumbled upon the new alliance’s website while researching a trip down the Pacific Northwest Trail.
Having recently completed the North Country Trail, which stretches 4,600 miles from eastern New York to Central North Dakota, Jordan was intrigued by the possibility of pioneering a new National Scenic Trail and told Myers he was willing to be the guinea pig.
Over the next year, Jordan and Myers held a conference call every Wednesday to meticulously piece together existing trails and backcountry roads stretching 2,200 miles from the Guadalupe Mountains National Park near the Mexican border in western Texas to the Canadian border in North Dakota.
Studying the sprawling map two things became clear; finding reliable water sources and camping areas in such variable climates was going to be a challenge.
‘There’s all this cool stuff’
Despite starting in February 2016, Jordan’s first day of hiking was met with 95-degree temperatures.
“I was a bit on edge,” he said. “Hiking in the desert was very unfamiliar to me. I remember the first day I walked to the top of Guadalupe Peak to get a view of the landscape and it was just desert as far as the eye could see. I was like ‘oh man I have to walk across that.’ It was kind of intimidating.”
Putting his anxieties behind him, Jordan quickly adjusted to the climate as he snaked his way north through miles of little-known canyons in the Kiowa, Rita Blanca, Commanche National Grasslands in central New Mexico and Southern Colorado.
“The unexpected scenery just blew me away,” he said. “It was a real treat to be out there and experience that. When you say the Great Plains, people think it’s this flat featureless county, but it’s not what you see along I-80. If you get off the freeway there’s all this cool stuff that you would never see otherwise. I think that’s what Steve envisioned with this trail.”
As he got close to Denver, however, he got stuck in a blizzard that forced him to hunker down for a few days along the South Platte River Trail and led him to miss the dry desert heat.
Once he got out of the storm and made his way toward western Nebraska the landscape once again transformed — but to the surprise of Jordan it was no less inspiring.
“I really didn’t know what to expect,” he said, ” But I remember the beauty of seeing Scotts Bluff National Monument for the first time and hiking over the Pine Ridge, which is this really lush pine forest, and I just fell in love with it.”
Entering the final third of the trail, Jordan passed through the Oglala and Buffalo Gap National Grasslands around the South Dakota-Nebraska border, and into The Black Hills, widely considered the trail’s crown jewel.
Four hundred miles of well-maintained trails, including the Mickelson and Centennial trails, made for easy hiking in one of the country’s most scenic areas, before finishing out the hike passing though the little-visited Custard National Forest in North Dakota.
‘An untapped market’
In all, it took Jordan 86 days of hiking roughly 25 miles a day to complete the trail. By the time he finished, he was completely sold on Myers’ dream of the Great Plains Trail. So much so in fact, he took a position on the board of directors for the Great Plains Trail Alliance.
“Having hiked the North Country Trail, half of the New England Trail and pieces of the Pacific Northwest and Appalachian Trails, I really think the Great Plains Trail has more potential than most to eventually become a federal trail,” he said. “It’s going through the heartland of America, which surprisingly isn’t represented with a national scenic trail, so it’s kind of an untapped market.”
While Myers and the Great Plains Alliance don’t know if anyone else has completed the entire trail, they are currently working on developing a guide book for a 250-mile ‘pilot trail’ from Scotts Bluff National Monument in Nebraska to Bear Butte State Park just north of the Black Hills South Dakota, which the Alliance hopes will make the hike more accessible to people.
“It’s a little daunting for people to think about doing 2,200 miles, but someone could do 250 miles in 10 or so days and that particular trail is the easiest to find legal camping and water,” Myers said. “We want to get people to actually hike or bike this trail and then write about their experience and hopefully create a little community around it.”
As more people get involved, Myers hopes to keep adding onto either end of the pilot trail.
In 2018 the Great Plains Trail Alliance added its first section of newly built trail specifically to help connect sections of the Great Plains trails in the Oglala National Grasslands.
“Right now, a lot of the Great Plains Trail is on roads, but there is huge potential to develop off-road sections,” Jordan said. “There’s lots of public lands that are kind of hidden away, as well as land trusts that have tons of acreage.”
As anyone who paid attention to the build-out of Boulder County Open Space knows, that process is going to take a very long time, but Myers and his board at The Great Plains Alliance, are in for the long haul.
“You’ve got to take a super-long view,” Myers said. “It’s going to be a decades-long endeavor. It’s not going to be easy, it’s not going to be simple and it’s not going to move fast.
It’s something we just have to chip away it. It’s come a long way from just an idea, but we still have an incredibly long way to go.”
John Spina: 303-473-1389, firstname.lastname@example.org or twitter.com/jsspina24