https://coloradoencyclopedia.org/article/wildfire-colorado#page-titleDeveloped primarily between 1919 and 1924, the Squirrel Creek Recreation District in the San Isabel National Forest near Pueblo was one of the earliest recreational developments in a national forest and served as a model for many others to come. The recreation district is also notable for its association with the US Forest Service’s first Recreation Engineer, Arthur Carhart (1892–1978), who is known for the idea of recreation zoning in the national forests and is often credited with the concept of wilderness protection. The district served recreation users until 1947, when a flood destroyed parts of the road leading to the area.
Recreation in the National Forests
When the United States established its first forest reserves in 1891 and later created the national forest system in 1907, the primary purpose of the forests was resource management and conservation, not recreation. In the early decades of the twentieth century, however, a series of social and economic changes—including the rise of automobiles and networks of good roads, the spread of the forty-hour workweek, and a growing emphasis on the physical and moral benefits of outdoor recreation—led to a rapid increase in their recreational use. Between 1917 and 1924 national forest visitation nearly quadrupled.
Recognizing these changes and spurred by its rivalry with the new National Park Service, established in 1916, the Forest Service hired landscape architect Frank A. Waugh in 1917 to make a recreational survey of the national forests. Waugh’s 1918 report, Recreation Uses on the National Forests, demonstrated the popularity of recreation in the national forests and recommended hiring landscape architects to plan their development as recreational resources. As a result, the Forest Service hired Arthur Carhart, a trained landscape architect, as its first Recreation Engineer. Carhart started work in March 1919 in the Forest Service’s Denver regional office and began to look for a good place to apply his ideas about recreational planning.
San Isabel National Forest
Recreation in the national forests along Colorado’s Front Range followed nationwide patterns. Recreational pressure on the public lands near Pueblo was especially intense. By the early twentieth century, Pueblo had grown into an industrial center known as the “Pittsburgh of the West,” home to thousands of Colorado Fuel and Iron Company employees. With the 1914 Ludlow Massacre still a fresh memory, reformers and city leaders hoped that access to outdoor recreation would help stave off worker unrest.
In 1918 the Commerce Club of Pueblo asked San Isabel National Forest supervisor Al Hamel to install campground and picnic facilities just inside the forest boundary near Pueblo and Beulah. Hamel recognized the need for such facilities but had no funds to build them. In response, the Commerce Club and the city of Pueblo worked together in 1919 to acquire land and develop basic recreational facilities in Squirrel Creek Canyon near the forest boundary. They built ten campsites, two shelters, twelve fireplaces, and a few toilets to help manage the demands users were placing on the landscape.
Hamel became friends with Carhart and believed his expertise could be applied well in the Pueblo area, where there was a clear demand for outdoor recreation and need to develop a plan for public access. Soon after Carhart started working for the Forest Service, Hamel took him on a tour of the San Isabel National Forest. Carhart began to think about plans for recreational development in the forest.
Carhart’s Regional Plan
Carhart believed forests needed a comprehensive plan to ensure good access and dispersed use. He outlined his ideas in a sixty-four-page document called General Working Plan, Recreational Development of the San Isabel National Forest, Colorado (1919), which he enlarged the next year into a 110-page report. It was the first regional plan for a national forest, and he envisioned it as a model for others to follow.
Essentially, Carhart’s approach involved zoning forests the same way an urban planner might zone a city for different types of development and land use. Recreation in the national forests might range from intensive use to primitive backpacking, and Carhart believed that each part of the forests should be zoned for the type of recreation that suited it best. Areas near cities would naturally see more traffic and different kinds of use than areas that were farther away and harder to access.
For example, Carhart designated the Squirrel Creek area in San Isabel National Forest for “semi-suburban picnic-resort, campground-cottage use” because it was located near Pueblo, had some roads and parcels of private property, and featured rounded mountains with scenery that was good but not spectacular. Places like Trappers Lake in Colorado and parts of the Superior National Forest in Minnesota, both of which Carhart visited in 1919, stood on the opposite end of the spectrum, as areas that deserved to be maintained as primitive areas without roads.
