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Gudy Gaskill: How the tenacious 'Mother of the Colorado Trail' built her dream into a reality for all to enjoy

Today, the Colorado Trail winds about 500 miles between Denver and Durango. Here's how it came to be.
Posted: 1:21 PM, Mar 29, 2024
Updated: 2024-03-30 10:24:34-04
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JEFFERSON COUNTY, Colo. — A determined woman's dream to connect the Colorado Trail is to thank for countless adventures along the iconic 500-mile-long path. Without her tenacity, it might not exist at all.

Gudrun "Gudy" Gaskill's nickname, "Mother of the Colorado Trail," could not fit better. She is not only the person who fought tooth and nail to connect the trail, but she also took care of those who volunteered to sweat next to her during the long crew days — she was a tenacious, nurturing and resilient presence. A mother, in every sense of the word.

Her son Craig Gaskill, along with his siblings, witnessed her legacy in the making.

How the tenacious 'Mother of the Colorado Trail' built her dream into a reality

"She wanted people to enjoy the wilderness and to save the wilderness and to make it accessible to everybody, which is what the Colorado Trail does," he said.

To date, more than 5,500 people on record have completed the Colorado Trail, which runs about 500 miles between Denver and Durango and winds up and down about 90,000 feet of mountainous terrain. Gudy is one of the 13 people on record who completed it in 1988.

When Denver7 caught up with Craig, he had just landed back in Denver after a five-day backcountry ski trip in Canada's Monashee Mountains, and was preparing to leave again to head back north to the country's Valhalla Range a few days later. He smiled at a follow-up question: Could he attribute this adventurous spirit to his mother?

"I'd say absolutely."

Gudy Gaskill

Gudy and her husband Dave Gaskill picked up ski touring before any specific equipment was available. They simply used Army surplus items and modified the pieces to work, Craig recalled.

"They would ski between Aspen and Crested Butte," he said. "That's one of the ways they met."

Gudy Gaskill

Gudy, Dave and the four kids grew up in the Mount Vernon area of Jefferson County and spent family time exploring backcountry huts, skiing and camping. Craig holds tight to plenty of happy memories setting up camp, swimming in mountain lakes and sliding down snowfields.

"It was pretty much always an adventure and always fun," he said. "Something we always all wanted to do more and more as we got older."

Gudy Gaksill

Gudy was no casual hiker. She summited all of Colorado's mountains about 14,000 feet — including climbing Longs Peak 31 times — hiked in the European Alps, and climbed many other peaks around the world.

With a background in education, she stressed the importance of learning about the environment and beauty of the Earth while out in the outdoor space. To further pursue this, she stepped into the role of president of the Colorado Mountain Club in 1977 after working for years on its trails committee, where she spent long hours maintaining trails and building short routes.

Gudy Gaskill Colorado Mountain Club

Craig remembered his mother's excitement about the position. She was the first woman to lead the club — a big deal but something that wasn't welcomed by everybody, he said. Some people did not want a woman at the helm. But it seemed like she never gave it a second thought. There was more important work to do.

"The other thing that she pushed quite a bit was to show that women could get things done," Craig said. "So, she really tried to show that women can get things done, women can move things along, women are just as productive as men."

Gudy became involved with the Colorado Trail around the time Craig was 13 years old, and he recalled her excitement about the idea of the project, even if there was no route set in stone at that point. But Dave, Craig's father and Gudy's husband, was a geologist with the U.S. Geological Survey and had access to plenty of maps. He too had a heavy hand in Gudy's work. In one of Craig's earliest memories of the Colorado Trail work, he remembers looking around the home's living room, where those maps were draped over every surface available.

"And we're all on the floor, looking at different trails and existing routes," he said. "My objective was to try to find a route through southern Colorado that would get from southwestern Colorado to the Front Range, maybe up to Denver. And other people were looking at other routes. So, I remember having all these maps out, getting involved with that because I was available. I could do that. I could read maps. My brother remembers the same thing."

Gudy Gaskill

Then it was time to get hands dirty. State and federal officials were still iffy about the plan, so to complete this sort of project, Gudy would need quite the force of volunteers. But she had a knack for that.

In a word, Gudy was "magnetic" when it came to attracting volunteers, said Bill Manning, retired executive director of the Colorado Trail Foundation, a nonprofit that gathers volunteers to keep the trail in good shape. He took on the role in 2006.

"People just like to be around her," he said. "They're impressed by her height and by her athleticism. She's just a remarkable woman. Got a warm smile. People love being around her... She could out-work anybody and out-hike anybody and she was also the cook. And a good cook at that."

Gudy Gaskill

That magnetism brought volunteers out in droves — from every state and even other countries — who wanted to help connect the Colorado Trail, an effort that began in earnest in 1974, Manning said.

"It was always impressive that she could get such a great team working for her," Craig said. "And they're all excited to be part of it. So, it wasn't just her doing it. It was that she had this great team doing it... I noticed how impressive that she was in order to get that done — and for volunteer work."

