Conserving Colorado’s climbing

The decade-long journey to save Thumb and Needle Spires

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The Thumb and Needle Spires sit in the ancestral lands of Arapaho, Cheyenne, Núu-agha-tʉvʉ-pʉ̱ (Ute)
Mike Wheelan Courtesy Access Fund

Sitting high above Estes Park on top of Prospect Mountain are the Thumb and Needle Spires, two prominent landmarks of Colorado climbing history. The Spires are home to more than 50 different climbing routes of varying difficulty but have been closed to the public for almost a decade by the area’s private landowner. 

However, after nearly 10 years of campaigning and fundraising close to $600,000, the Town of Estes Park now owns the Thumb and Needle Spires  and will transform it into the new Thumb Open Space. 

While the management plan is still being finalized, the area will eventually be used for climbing and recreation, as well as environmental and ecological education, all with an inclusive focus. But the process of securing this land for public use was not an easy one and it required collaboration by many different local and national organizations, along with the Town of Estes Park. 

Access Fund, a Boulder-based nonprofit organization that focuses on “keeping climbing areas open and preserving the natural climbing environment,” was just one of the organizations that stepped in and helped the project move forward. 

“The Thumb and Needle have been important climbing areas in the Front Range for many decades and about eight or nine years ago we started pursuing the landowner to see if we could work out some sort of agreement,” says Erik Murdock, national policy director for Access Fund and an Estes Park local.

With the help of other organizations including the Estes Valley Land Trust and Rocky Mountain Conservancy (RCM) as well as businesses and private donors, on May 26, the Town officially purchased the property, with the trailhead nestled in the Prospect Highlands Neighborhood. 

The Town of Estes Park’s management plan will outline how the community wants to preserve and maintain the area. Although work on the plan began before the onset of the coronavirus pandemic in 2020, work more or less ceased for the last year. Now, with things slowly easing back toward normalcy, creating a plan that reflects the needs of the community as well as respecting and preserving the land has resumed. 

Photo: Carly Herbert

The Town currently has an ecological consultant surveying the property to determine what kind of wildlife inhabits and frequents, from flora to mammals to raptors. So far mountain lions, bears and elk have been documented, and a family of ravens have made a home on top of the Spires. With this information, the management plan can determine whether or not the Spires need to close during nesting season in order to protect wildlife and maintain the beauty of the natural species in the area. There will also be additional opportunities for the community to voice their concerns and hopes for the space. 

So far, the community has provided an outpouring of support for this project, especially the young outdoor adventurers in the area. One of the main goals of this project is for Thumb Open Space to be a place of education and engagement for all members of the community  — but especially the local kids. 

Estee Murdock, executive director at Rocky Mountain Conservancy (RMC) and Erik’s wife, recalls one community meeting before COVID in which the local middle school brought students to testify about the value of the Thumb and Needle Spires. 

“This is close enough for a quick after-school club or a science project, or even an outdoor recreation club of some sort. It was really fun to have sixth graders standing up and testifying, it was probably their first formal involvement in the civic engagement process,” she says. “Even one elementary school student at one point who is a rock climber spoke.”

While the management plan is being finalized, the trails are currently undergoing restoration so that they will be suitable for hiking, biking and more, but motorized vehicles such as ATVs will not be allowed on the trails. Additionally, due to a lack of trailer parking and the short length of the trails, horseback riding will also most likely be prohibited. At the end of the trail, there are numerous climbing routes for beginners and experts alike. 

Trail work is being done by a volunteer Conservation Corps team from RMC.  The Corps is made up of volunteers from all over the country, which helps highlight the educational opportunities that are available from this property. 

“We draw from a national audience,” Estee Murdock says. “[We are] a Corps that outfits them from head to toe. We don’t want the price of boots and appropriate outdoor gear and camping equipment to be a barrier to these opportunities and conservation experiences, so that allows us to draw from a really diverse pool of national applicants because we aren’t asking folks to come in as rugged backcountry rangers. “

With the help of RMC’s Conservation Corps, the 50 climbing routes can be expected to open in the summer of 2022, as there is a great deal of restoration work to be done before climbers can head up. 

“It’s a great place for people to learn how to climb,” Erik Murdock says. “Climbing educators have an incredible opportunity to get people to the top of a free-standing spire that looks right at Longs Peak, Mount Meeker and the Twin Sister.”

The routes featured on the Thumb and Needle feature a wide range of climbing grades, with the easiest routes rated  5.3 and going all the way up to 5.13. Additionally, the routes allow for different types of climbing, including sport climbing, trad climbing and top roping. 

In order to get to the Spires to climb, climbers must hike a short,but steep trail. Brain Berg, park supervisor for Estes Park, shares that the Town wanted to try to make the area and the trails inclusive for adaptive athletes. 

“The goal with the trail building is to make it possible for adaptive athletes, especially with the new motorized bikes that are coming out,” Berg says. He explains that when Access Fund, RMC and other groups hit the trail to begin restoring it, the Town is encouraging them to keep these elements in mind. 

“It’s a pretty rugged trail right out of the gate, it’s a steep trail that needed to be redone so it was more resilient. It was just eroded out, it needed a lot of trail work,” Murdock says. “That’s when we realized that given the current technologies for adaptive athletes we could create a trail where different modes of transport would be possible, including things like handcycles.” 

To do so, the organizations consulted with Quinn Brett, a professional climber, advocate for protecting the outdoors and another Estes Park local. After a climbing accident in Yosemite in 2017, Brett became paralyzed from the waist down and began her journey as an adaptive athlete. 

“[She] tested out different angles and helped us design the right type of trail with the right angles, the right turns, the right traverses, to allow handcycles which are becoming a lot more popular with a lot of groups including veteran athletes,” Erik Murdock says. “It was really testing with Quinn [Brett] that was the main way to determine how to design the best trail. 

However, Erik Murdock stresses that these trails will not be compliant with the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). 

“It’s really common in Colorado for adaptive athletes to look for better challenges and more interesting landscapes and this is the perfect one because it’s really unique to have a really beautiful challenging trail that gets you to an outstanding climbing objective that’s also climbable by adaptive athletes,” he says. 

Not only does the beauty of the Thumb and Needle set it apart from other climbing locations, but it also holds a rich history of Colorado climbing, which is one of the reasons the Town felt compelled to take on this project. Back in 1940, revered American mountaineer Tom Hornbein made the first ascent of the Needle Spire. Years later, American rock climber and Estes Park local, Tommy Caldwell, cut his teeth on the Spires when he was young. Now, decades later, the iconic Spires will finally return to the public as the grand opening of Thumb Open Space arrives next year.