The Pilot Hill Project started in 2017 when rancher Doug Samuelson approached Albany County with a proposition. They could have first dibs on his almost 5,500 acres of land just East of Laramie - it was already land where people liked to recreate in the past - but they had to raise the ten million dollars to purchase it within a year. Since then, it's blossomed into a community-wide project.
Three years later, it's nearly ready to open to the public. The official closing date is expected to be in early August. Until then, it's still private property. In the meantime, I got a sneak peek with Pilot Hill's Sarah Brown Matthews.
The top half of the property is mostly wooded. As you move down the slope, it starts to become more open with exposed limestone areas that are important for refilling the Casper Aquifer.
"You can also see interesting geologic features. These uplifts over here of limestone. You can see this upper one has a neat cave in it, and one of our trails will allow you to get close to the cave," Brown Matthews said.
The two-track we're on is an old ranch road. Most of the roads like this one will be converted into trails or allowed to weather away, but some will be maintained as easements and for emergency access.
"There are some that are truly impassable. And there are some roads that are shown on maps that don't even exist," explained Brown Matthews.
The Pilot Hill property will eventually be crisscrossed by nearly 44 miles of multi-use trails for nonmotorized recreation, built in three phases. The Northern half of the property, where the bulk of the trails will be, will support a wide variety of user groups including mountain bikers, hikers, and horseback riders.
"We got people who are interested in coming here and they'll say, 'is there trail riding around where you are?' Well, no we don't really have anything that people can directly access without getting in their horse trailers and going up to the Happy Jack Area or going out to the Snowies," said Diane Kempson, owner of Nightengale Stables in Laramie.
Kempson wouldn't be surprised if the proximity to trails encouraged some overnight guests to stay longer and that could help Laramie's economy.
Outdoor recreation is one of the largest industries in Wyoming, accounting for $1.6 billion in revenue in 2017. It helps that the state's vast spaces include nearly 98,000 square miles of public land. And Laramie's proximity to mountains and trails already makes it a hub.
Lindsay Olson, the owner of the outdoor gear store Atmosphere Mountainworks, also thinks the property will encourage people to visit and stay in Laramie.
"For customers, it makes sense. There's more reasons for people to jump off the interstate and come and spend time here instead of just blowing through and heading out to Yellowstone or Jackson or wherever they're heading to," Olson said.
She thinks it will also incentivize new graduates to remain in Laramie.
"We have a lot of students, but I'm always afraid that we're going to lose students after they graduate because, well, there's a lack of jobs maybe. But if there's these valuable recreation opportunities, maybe now in this new world, working remotely in Laramie is an opportunity," Olson said.
Easy access to trails may also encourage people to try a new outdoor activity, like mountain biking. Cindy Dywan is president of BikeNet, a nonprofit group that built the Schoolyard trails, a system on state land next to the proposed park.
"Even before the pandemic, we had a good increase in the number of people getting into mountain biking," said Dywan. "We've had some families where parents had no interest in mountain biking and their kids discovered it for one reason or another, and it kind of brings the whole family in, which is just super fun to see."
BikeNet is one of the many organizations that helped with planning for Pilot Hill. An incorporated group raised money from the community to buy the land, and the Wyoming Office of State Lands and Investments made the final purchase from Doug Samuelson. Albany County will take over the management of it this fall.
But Pilot Hill won't be just Samuleson's ranch. University of Wyoming and Bureau of Land Management owned lands will also be a part of the area, and BikeNet plans to turn their lease on the Schoolyard trails over to become part of the parcel too.
It'll be managed by a board of directors that will oversee management of the property for Albany County.
They won't just be managing for outdoor recreation. The Southern half of the land will protect critical wildlife habitat and winter range for deer, elk, and pronghorn. The hope is that hunting will eventually be allowed under Game and Fish guidance.
"It's certainly a consideration that we want to think about seriously and make sure that not only are we doing the right thing for the land and for the elk and deer herds up here, but also that we're being good stewards of the opportunity for our citizens who love to hunt and rely on that meat for their families," said Sarah Brown Matthews.
Pilot Hill trail construction will start this fall and will be completed in about a decade. After the property is officially purchased, people will be able to start enjoying it.