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'Mother of the Colorado Trail' highlighted in new archive

Grace Marx and Obadiah Reid follow their children Miriam Reid, Niels Reid and their dog Frosty, all wearing backpacking backpacks, as they navigate their way onto a bridge with a sign reading "Gudy Gaskill Bridge"
Jennifer Coombes
Grace Marx and Obadiah Reid follow their children Miriam Reid, Niels Reid and their dog Frosty as they embark upon a three-day hike on March 13, 2023 on the Colorado Trail. The family chose to hike Segment 2 where the Gudy Gaskill Bridge leads to the hiking trail.

On a sunny Monday in March, Grace Marx unpacks gear from the back of a car at the remote South Platte River trailhead outside of Conifer, Colorado. She’s preparing for a three-day backpacking trip with her husband and two young kids.

The trailhead where Marx and her family will embark serves as one of many starting points for the Colorado Trail, a 567-mile high-altitude wilderness path that traverses eight mountain ranges between Denver and Durango.

Marx’s family isn’t new to the Colorado Trail. They’ve already hiked a couple stretches together, but it’s no accident that they’re back for more.

This shows a section of the Colorado Trail Segment 2 trailhead where you can see the logo for the Colorado Trail nailed to various trees leading hikers along the route.
Jennifer Coombes
At the beginning the Colorado Trail Segment 2 trailhead a sign points the way to begin the trail on March 13, 2023. These signs are posted throughout the trail to keep hikers on track.

“The plan is to finish the trail by the time these kids graduate high school,” Marx said with a nod toward 7-year-old Niels and 9-year-old Miriam. “It’s a great way to get the kids out and enjoy the area, see parts of the state we haven’t seen before.”

Today, the Colorado Trail welcomes thousands of hikers, bikers, horseback riders and others to explore the state’s mountain peaks and river valleys, but it wasn’t always that way. A new archive at the Denver Public Library's Central Library documents the highs and lows of building the Colorado Trail with a spotlight on Gudy Gaskill, an avid outdoorswoman and mother of four known as the 'Mother of the Colorado Trail.'

The collection focuses on Gaskill’s life and legacy and includes thousands of photographs, awards, songs and poems, newspaper clippings and more related to Gaskill and the Colorado Trail.

Denver Public Library Special Collection Archivist Laura Ruttum Senturia is in charge of processing Gaskill’s archival collection. She said the archive serves as starting point for researchers and other curious souls who want to learn about a piece of Colorado's outdoor recreation history.

A black and white portrait of Gudy Gaskill with a floppy sun hat on and a large backpacking backpack on her back
Jennifer Coombes
In one archival scrapbook, the inside cover features an envelope sticker and a pasted-in photocopy of an iconic image of Gudy Gaskill outfitted for a day of adventure. In addition to her leadership in building the Colorado Trail, Gaskill was also the first woman president of the Colorado Mountain Club, a painter and sculptor and a world traveler.

"Anyone interested in the trail itself I think would love this collection. Anyone who has hiked the trail I think would love it. They'll see many photos of places that they themselves have been," Ruttum Senturia said. "Then I think, you know, people interested in women's history, conservation history."

The Colorado Trail, akin to other U.S. long-distance hikes such as the Appalachian and Pacific Crest trails, was a figment of the imagination among some outdoorsy Coloradans until the trail's construction began in the 1970s. It took over a decade and many volunteer trail crews to develop and the process wasn’t always smooth sailing.

“The country we have here in Colorado, it hadn’t even been opened up to the public,” Gaskill said in a 2008 Colorado Women’s Hall of Fame interview. “The idea was, it was going to be a trail for the people of Colorado.”

The archived interview was recorded when Gaskill was in her 80s and a few years after her 2002 induction into the Colorado Women's Hall of Fame. That interview allows Gaskill to tell parts of the story herself. Ruttum Senturia said other parts of the new archive also give viewers a window into Gaskill's motivations and personality as a leader on the Colorado Trail.

"She had obviously such a strong personality, and a warm personality, that just looking at the photos and seeing some of the things she collected, you really get it," she said. "I never met her, but I feel like I have a strong feeling for her character and what kind of person she was."

Gaskill's son Steven Gaskill said most of the items donated to the archive were actually collected over decades by his father, Dave Gaskill, who compiled them into scrapbooks and boxes later on.

"They weren't kept like a historian," he said. "But probably everything that was ever associated with Gudy and the Colorado Trail is in those archives if somebody wants to dig through them."

Gaskill was charged with organizing the trail effort in 1974 as chairwoman of the Colorado Mountain Club’s Huts and Trails Committee. While the initial goal was to finish the trail by 1980, it proved a more difficult feat than planned. By the mid-1980s, progress to build the trail stagnated and funding for the effort began to run low. Some questioned whether the trail would ever get finished.

