NEWCASTLE — At first, weeds and grass grew through the trail. Not enough people walked over it to beat them down.
Now, most of the two- and four-mile loops of the Serenity Trail are hard, packed dirt from thousands of walkers and runners. The direction is clear even without the countless cairns and signs marking the way.
On a late April day, the trail’s founder and creator, Linda Hunt, kicked rocks and bits of wood off a section. Maintenance never stops.
Hunt met two inmate crews from the Wyoming Honor Conservation Camp on the trail. The crews would spend the day thinning trees and rebuilding sections of the trail, located several miles north of Newcastle.
Standing a head shorter than most of the crew members, with cropped white hair, Hunt politely gave directions and tips on using their tools.
“This is how you make tread. Take little bites and never fling your material,” she said to several inmates. “Scrape it to the edge and that will help build up the edge of the trail.”
They said they understood and started working. She lifted rocks, built walls and scraped dirt alongside the crews.
Hunt, 62, is on a one-woman crusade to build a trail system outside Newcastle. She calls it “quality of life infrastructure.”
Not many people are willing to work this hard for a trail system, said Ryan Lance, director of Wyoming State Lands and Investments. But for those who are, it can be done.
The Serenity Trail was Hunt’s brainchild, and if she has her way, there will be more.
Trails close to home
Hunt spent two summers volunteering on sections of the Continental Divide Trail in the late 2000s. That trail runs from Canada to Mexico, and crews of volunteers gathered to build or rebuild sections for walkers, backpackers, bikers and horseback riders. She learned to use trail-building tools, where to place markings and how to best angle a trail.
Then she realized she could be doing the same thing for her community, a town of 3,400 nestled between the Black Hills and the plains.
She first worked on an existing trail about 18 miles north of Newcastle called the Mallow Trail. It is four miles long and crosses Weston County, U.S. Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management lands. Inmate crews built it 15 years ago, but nature took over after lack of use and maintenance.
Hunt has worked at the Honor Camp for the past 16 years, so she’s used to working with inmates. Since the trail work was a public project on public land, she could use their labor for free.
When she finished with the Mallow Trail, Hunt started looking for a new one. The Office of State Lands and Investments owns an 800-acre plot north of Newcastle squeezed between a highway and several private homes. The Honor Camp leases some of the land for its complex, as does a rancher.
Her initial request was questioned.
“I really didn’t see it when she first came in to talk about it,” said Bill Kohlbrand, the district forester for the Wyoming State Forestry Division.
Looking at a map, the trail needed to be narrow to avoid the homes and the camp and didn’t seem to have many interesting features.
Hunt kept asking, and finally Kohlbrand met her at the future trailhead and walked the route.
“I was really feeling at first that we would be crowding the homeowners a little bit,” Kohlbrand said. “It wasn’t too hard to put something together that avoided all of those places and actually had some nice scenic views.”
Hunt and Kohlbrand hung blue ribbons in the trees to mark the potential trail. It would take months of work and countless route changes before the trail was ready for hikers.
Room for more
Newcastle runner Mike Harder found the Serenity Trail shortly after Hunt finished. Some friends told him they’d walked it, and his daughter said she’d gone there for a run.
He started running and now goes two or three times a week. He and his dog cover the four-mile trail, then the two-mile loop.
“We can be out of town in five minutes and be isolated in natural surroundings,” Harder said.
The trail has been a welcome addition to a small community with few formal trails.
Hunt is starting to see more people use the trail. School groups and families come up. The Black Hills Volksmarch Association led a hike along it and dozens of people searched for eggs on the citywide Easter egg hunt.
The Wyoming Department of Transportation put a sign on the highway turnoff, which has attracted more people, especially from out of state. Hunt has recently started seeing mountain bike tracks.
The trail requires constant maintenance. Hunt spends a couple of hours every weekend day during the summer fixing parts of the rock walls, rebuilding cairns and flattening parts of the trail.
The Weston County Travel Commission paid for stone signs with inspirational quotes. The Wyoming Game and Fish Department and the Soil Conservation District organized educational signs talking about habitat, ecosystems and the trail’s wild residents.
Sandstone rocks stand 10 feet tall near where the two- and four-mile trails join. Inmate crews built log benches and hauled over two massive rocks for tables. The Serenity Prayer, the namesake of the trail, is carved on a large, wooden sign.
Hunt is starting the process of creating other trails near Newcastle. Even though she knows how, it’s still a long process. Any formal trail on state land needs approval from the land board, permission from the person leasing the land and someone willing to pay a small fee to operate the trail. The city of Newcastle agreed to pay about $250 per year for the Serenity Trail.
“Quality of life is one of the top 10 things about economic development,” Hunt said. “You have to give people some reason to stay and something to do.”