Molly Bussen had a few words for the washed-out dirt road up to the Goodwin Lake trailhead.
“It’s pretty gnarly,” the 25-year-old hiker said.
For years the road connecting dispersed campsites in the popular Curtis Canyon area to the heavily trafficked trail to Goodwin Lake and Jackson Peak has deteriorated. Now it’s borderline impassable for low-clearance vehicles. So Bridger-Teton National Forest officials are considering closing it and establishing a new trailhead at the base, which would extend the 6-mile loop to Goodwin Lake by a mile on both ends.
That’s one of a suite of actions being mulled to deal with human waste piling up on the landscape and maintenance issues keeping haulers and pumpers from driving up the Curtis Canyon road to remove trash and pump out pit toilets. They’re also looking to manage exploding demand for camping and to keep off-road-vehicles from driving off the road, which is illegal in Curtis Canyon, the closest campground to downtown Jackson, but permitted elsewhere on the forest. Seeking federal infrastructure dollars to do so, forest officials are thinking of ways to fix an array of problems degrading the environment near Curtis, from fistfuls of nails left in fire rings to weed-spreading off-road riding.
The Bridger-Teton is considering four main changes to the Curtis Canyon area. Aside from possibly closing the Goodwin Lake road, forest officials are considering paving or otherwise improving the first mile of the Curtis Canyon road as it ascends to the developed campground near the Curtis Canyon overlook and installing more interpretive signs at the overlook to make it clear that dispersed camping isn’t allowed in the area. Forest officials are looking to add another 20 sites to the developed campground, and another pit toilet. And they’re looking to install boulders and signs along the road to prevent all-terrain and off-highway-vehicle drivers from riding on illegally established off-road trails.
“It’s really tied together by managing the public recreation use that’s occurring in that canyon,” said Linda Merigliano, a forest wilderness and recreation specialist.
Curtis sees roughly 15,000 users a year, with the current campground — a mix of 11 developed and 22 dispersed sites — hovering at roughly 93% occupancy. This year, demand for camping is a bit down, officials said, especially compared with the crushing last two years of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Bridger-Teton officials haven’t decided, yet, whether they’ll pave or otherwise improve the first mile of road or expand the campground, projects they’ve proposed for funding through the 2021 Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act.
That’s partly because they’re waiting on cost estimates from Jorgensen Engineering, which is evaluating how much it would cost to pave or otherwise grade and shore up the Curtis Canyon road and improve other roads in the area.
But it’s also because they haven’t asked the public for input through the National Environmental Policy Act, a process Merigliano said she hopes to start in the next couple of weeks with scoping for an environmental assessment.
That means no changes are expected this summer, though they could come sometime in the next two or three seasons.
100 pounds of nails
This year, Curtis Canyon isn’t being used as heavily as it has been in the past two years, and why is hard to say. Gas prices could be part of that. Ditto the flooding in Yellowstone National Park.
Julie Butler, the Bridger-Teton’s volunteer campground ambassador for Curtis Canyon, told the News&Guide that before the Fourth of July, she and her husband had gone five weeks without finding an abandoned fire.
“This time last year, after Memorial Day, we were full every weekend. And maybe a couple of times during the week,” Butler said then. “We haven’t been full once.”
Merigliano said Tuesday that the campground is still seeing “some availability,” and Butler said things have been relatively quiet but picking up in the past couple of weeks.
People don’t appearing to be living in the dispersed camping areas above the developed site, though a lot of people using Curtis seem to be 20- or 30-somethings throwing birthday parties. Those people have generally been “cooperative and grateful,” Butler said. But some otherwise respectful guests can still be a headache, like when they burn pallets. Last year Butler and her husband picked up roughly 100 pounds of nails near fire rings throughout the dispersed campsites. Just before the Fourth of July, Bridger-Teton officials removed pallets from a campsite that someone had reserved with a tent to prevent the nails from filling the campsite. Butler said her husband, Chris MacMillan, a fellow ambassador, estimates they’ve picked up 30.
They did so despite a written plea from campers to leave it.
“We are responsible campers and love the National Forest,” the campers wrote.
Their note also said they would bring 5 gallons of water, shovels and a magnet to pick up nails. The campers also mentioned enlarging the fire ring to accommodate burning pallets.
Jackson District Ranger Todd Stiles, who accompanied the News&Guide and other Bridger-Teton staffers in the field in early July, decided against being accommodating. He threw the pallets in the back of his truck and took them away.
Merigliano said that, despite decreased demand for camping this season, “the long term trend is for increased visitor use in this area.
“We’re preparing for, not just today, but for the future,” she said of the proposed fixes.
The poop puzzle
One proposal, expanding the developed Curtis Canyon campground, aims, in part, to rein in the amount of human waste being left across the landscape. Though visitor numbers change from year to year, poop remains a problem.
This year Butler and her husband — the ambassador couple got married at Curtis in the last week — both stepped in human excrement while patrolling Curtis this year. And that’s not the only problem they’ve had. Last year Butler and MacMillan found a Ziploc bag full of, well, you guessed it, in the middle of the road. And this year, Butler made an unfortunate discovery a little ways separated from a campsite.
“I don’t usually go into the grasses, but I did, and there was a whole bunch,” Butler said.
Butler said the people had used a copy of the Jackson Hole Daily to wipe. It was dated from the day before.
Butler and MacMillan have accordingly prioritized telling people to dig catholes at least 200 feet from their dispersed campsites.
