Chelise Foster always loved Waldo Canyon, a corner of the Pike National Forest with a popular, picturesque loop trail a few miles west of Manitou Springs. So when the epic, eponymous wildfire raged through that canyon and down the hills into Colorado Springs in 2012, she took it personally.
The trail had been a favorite among local residents for decades. Long enough to seem like an adventure but short enough to be perfect for families and novice hikers, it hummed with activity year-round.
But on June 23, 2012, everything changed. The wildfire started at noon that day and eventually left a trail of scorched earth all the way into the Springs’ west side. More than 18,000 acres were burned over 18 days before the fire was contained. It destroyed 347 homes, damaged many more, and killed two people.
“I’m a Colorado Springs native, and my family had hiked in Waldo Canyon since I was a kid,” Foster says. “I was just there two or three weeks before the fire.”
After the smoke had cleared and the damage became visible, Foster had an idea. It tied together a love for a local landmark that had been destroyed, and the unique advantage of a local company where she had worked. “I had worked at the Elope costume company, and I knew they had the license to manufacture Where’s Waldo? costumes. I thought I could organize a flash mob with Where’s Waldo? costumes and clean up the canyon.”
The people at Elope were enthusiastic, but instead of a flash mob, they came up with something even bigger. The Waldo Waldo 5K was born. The race in downtown Colorado Springs is a non-timed run/walk that has become one of the biggest running events in the city. This year’s fifth-annual race is scheduled for Oct. 22.
In 2012, Foster says they hoped 200 people would show up for the race. “We had 1,000. And each year, it has grown more and more.” Last year, 3,400 people showed up.
The popular Where’s Waldo? books provide the obvious tie-in with the canyon—with a twist. In the books, the character Waldo, always dressed in red and white striped sweater, cap and black glasses, is hidden in plain sight among dozens or more other figures. In the Colorado Springs race, everyone is dressed like Waldo—costume included. And it takes a sharp eye to find family members or friends if they become separated.
Foster, who organizes and presents the race with her husband, Jeff, is proud of the event and what it has done for the community. Each year, proceeds are donated to community groups involved in trail maintenance and in Waldo Canyon restoration efforts.
The race has raised $140,000 for such projects since 2012. This year, proceeds will go to the Rocky Mountain Field Institute (RMFI), a nonprofit group that does restoration in Waldo Canyon, and the Trails and Open Space Coalition.
The staff of RMFI say the annual Waldo Waldo event has given a huge boost to its efforts to restore the burn area. “The Waldo Waldo 5K has helped support our restoration efforts every year in the burn scar, stabilizing steep slopes through use of log erosion barriers and other erosion control structures, replanting and reseeding the scar with native species, leading advanced fire restoration skills training sessions, and monitoring the impact of its efforts,” says Jennifer Peterson, executive director of RMFI.
Peterson also reports that a new project was launched this year to restore a critical riparian area in the upper Camp Creek drainage flowing through Garden of the Gods that hasn’t responded to traditional restoration efforts. Workers planted about 1,000 mature, rooted willows in May and June, and will monitor the area for several years.
In the meantime, the Waldos will keep on running.
Waldo Waldo 5K
Start and finish at the Pioneers Museum. Registration and information: waldo5k.com