The Roaring Fork Horse Council wants trail use in the Sweetwater area restricted to pedestrians and horses

Colorado Governor Jared Polis and several agency officials head to the hill overlooking Sweetwater Lake for the October 2021 press conference when the state parks plan was announced.
Chelsea Independent/Post Independent

A horseback riding advocacy group based in the Roaring Fork Valley wants to see access to trails in the Sweetwater Lake area restricted to horseback riding and hiking only.

“The inclusion of equestrian facilities in future planning is of the utmost importance and makes perfect sense, as the surrounding Flattops Wilderness (US Forest Service) is only accessible by foot or horseback,” wrote Susan Cuseo, Secretary of the Roaring Fork Valley Horse Council and Chair of Trails. comments to officials of the US Forest Service, State Parks and the Eagle Valley Land Trust. Early planning is underway for the potential creation of a new state park on the lands surrounding the recently acquired Sweetwater Lake area.

Sweetwater Lake is located just outside the Flat Tops Wilderness Area in northeast Garfield County, but is accessible via the Colorado River Road in Eagle County from Interstate 70 at the east of Glenwood Canyon.

“We hope that the existing historic trails are respected as sufficient and that no new trail plans are instituted,” she continued in the letter, which was presented at two open houses held in Gypsum and Glenwood Springs late January and early February.

Cuseo noted that four main trails branch off from the lake and head into the backcountry of the White River National Forest, including north into the designated wilderness area.

“Since the trails from Sweetwater Lake lead immediately into the wilderness, no mountain biking trips should be encouraged or allowed,” she also wrote in her comments.

The US Forest Service acquired the natural lake and surrounding land last year after it was purchased from former private owners by Eagle Valley Land Trust as part of its “Save the Lake” campaign and with funding from the Land and Water Conservation Fund.

Last October, Governor Jared Polis and Colorado Parks and Wildlife announced that the state planned to partner with the Forest Service and the Land Trust to establish a state park there.

White River Forest Supervisor Scott Fitzwilliams said at a management planning open house in Glenwood Springs on Feb. 9 that because the area’s trails serve as a portal to the wilderness, motorized or mechanized (mountain bikes) access would likely not be permitted.

“We don’t want to change the character of the area too much, because it’s a portal to the wilderness,” he said. “We want everything we do to manage the use of the area to reflect this historic character.”

At the same time, the Forest Service must find a way to manage access, because now that it is in public hands, it will be discovered.

What kind of park and what level of development and amenities should be involved is what needs to be decided as part of the required environmental reviews which are to come.

“What worries us is that if we’re left where we are now, it’s going to be out of date overnight,” Fitzwilliams said. “If we don’t have someone like the state to help us, the other option is to issue a prospectus for someone to come and manage it. The only way something like this can pay for itself is if it’s highly developed.

The Horse Council and other user groups have consistently encouraged CPW and the Forest Service to keep park development to a minimum.

“No increased use of motorized vehicles should be permitted as the backcountry road leading to Sweetwater Lake is not suitable for large recreational vehicles, nor is the existing campground,” Cuseo said in his letter. “We strongly recommend that the road to Sweetwater not be upgraded, maintenance continued, and the campground not expanded to include large-scale RV camping.”

Equestrian facilities maintained by the existing outfitter that operates on the site, AJ Brink Outfitters, should also be preserved, she said.

Cuseo referred to two other Colorado state parks that offer horse facilities, Vega State Park near Collbran and Mancos State Park near Mesa Verde State Park outside of Cortez.

“We hope Sweetwater can be added to this list in the future,” she wrote.

Senior Reporter/Editor John Stroud can be reached at 970-384-9160 or

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