Stiles said that simply building more outhouses isn’t feasible, in part because the dispersed sites are so spread out, unlike at the base of Shadow Mountain, where camp sites cluster around the base of the mountain.
“Where do you even put it?” he said, questioning whether people would drive several miles back down the road to use a latrine.
By adding more sites at the developed campground, forest officials hope to steer people to a location with toilets. Though Merigliano said campers staying at the higher-elevation dispersed campsites often do stop at the developed campground’s latrine on the way up, Stiles said people staying in dispersed sites should know how to poop in the backcountry.
“You either know how to deal with your human waste,” Stiles said, “or you stay at a campground.”
Expanding the campground by 20 sites would bring the total number of sites in Curtis from 33 — including dispersed and developed sites — to 53, and Bridger-Teton officials plan to add another latrine in the developed site to accommodate that increase.
Forest officials estimate that doing so would cost $360,000, with an additional $25,000 for the toilet.
The paving problem
Already, Stiles and Merigliano said, haulers are having trouble accessing the established latrines.
“The campground host can’t get a dump truck up there to dump the trash or pump the toilets,” Merigliano said.
That’s because the first mile and a half of road is severely rutted and damaged from years of erosion. Paving the lower portion of the road could solve that problem, but Merigliano said that’s not the only option on the table.
Other, less permanent options for grading and hardening the road are also being considered, and the forest’s initial proposal estimates that improving the road could cost about $90,000. The Bridger-Teton is asking for federal infrastructure dollars for the work, but what it will formally propose will depend, in part, on cost estimates from Jorgensen.
Stiles did, however, acknowledge that fixing the first stretch of the Curtis Canyon road could open the Bridger-Teton to criticism, especially with locals concerned about over-burdening resources after years of record tourism.
“Some people are like, ‘If you make the road nice, it’s going to bring more people,’” Stiles said.
But, the Jackson District ranger said, Curtis isn’t “a mystery.”
Stiles said the combination of having a campground ambassador to manage dispersed sites, adding sites to the developed campground, and preventing off-road use from impacting the landscape could mitigate the impact of additional visitors reaching Curtis via a paved road. A “horrendous” entry road, Stiles said, might keep people out.
But the degradation could cause problems with water quality via erosion, he said.
“What’s worse?” Stiles asked.
Reining in OHVs
Preventing off-road use, however, has been a big challenge for the Bridger-Teton, so much so that Stiles, Merigliano and David Wilkinson, a Bridger-Teton recreation technician who focuses on travel planning, spent most of an afternoon in early July post hole digging and installing fences aimed at closing off-road trails.
“I can honestly say I’ve dug more holes as an employee of this forest than anyone else,” Wilkinson said.
Stiles quipped that the U.S. Forest Service does have a lot of employees with Ph.D.s.
“But a lot of us, our Ph.D., our advanced degree is the posthole digger,” he said. “And we’ve earned it.”
Wilkinson said the off-highway-vehicle problem is particularly acute in Curtis Canyon because of its proximity to town. Getting to Curtis on a side-by-side or other OHV doesn’t require a trailer, whereas accessing the established trail network for vehicles in the Gros Ventre Road area does. Years of illegal off-road riding in the Curtis area have established visible two-track roads across the landscape. And that encourages other people to ride them.
But at Curtis, side-by-sides and the like are required to stay on the road.
Stiles said the OHV explosion is an environmental issue.
Spreading invasive weeds
Pulling musk thistle near the Curtis Canyon Overlook, he pointed to tire tracks between boulders directly adjacent to the plants he was dismembering. Musk thistle, like cheat grass that’s also spreading on the Bridger-Teton, crowds out native plants. Stiles was pulling it before it went to seed. Invasive plants spread in disturbed areas, Stiles said.
Had an OHV left the road when the thistle was seeding, it could have spread weeds across the landscape.
The U.S. Forest Service is trying to prevent roads from developing in the first place.
“At that point you’ve lost a lot of your native vegetation,” Stiles said. “If things aren’t all disturbed the native plant community can pretty well hold its ground.”
Merigliano said people driving OHVs in Curtis are generally visitors who “want to be off a highway.
“And Curtis provides these amazing views, fairly close to town, of the Tetons,” she said.
“But at the same time, that area is really, really important as winter range for wildlife.”
Noxious weeds like musk thistle degrade that habitat and, as a result, the forest is looking to install boulders around campsites to keep people from driving out into Curtis’ open ranges and otherwise block illegally established roads.
Though that’s a small component of the plan — estimated at about $8,000 — it’s a major priority for Bridger-Teton officials, including Wilkinson, who said OHV is one of the “top three” issues in the Curtis Canyon area.
A better Goodwin road
Back at the Goodwin Lake road, David Woodward, who was visiting Jackson from Georgia, was saddling up to walk the mile up to the Goodwin Lake trailhead. He said driving up the Curtis Canyon road in a sedan wasn’t terrible.
But he wasn’t going to go anywhere near the Goodwin Lake road.
“This could definitely use some improvement,” Woodward said.
Bussen, for her part, said she wouldn’t mind seeing the Goodwin Lake trail road closed and a new trailhead established. Bridger-Teton officials estimate that would cost about $10,000.
“I refuse to drive my car up that last little section,” Bussen said.
Two summers ago, one of her coworkers was taking a group of kids up to hike Goodwin Lake. A rock hit the car’s oil pan and punctured it, causing an oil leak and damaging the engine. The van has not been driven since.
This story has been updated to correct an error in a photo caption. Butler and MacMillan found 100 pounds of nails throughout Curtis Canyon's dispersed campsites. — Eds.