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Stop Trashing Colorado

By Jan MacKell Collins

I love Clear Creek Canyon. The first time I visited this unique place off of Highway 24 between Buena Vista and Leadville, I fell in love. Here are four quaint ghost towns – Beaver City, Vicksburg, Rockdale and Winfield – with numerous camping sites in the woods beyond Clear Creek Reservoir. Clear Creek itself veers off of the Arkansas River to wind its way through the scenic canyon, and there are even a couple of tiny museums maintained by the Clear Creek Canyon Historical Society.

The second time I visited the canyon was disappointing. One of our favorite spots is at the confluence of Clear Creek and Lake Fork Creek. Rockdale is on the hill above, and the site makes a great place to watch various vehicles as they negotiate the road crossing the creeks. To our horror, we found the campfire ring full of garbage. Beer bottles bearing exotic labels clued us in that the litterbugs were outsiders; certainly none of us could afford that stuff. All around were what I call “toidy bombs,” little wads of toilet paper hanging in the bushes and scattered in the grass.


As we gathered up all the refuse, I found a fancy little dog tag shaped like a bone. The tag bore the dog’s name, Jack, as well as his address: a tidy looking condo in Aurora, Google later revealed. Jack had apparently accompanied his owners here, and somehow lost his tag. I kept it, thinking about Jack and his owners, the ones who so carelessly trashed this pristine spot in the woods. It made me so mad that I ended up writing Jack a letter.

“Dear Jack,” the note began, “Having found your dog tag in Clear Creek Canyon, we are hoping you are all right.” The letter went on to explain what we found, and how we picked it all up and hauled it out with us. I ended the letter with, “Jack, please tell your owners that they are no longer welcome in Clear Creek Canyon. We don’t need people disrespecting a place loved by so many. You, however, are welcome any time.” Then I popped the tag into an envelope and sent it off.

A “campsite” in the San Isabel National Forest. Courtesy of U.S.F.S. Salida District.

Maybe what made me angriest is that people seem to be losing the art of respecting the wilderness, especially when it comes to one’s daily ablutions (an excellent and surprisingly useful guide is Kathleen Meyer’s How to Shit in the Woods: An Environmentally Sound Approach to a Lost Art, available on Clear Creek Canyon has increasingly become a victim of carelessness. On a more recent excursion, we camped in another spot. Five surrounding campsites each had a fire ring overloaded with garbage, which was scattered all over each site.

This time, I happened to have some tempura paint along. We spent a delightful evening painting “Please pack out your trash” on one large rock for each campsite. The paint would eventually wear off, but we figured the message was good until the next rain. Sure enough, some campers pulled into one of the sites later that evening. After they left the next morning, I wandered over. There was our painted rock, placed strategically to hold down another small pile of trash.

With the influx of people into Colorado, especially during the summer months, it’s hard to know who is, and who isn’t, going to use good camping etiquette. The rules are incredibly simple: Pack it in, pack it out. Leave the site better than it was before. Be respectful of the trees, landscape, history and wildlife. In other words, don’t be a tool.

Thankfully, not everyone is as piggish as those who leave their crap behind when they go back to their own homes. On our last trip to Clear Creek Canyon, four of us drove up to the beautiful ghost town of Hancock. Another girl and I left our own “toidy bombs” to dry in the sun so we could take them with us later. Near a pile of old logs was a poignant but sadly pointless sign: “This saloon is the last remaining structure of Hancock. Please do not destroy it.” The damage was already done. The weathered gray logs sat in a pile, resembling nothing like the quaint little building which must have stood there.

After awhile, two bicyclists happened by. We had exchanged pleasantries and the two were on their way when one of them gestured at the toidy bombs. “You, uh, are going to pick those up, aren’t you?” he asked pointedly. At first I was angry at the insinuation that we would litter, but they didn’t know us. I smiled and said we would indeed take our trash with us. Inside I felt good, for at least we had found one kindred spirit who respects the forest like we do, and should.

Jan MacKell Collins carries trash bags, dog poop bags, fast food restaurant napkins and hand sanitizer for her visits to camping sites and fire rings around the West.

One Comment

  1. Michael Blankenship Michael Blankenship June 12, 2018

    We are from Texas, and have often wondered why we sometimes get the “cold shoulder” from some of the locals, when we were on one of our camping/4 wheel adventures. As someone who lives in the treeless Panhandle, we have a special reverence for the mountains, and try real hard to leave it like we found it. I can see how it seems every “idiot” that has an ATV or 4WD is responsible for trashing your beautiful countryside, and I myself have seen the graffiti, trash, and carved up aspens from these people. Please remember that most of us visitors value Colorado’s natural beauty maybe more that you do, and we want to be good neighbors.

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