The Red Grade Trail System is a work in progress, but you don’t have to wait to enjoy them. Currently, there are almost six miles of trail, laid out in intersecting loops, that offer cyclists and hikers year-round access to the Bighorn Mountains. Additional trails will eventually be open to equestrians.
The trail system is on public land located at the foot of the Bighorn Mountains. It was conceived, and continues to be maintained by, the Sheridan Community Land Trust (SCLT).
The lower trails lead you through aspen groves that bathe you in green light in the spring and shower the path in red and golden leaves in the fall. In the spring, the patches of trail that wind through meadows are dotted with the scent of wildflowers.
The upper trails tread through tall conifer trees, offering a cooling shade during the hot months. These trails are more of an adventure than the gently rolling lower trails. Well built, with consideration for slope and proper drainage, they gain elevation quickly and provide some beautiful scenic overlooks along the way.
Even in winter, those 5.7 miles will get you from the trailhead at the base out into the wild.
“The trailhead base is available year-round,” Chris Vrba, SCLT director of marketing and development, said. “Whereas Red Grade is closed. I’m somebody who doesn’t have a snowmobile, I’m an Iowa native…It’s going to be hard for me to get into the wilderness.”
Historically, the area where the trails are now located was used to move livestock up the steep slopes to summer pasture. Over the decades, the Red Grade Road became locals’ backdoor to the Bighorns. Although the road is closed to vehicles during the winter, snowmobilers make frequent use of the convenient access.
Seeing the need for non-motorized mountain access, Sheridan Community Land Trust began the process of applying to the BLM to construct a trail system in June 2014, after more than one year of research and planning. Later that month, SCLT contracted with world-renowned professional trail designer Joey Klein of Trail Solutions to create a master plan for the Red Grade Trails system.
On August 14, 2014, SCLT was granted a 25-year special use lease for the 160-acre state land parcel bisected by Red Grade Road and completed the first 1.8 miles (the lease allows for a total of 5.3 miles) of trails.
These trails were opened to the public in fall 2015. In the summer of 2016, SCLT improved the safety and function of two existing parking areas along lower sections of Red Grade Road.
By December, after more than 26 months of environmental analysis, community Q&A, two formal public comment periods, and resubmittal of the proposal, Sheridan Community Land Trust was granted permission by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) to move forward with construction of 3.84 miles of non-motorized trail on BLM-administered lands north of Red Grade Road, as well as a new parking area to serve 12 vehicles.
In a reflection of the careful thought that went into the project, an old telegraph pole was preserved near where it was found and used as a sign post.
The trail system is funded entirely by grants and annual membership donations to Sheridan Community Land Trust.
The Forest Service will do an environmental assessment on the final phase of construction to complete the trail system in January. There will be a 30-day public comment period and a final decision will be made by April.
In the meantime, SCLT staff encourage trail users to take advantage of what winter has to offer. Vrba said that there are open downhill areas that are a perfect place to go sledding on a sunny Saturday afternoon.
“When you are on public land in the winter, you can get off the trail more so than you can when there’s no snow on the ground,” Vrba said. “You don’t do damage to the plants and the landscape…it’s a great opportunity to get off the trail.”
SCLT will host a family-friendly sled and ski event on the Red Grade Trail System Feb. 24.
Trails to Love
Travel south on Highway 335 for approximately 10 miles from the intersection of Brundage Lane and Coffeen Avenue. The last half mile is a well-maintained gravel road. High clearance is not necessary, although during winter months four-wheel drive is often required to reach the Base parking area.
Two parking areas (Base and Springs) and a restroom facility are available. A dog station is also located on the trail, although visitors are encouraged to pack out all refuse, including pet waste. Camping and fires are not allowed on state land. Dispersed camping is allowed on Forest Service land further up Red Grade Road.
By: Kevin M. Knapp