CURT GOWDY STATE PARK - At this rugged park near Cheyenne, a stretch of Granite Ridge Trail ascends a steep rock face for about 40 feet.
"It kind of makes you feel like Superman, doesn't it?" Todd Thibodeau said as he trekked sharply upward during a weekend hike.
Thibodeau wants more people to experience the thrill he gets from hiking through Wyoming state parks. As the planning and grants manager for the Wyoming state parks department, Thibodeau is leading a state effort to attract more visitors to Wyoming parks with improved trails. Curt Gowdy park, located about 25 miles west of Cheyenne, is serving as a pilot project.
"Most of our parks are what we call reservoir parks - and so is Gowdy - and the thing the public was telling us was, quite frankly, 'If I don't own a boat or I don't fish, what am I going to do at a park?"' Thibodeau said.
At the 3,500-acre Curt Gowdy park, the state hopes to complete a six-year project to build 32 miles of mixed-use trails by summer's end. This year, the Legislature offered the parks department up to $900,000 to match private donations dollar-for-dollar to construct a new visitor's center at the park.
The state plans to take on similar trail-construction projects at about five more of Wyoming's 13 state parks, said Paul Gritten, a trails and volunteer coordinator with the parks department. He said work is already under way at Glendo State Park. Keyhole State Park near Sundance and Buffalo Bill State Park near Cody are next on the list.
The Curt Gowdy trail system is meant for hikers, mountain bikers or horseback riders, Thibodeau said. They're classified into four levels of difficulty and organized in a stacked-loop system, as opposed to an out-and-back system, making it more visually interesting for visitors who won't see the same scenery twice.
Throughout the pilot project, Thibodeau has worked to balance a range of competing concerns about the trail system. Environmentalists want to minimize the impact on the land and wildlife, while trail users push for challenging and unique trails.
Thibodeau's team adopted International Mountain Bicycling Association standards for Curt Gowdy park. They require that trails don't substantially impact the landscape and aren't prone to erosion. Many states, including Colorado, use the same standards.
Funding for the project has come from the Land and Water Conservation Fund, Recreational Trails Program, state park funds and private donations. The price tag for the project is about $484,000, which "is incredibly cheap for a project of this type," Gritten said.
"We have been able to keep costs down by using in-house labor, the Wyoming Conservation Corps, the Cheyenne Board of Public Utilities, local sport shops and volunteers," Gritten said.
Indeed, some 460 volunteers have donated 4,000 hours of their time to build the trails.
"It gives people a sense of ownership," said Gritten.
Over the weekend, Thibodeau and Gritten visited the park to mark the path for an extended portion of Curt Gowdy's Canyon Trail. They came across mountain-bikers Warren Reed, 30, and Nathaniel Vallejo, 24, both members of the Air Force. Thibodeau stopped to get feedback about the new trails.
"I love them," Vallejo said.
The Texas native has been riding the trails here for the past year. "I have been to a lot places in Colorado which are just really open but here it's real closed in … it's different - a lot of technical trails," Vallejo said.
In Cheyenne, mountain-biker Brian Brothers said the changes at Curt Gowdy have been generating excitement and even drawing riders north from Colorado.
"It's a great resource for us mountain bikers to have a dedicated trail and it's a place to play," said Brothers, service manager at The Bicycle Station. "It's fun, it beats traveling an hour down to Colorado; now they guys down there are coming up here because they realize how great they are."
Brothers credited Thibodeau for getting community businesses excited and involved in volunteer trail-building. The Curt Gowdy trail expansion has spurred new interest in mountain biking in Cheyenne, he said.
Thibodeau said he hopes activities scheduled for this summer - like mountain bike races, an outdoor festival and a cancer fundraiser - will help raise the park's profile.
"Who knows? Maybe someday Cheyenne will be a trail destination," Thibodeau said.