She always made sure the volunteers had food, a place to sleep, were safe and felt involved in conversations. They were just enamored with her, Manning remembered.

GUdy Gaskill

"And they would show the authorities how successful they were at building trails and the authorities weren't always convinced, but got on board when they saw that volunteers could really do this," he said. "And that's how she made such good progress."

Her perseverance got the volunteers through periods of dried-up funding and disagreements with a U.S. Forest Service ranger dead-set against connecting the trail, he said.

Gudy Gaskill
Gudy on Trail

"And Gudy Gaskill says, 'Well, I'll put a bunch of volunteers together, and we'll go show him that we can do this. We can build it, and then we'll maintain it. And we'll convince him,'" Manning said.

In 1987, the trail was officially connected from one end to the other.

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Trail Dedication Waterton Cy

"There is no single person that is more responsible for us having a Colorado Trail than Gudy Gaskill," Manning said. "She is the 'Mother of the Colorado Trail' and we're so lucky that she had such determination and the ability to influence some of the authorities. And it was a dream and she completed it."

Her son echoed the sentiment.

"She accomplished what she wanted to accomplish here," Craig said. "Yeah, I'm pretty proud of her... I just feel happy that, you know, she got it done and I get to hike it and experience it."

Thousands of people now enjoy the trail's 33 segments every year. That impact is not lost on Craig.

Gudy Gaskill

"I think where I feel it the strongest is when I've been hiking the Colorado Trail. And you meet people and they are —" he paused to collect himself, eyes shining. "Sorry about that — they are so moved by their experience of the Colorado Trail and what it means to them to be out in the wilderness for so long. And life-changing experiences by doing that. I think, 'Well that's because of my mom — that's kind of what she wanted them to do.' She wanted people to have that experience. She wanted people to feel so in touch with nature, that they would protect nature... So when I hear these people that I'm talking to on the trail, and I feel that experience that they're having, then it makes me recognize how important it was for her to build a trail. That makes me really proud."

He remembers his mother pointing out that if people lack access to trails, they may also lack an interest in saving it.

Gudy Gaskill

"You need people out in nature and hiking the trails and being out there doing things," he said. "And they're going to recognize how important it is to keep that. That's how you're gonna save all the wilderness that's out there."

Gudy left that lasting impression on many who knew her, but especially her children.

"I found that by putting yourself into challenges in the outdoors — it helps you become a more resilient person to be able to deal with things that come up," Craig said. "And as I got older — both my brother and sisters, and I pushed each other, and ourselves, to try to find bigger mountains and do bigger adventures. And you know, we learned a lot about ourselves, how far we could push ourselves. And there's a lot of other ways to do that in the world. But for us, that was a great opportunity for us to, in my mind, become a better person and know what I'm capable of and where I could go."

Gudy also left a physical mark — if you're one of the lucky ones, she might have gifted you with a piece of her artwork. Before, during and after trail construction, she carried a small water coloring kit in her backpack. During a break, when others would sip water or devour a snack, she would find a place to sit and finish a small painting within a few minutes.

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These tiny paintings, sometimes of landscapes and other times of volunteers, were then gifted as a thank you to those who joined Gudy on trail construction days.

"Almost all these people on her trail crews got some little memento that she had handpainted, sometimes of them, sometimes the scenery, the area," Craig said. "So, she was always leaving something special for everybody that worked for her."

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She hiked the beloved trail and soaked up the outdoors right up until the end, Craig said. After her death at age 89 in 2016, the family held a fundraiser with hundreds of her leftover paintings.

"And people could come in and they could choose artwork that they thought was appropriate for them, that they really liked," Craig said. "And they could make a donation if they chose to the (Colorado) Trail Foundation or the Colorado Mountain Club... And we'd be talking to people who said that they remembered being on the trail and Gudy painting something for them and giving it to them. And they just enjoyed it so much. They wanted to get something else because they just enjoyed her."

You can find Gudy's name in various places across the state too, including the Gudy Gaskill Elementary School in Littleton and the 2.4-mile Gudy Gaskill Trail west of Golden. She was inducted into the Colorado Women's Hall of Fame in 2002 and has earned a couple Presidential Awards.

And then of course, her name is found along special places of the Colorado Trail.

"Along the trail, there’s three things that honor Gudy Gaskill," Manning explained. "One is the bridge at the Segment 1-2 split. And that's a nice long bridge over the Platte River. And then there's a plaque on a beautiful rock in the middle of nowhere in the backcountry in Segment 25, kind of near Silverton. And then there's also a nice bench that was built in her honor on an overlook near Durango. It's called Gudy’s Rest."

Gudy's rest

Piecing the entire trail together is a great way to experience a huge swath of Colorado, he said. Something Gudy always wanted for others.

"And so many people today enjoy the trail itself, or they enjoy being trail stewards, or even just contributing money to sustain the effort," Manning continued. "It's a wonderful story all the way around. Thank you, Gudy Gaskill."

Gudy Gaskill

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