Gaskill, however, wasn’t ready to give up. Instead, she dug in her heels, rallying dozens of volunteer trail crews to complete the remaining sections of trail. With her determination and diligence, the trail was finished in 1987.

Denver Public Library Special Collections archivist Laura Ruttum Senturia stands in the archives where thousands of items are stored and saved for public use. She is standing in a aisle surrounded by boxes.
Jennifer Coombes
Laura Ruttum Senturia, an archivist and special collections librarian at the Denver Public Library, stands in the archives where dozens of boxes containing archives from Gudy Gaskill's life are housed on March 10, 2023. Ruttum Senturia has been getting to know Gaskill from the boxes of scrapbooks and collections of items donated by her family.

Ruttum Senturia, the archivist, said many of the collection’s photographs illustrate the process of building the Colorado Trail.

“A lot of them are people with shovels digging or breaking things out, taking a break,” Ruttum Senturia said.

Building a long-distance trail was hard work, but items in the archive also demonstrate the fun and levity that came with working together for days on end.

“You find photos where they're making ice cream in a bucket while they're all camping, drinking champagne,” Ruttum Senturia said. “There's a photo…where Gudy (Gaskill) is getting her hair cut while drinking a beer while sitting on the trail.”

On trail workdays, Gaskill worked nonstop. She would get up at 4 or 5 a.m. to make breakfast for crews of 10 to 20 volunteers. She worked on the trail with them until the afternoon, then made dinner for everyone.

Steven Gaskill said even after dinner at the end of a long day in the field, his mother was tireless.

“She would lead songs and just be around the campfire talking with people until they were done talking,” he said.

Steven Gaskill recalled getting in an argument with his mother about why she wanted to expose pristine portions of Colorado wilderness to the public. Gaskill was ready with her answer.

“She said, 'You know, if you want to save wilderness, No. 1 you have to have people that understand it and have seen it, so they'll fight for it,'” Steven Gaskill recalled. “Then she said, 'No. 2, if I build a trail, people will use the trail and that will be a corridor where people will see the wilderness, and the rest of the wilderness will stay wilderness.'”

Bill Manning, the recently retired former executive director of the Colorado Trail Foundation, said outdoors education was at the heart of what Gaskill did.

"She was a teacher at heart and she loved to share learning with others," Manning said. "She loved the outdoors, loved the mountains and wanted other people to experience the mountains."

Many of the items in the archives—some of which were notes, songs and poems sent to Gudy from past volunteers she led on trail crews—demonstrate Gaskill's popularity as a leader. Manning remembers a letter and small hand-painted watercolor of a mountain Gaskill sent him in thanks for a gift he had given her.

"She ends it by saying, 'A hug to you, long overdue, Gudy,'" Manning read from Gaskill's letter.

Gaskill wasn’t without her detractors, though. Her doggedness to see the Colorado Trail through as a woman leader posed a threat to the status quo.

A watercolor painting of a tall white mountain with a forest and lake below
Courtesy of Steven Gaskill
A watercolor painting of the Maroon Bells near Aspen. Gaskill, also a visual artist, painted this watercolor on site around 1987. Gaskill was known to send miniature paintings along with thank you cards to people who had helped in the trail effort.

“There was a real discrimination for some woman to come into a man’s world, which is the Forest Service—his district—and say, ‘We’re going to be building a trail in your district,’” Gaskill said in the archival interview.

Back at the trailhead, the youngest backpacker in Grace Marx’s family, 7-year-old Niels Reid, seemed to sense Gaskill's spirit of perseverance as he prepared to embark.

“I'm not scared at all,” Reid said. “Especially because there are snakes!”

Though it’s unlikely snakes would be on the trail this time of year, Reid’s enthusiasm to see what lay in remote parts of Colorado wilderness is exactly what Gaskill would have wanted.

As Marx’s family took off, crossing a bridge in Gaskill’s honor and veering right to tread carefully across an icy patch of trail, the South Platte River rushed on. It’s a reminder of the continuity of Gaskill’s legacy, which lives on in the path through Colorado's wilderness, the people who traverse it—and now, in the archives.

A go-getter to the end, Gaskill died at 89 years old in 2016. She was also the first woman president of the Colorado Mountain Club, a painter and sculptor, and a world traveler.

“The women would all say, ‘Gosh, if you can do it at your age, I guess I can do it,’” Gaskill said in the 2008 interview. “I’m aware that I’m pretty strong. I can still do this, and I’m in my 80s, so I’m thankful."

The Gudy Gaskill archive is now open to the public at Denver’s Central Library. Visitors can access the collection by visiting the library or by contacting the library ahead of time. Some pieces of the collection will soon also be available online.

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