Switzerland Trail

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The Switzerland Trail is the site of a historic 3 ft (914 mm) narrow gauge railroad line that was operated at different times by the Greeley, Salt Lake and Pacific Railway, the Colorado and Northwestern Railroad, and the Denver, Boulder, and Western Railroad around the turn of the 20th century in the Colorado front range mining area near Nederland, Gold Hill, and Ward. The west end of the trail is listed on the National Register of Historic Places as the “Denver, Boulder and Western Railway Historic District”.

Description

The earliest segment of the trail dates to 1883, with continual track growth until 1894 by the GSL&P, when a large flood destroyed many tracks and bankrupted the company. In 1896 the line was reopened as the C&N took over, completing many spur lines and the southern branch of the Switzerland Trail. The C&N is responsible for the name “Switzerland Trail”, given in 1898 in a successful attempt to attract the tourist trade. By the end of the ’00s, the C&N had folded and the DB&W took over. In 1919 the line was shut down and the tracks were subsequently pulled up, but the roadbed remains. A large portion of the roadbed is “maintained” (benignly neglected) as a hiking/biking trail as part of the Boulder County road system. It was, and remains, well known for its beautiful scenic views of the Front Range hills.

The remaining mountain route, about 30 miles (48 km) long, winds between altitudes of 7,000 and over 9,000 feet, from the townsite of Eldora, Colorado, past Nederland, on north through Sugar Loaf and, ultimately, Ward. The line winds past several local historically prominent mines, including the Blue Bird Mine and a few miles from the Caribou Mine in the then-bustling (now ghost-) town of Caribou. The main line originated in Boulder, Colorado, coming up Fourmile Canyon through the mining communities of Salina, Colorado and Crisman, Colorado. It was connected via a three-rail track shared with 4 ft 8 12 in (1,435 mm) standard gauge railroads to Denver, Colorado.

In its heyday, near the turn of the twentieth century, the Switzerland Trail was the major source of bulk transportation in the area, carrying supplies and tourists to mining camps and towns in the front range, ore from the myriad mines to a few centralized mills, and refined metal down to Boulder for transport to the rest of the nation. A federal ore assay office, built at the turn of the 20th century, was located near the now-sleepy community of Wall Street, Colorado, at the intersection of the Switzerland Trail route with Fourmile Canyon. At the time Sunset was a bustling community, driven by the presence of an ore mill and the railroad. The building remains and is now something of a curiosity: the James F. Bailey Assay Office Museum, located in Wallstreet, Colorado, now a somewhat remote grouping of houses at least 20 minutes by car from the nearest town (Boulder). The C&N and the DB&W railroads were more canny than the GSL&P, and did a brisk business transporting tourists from Boulder and Denver up into the mountains. Several dedicated park sites and hotels (including the Mont Alto park site, its location now marked by a sign) were built or encouraged by the railroad to draw day-trippers.

The demise of the line came from a variety of factors, including: the extremely harsh winter conditions in the Rocky Mountains, which limited the tourist trade to about four months per year, forced frequent line closures, and periodically killed train crews; the invention and rise of the automobile; mine closures in Ward and Eldora; and failure of several ventures including a long tunnel/adit mine that was to be dug from Sunset into rich underground gold seams to the northwest.

The Switzerland Trail remains a well known hiking and biking trail because the smooth grade and 2%-5% slope of the railway make an easy traverse, while the narrowness of the railbed (typically 8–10 ft (2.4–3.0 m) wide) brings users close to the spectacular terrain.

The Switzerland Trail (National Forest System Road 327) is an old railroad grade that zigzags across the mountains of Boulder County. The narrow-gauge railroad transported people, supplies and ores between the City of Boulder and the county’s mining communities, including Gold Hill, Ward, Cardinal, Nederland and Eldora from 1883 to 1919. The rails have long-since been removed, but many people today enjoy driving and riding this route. Not all of the extent of the old railbed is open to motorized use. This narrative refers to the stretch of road between Boulder County Road 52 (Gold Hill Road) and Colorado Highway 72 to the south/west. Mount Alto Picnic Area is adjacent to this road.

Usage: Light
Best Season: May through December; some segments may be blocked by snow in winter.
Restrictions: All vehicles must be street-legal to use this County Road. All motorized vehicles are restricted to open routes designated for their use. Contact your local District Office for a copy of the local Motor Vehicle Use Map.
Closest Towns: Boulder. Colorado
Water: None
Restroom: Practice Leave No Trace principles
Operated By: U.S. Forest Service
Information Center: Boulder Ranger District, 2140 Yarmouth Ave, Boulder, CO 80301

Directions: From Boulder, head west on Mapleton Avenue, which becomes Sunshine Canyon en route to Gold Hill. West of Gold Hill, the road is known as Boulder County Road 52 (Gold Hill Road). The Switzerland Trail intersects Gold Hill Road 2.5 miles west of the Town of Gold Hill.

Horse Riding

A parking area along the south side of Gold Hill Road, at its intersection with Switzerland Trail, offers adequate parking for several horse trailers.

Water Availability  none
Size Restrictions none
Loading Ramp none
Hitching Rails none
Corrals none

Stats

  • Trail Measurement: 30 Miles
  • Compass Latitude: 40°03'16.8"N
  • Compass Longitude: 105°29'42.1"W
  • Numeric Latitude: 40.054667
  • Numeric Longitude: -105.495021
  • Elevation in Meters: 2,347 to 2,743
  • Elevation in Feet: 7,700 to 9,000

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References

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