Carhart and Hamel supported recreational development in the national forests, but the Forest Service as a whole had little money for recreational improvements. So, in November 1919, locals in Pueblo established the nonprofit San Isabel Public Recreation Association (SIPRA) to help fund construction in the forest.
Between 1919 and 1924, SIPRA and the Forest Service worked together to develop the Squirrel Creek Recreation District, which consisted of several different features. Perhaps the most important piece was Squirrel Creek Road, which provided automobile access to the area from Beulah. A campground along the road provided twelve clusters of campsites with fire rings, wells, and belowground garbage units. The last and largest development in the recreation district was the Squirrel Creek Community House (later the Squirrel Creek Lodge), which SIPRA built in 1923–24, after working with Carhart to find an appropriate location along the road. A three-quarter-mile walking path called the Cascade Trail connected the lodge to the campground.
Carhart left the Forest Service in December 1922, when it became clear that he could not expect much support for his work from Congress or from the Forest Service itself, which maintained an ambivalent attitude toward recreation until the late 1930s. Few changes were made to the Squirrel Creek facilities after its initial development under Carhart’s supervision in the early 1920s. SIPRA widened the road in 1925 and enlarged the picnic shelter in 1927. In the 1930s the Civilian Conservation Corps added picnic tables in the campground and two rental cabins near the lodge.
SIPRA continued to watch over the Squirrel Creek Recreation District but made no improvements in the 1930s because of a lack of funds during the Great Depression. After World War II, SIPRA considered making improvements to the Squirrel Creek facilities, but in August 1947 a major flood rendered those plans moot.
The flood swept through the Squirrel Creek Recreation District, destroying all of the bridges on Squirrel Creek Road and washing out parts of the road, rendering the campground and lodge inaccessible. The flood also washed away part of the campground and the middle section of the Cascade Trail. The flood was not the only natural calamity to befall the district; in 1979 a fire burned the Squirrel Creek Lodge down to its foundation.
The Squirrel Creek Recreation District was developed as part of the first regional plan ever devised for the national forests. Its campground was one of the earliest recreational campgrounds in a national forest and probably the first national forest campground planned for automobile-based recreation. Squirrel Creek Road was one of the first Forest Service roads built primarily for its recreational and scenic value. The Cascade Trail may have been the first national forest trail designed specifically for recreation. In short, by 1922 the San Isabel National Forest had become the first “recreational” forest in the United States. It served as a model for later plans to manage recreational use in national forests across the country, attracting visits from Forest Service administrators as well as landscape engineers.
The means by which the Squirrel Creek Recreation District was developed also proved to be a harbinger of things to come. At the time, a partnership between the Forest Service and a local nonprofit like the SIPRA to develop forest recreational resources was new and innovative. Carhart encouraged the establishment of similar groups to support recreational development in other forests along the Front Range and around the country. Today such “Friends” of a national forest often play a key role in maintaining trails and other improvements in parks and public lands.
In addition, the ideas about recreation planning and zoning that Carhart developed at Squirrel Creek influenced later conservation and environmentalist programs. Most notably, Carhart’s idea of recreation zoning guided the federal Outdoor Recreation Resources Review Commission (ORRRC), which started its work in 1958 and released its final report in 1962. The ORRRC’s report emphasized that all Americans should have easy access to outdoor recreation and promoted the idea that outdoor spaces should be zoned for different types of recreation, from high-density recreation in or near cities to wilderness areas kept free of roads and development.
As part of its 100th anniversary in the early 2000s, the Forest Service adopted Squirrel Creek as one of its “New Century of Service” projects. The Forest Service successfully placed the recreation district on the National Register of Historic Sites in 2004 and restored Davenport Campground, higher up in Squirrel Creek Canyon, to the look of a 1920s campground in order to highlight the area’s importance to the history of recreation in the national forests.
One historic 1920s road sign and some portions of retaining walls remain along Squirrel Creek Road, which is now known as the Squirrel Creek Trail. Thirty-eight campsites are still identifiable in the Squirrel Creek campground, but they are mostly covered in trees and undergrowth.
In 2005 Volunteers for Outdoor Colorado worked to restore several Squirrel Creek campsites as well as a section of the Cascade Trail.