Smokin’ Hot on the Colorado Trail

How to run safely during wildfire season on the Colorado Trail

The trail running season never really ends in Colorado, but for me, it hits a crescendo in the fall when lower temperatures create ideal running conditions. If I’m lucky, I’ll catch a glimpse of fresh snow on the mountains. At the very least, I know I won’t have to worry about the afternoon thunderstorms we get during the summer monsoon season.

All too often, though, early fall is marred by wildfire smoke, and this year was no exception. By late summer 2020, the entire state of Colorado was experiencing abnormally dry to drought conditions according to the US Drought Monitor. Wildfires burned across the state, most notably the Cameron Peak Fire west of Fort Collins and the Grizzly Creek Fire which shut down a section of I-70. Air quality alerts seemed to be a daily occurrence.

The high temperatures, dry conditions, and choking smoke might have doomed the trail running season, but 2020 isn’t like any other year. It’s been a year for setting records, including a lot of FKTs. The trails have been packed. During the shift to work-from-home, no one seems to actually be at home. In the western US that means more people are exposing themselves to the hazards of wildfire smoke as they venture outdoors.

What’s a trail runner to do? Either stay inside and go stir-crazy or figure out a way to get out and run despite the smoke. On the days when I had to brush the ash off my car before setting out, I had my doubts, I admit. I wasn’t sure if I was doing more harm than good to my body. It’s just so hard to say no when the mountains are calling.

One of my favorite places to run is the Colorado Trail, which spans 485 miles from Denver to Durango. Like many trails in the state, the CT saw an increase in usage this year according to Bill Manning, Executive Director for the Colorado Trail Association. Coloradans flocked to the trail to escape the monotony of life under quarantine. At the same time, closures along the Pacific Crest and Appalachian Trails forced backpackers to look elsewhere, and the Colorado Trail is a good option for long-distance hikers.

Whether you’re running or hiking in wildfire country, there are certain precautions to keep in mind. Manning recommends checking local conditions before heading out the trail. The EPA posts smoke maps (fire.airnow.gov), but smoke plumes can shift quickly and unpredictably. Fortunately, wearing a face mask can protect you against both smoke inhalation and COVID-19. I know what you’re thinking. Wearing a mask to the grocery store is uncomfortable enough, but on a run?! I swear, it isn’t that bad once you get used to it.

You can also dial back the intensity of your run to avoid inhaling particulates deep into your lungs. The EPA recommends avoiding strenuous activity when the air quality is poor. You can check the air quality index in your area at www.airnow.gov before heading out on your next run, but if the air is bad, stay home. Your lungs will thank you.

It’s important to be mindful of your surroundings and be a courteous trail user when running in wildfire-prone areas. Manning stated, “Our Colorado mountain landscapes are very dry. Wildfires are a far bigger risk than people realize.” Know what the rules are and follow them. Nobody wants to be that person who accidentally starts the next megafire by doing something stupid.

If you’re camping out at the trailhead before an early morning run, check the regulations before lighting a campfire. This year in Colorado, the fire danger is very high. The use of campfires and even some types of camp stoves is prohibited.

If a crowded trailhead forces you to park along the side of the road, be aware that parking your hot car on dry grass can start a fire. In Colorado, we get a lot of visitors from other states. I feel really lucky to live in a place other people go on vacation. But the risks here are different than in wetter parts of the country, and visitors need to act accordingly.

You could run a lifetime in Colorado and never hit the same trail twice. It’s one of the things I love most about living here. Most of the time, the dry weather in Colorado makes it an ideal place for outdoor adventures. But when dry becomes too dry, we all have to pitch in to protect our wilderness areas. Stay safe and help preserve our forests!

Geoscientist, runner, and writer. I will never stop being curious about the world.

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