Mad Rabbit: 52 miles of new trails, rehabilitation of 36 miles, return of trails near Mad Creek

Draft assessment also includes upgrades to accommodate summer use at Rabbit Ears Pass trailheads

Several trailheads on Rabbit Ears Pass, including this one at Fox Curve, are slated for improvements to better accommodate summer recreation in the updated Mad Rabbit trails proposal from the U.S. Forest Service. Fox Curve, seen here on Oct. 24, 2022, is generally used during the winter, but would see increased trails, and some rehabilitation of unsanctioned trails as part of the Mad Rabbit project.
John F. Russell/Steamboat Pilot & Today

The long-awaited Mad Rabbit trail system proposal includes 52 miles of new trail construction and the removal and rehabilitation of 36 miles of unauthorized, user-created trails.

According to the draft environmental assessment released Monday, Oct. 24, most of the work on the project would happen along U.S. Highway 40 over Rabbit Ears Pass, but the updated plan includes two new trails that would be accessed from the Mad Creek Trailhead north of Steamboat Springs.

The plan would add two trailheads over Rabbit Ears Pass and make additions to four existing winter trailheads to accommodate summer recreation as well. The plan also would reconfigure a day-use area known as Ferndale on the way up to the summit of the pass to have more parking.

“Because the existing trail network does not meet the desired experience, users have begun to establish unauthorized non-system trails,” the environmental assessment states. “The use that this unauthorized trail network is receiving creates damage to wetlands, meadow habitats and disturbs elk and other wildlife.”

The Mad Rabbit Project can be traced back to a 2013 ballot measure, and early plans sought to connect trails in the Mad Creek area to trails on Rabbit Ears Pass. However, the preliminary proposal in 2019 had scraped trails in the Mad Creek area, leading some to question the project’s name “Mad Rabbit.”

The proposal out this week resembles the 2019 proposal, though there are some key differences. The new plan adds back two trails in the Mad Creek area, no longer makes a new connection with Steamboat Resort and will rehab more user-created trails on Rabbit Ears Pass.

The 124-page environmental assessment analyzed three issues in detail — recreation, wildlife and Colorado roadless areas.

The updated Mad Rabbit trails proposal adds 52 miles of trails around Steamboat, while removing 36 miles of unsanctioned, user-created trails.
U.S. Forest Service/Courtesy

The assessment shows that Routt National Forest has seen steep increases in recreation, jumping about 350,000 people per year between 2012 and 2017. About half of the use in the project area currently happens during the winter. Additionally, 25% of the overall use was hiking and walking, and biking also was a significant activity.

The high demand — demand that the Forest Service says is not being met by the current trails — is blamed for the creation of miles of unsanctioned trails.

Many trails designed for winter use, such as the Fox Curve loop, are being used in the summer, and that’s lead to conflicts, according to the assessment. The Fox Curve loop, which strays into key elk habitat, is one of the trail segments that is slated for rehabilitation in the plan.

As proposed, the Mad Rabbit trails project would add two new trailheads and improve four others on Rabbit Ears Pass.
U.S. Forest Service/Courtesy image

The plan includes 44 miles of non-motorized trails, four miles of motorized trails and four miles of trails that have a dual-use designation. When added to existing trails, the project area will include nearly 200 miles of trails.

“Most proposed segments include loops, which would provide diverse user choices to maximize flexibility for the user to achieve a multitude of experiences,” the report says.

The study also reviewed the plan’s effects on several animal species, with the Rocky Mountain elk being perhaps the most significant. Hoping to minimize impacts on elk, the plan was designed to concentrate most of the trails near existing roads.

The removal of user-created trails — both on Rabbit Ears and in the Mad Creek area — is also designed to improve elk habitat and reduce conflicts, the report says. The study also reviewed how the proposal would impact species such as the Canada lynx, hoary bat, Pacific marten and American pika, among others.

Like with elk, the assessment found the proposal would likely be better for many of these animals’ habitat than the current system of unsanctioned, user-created trails. However, the report does say that initial trail construction would have negative impacts on some of the wildlife.

The third area of analysis concerned the Colorado Roadless Rule, which established prohibitions on tree-cutting, road construction and reconstruction, and the use of linear construction zones like pipelines or electrical wires. It requires that these kinds of projects be reviewed from a series of nine characteristics including their potential effects on drinking water, animal and plant diversity, cultural properties and the landscape’s character.

Like with other study areas, the assessment says that removing user-created trails and adding new ones built to Forest Service standards would improve the area in the long run.

“There is a result in either stable or improving trends in the long term,” the assessment says.

The Forest Service will hold an informational meeting about the proposal from 5:30-7:30 p.m. Thursday, Oct. 27, at Colorado Mountain College Steamboat. The project’s 30-day comment window is open as well. Comments can be submitted until Nov. 22 on the Forest Service’s website at

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