By Dave Cruson
Most people in Central Colorado would be hard-pressed to find the Rainbow Trail Lutheran Camp, a hidden treasure in its midst. Most Lutherans in Colorado, New Mexico, the Rocky Mountain region, and even from Texas, Minnesota, and yes, Madagascar, would be hard-pressed to know why.
Before small highway signs for Rainbow Trail Lutheran Camp along Colorado Highway 69 were purchased, most people not connected with the Lutheran Church in the Rocky Mountain region would have no idea where the camp is located. Off of County Road 182 or Billy Humble Road, just south of Hillside, Colorado is a short, gravelly drive to what many consider a spiritual oasis or a second home.
Rainbow Trail Lutheran Camp, or RTLC, is an outreach ministry of the Rocky Mountain Synod of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. The mission statement of the camp is that through the ministries of RTLC, God claims us, Christ transforms us, and the Holy Spirit sends us, for faithful service. The vision statement explains that the ministries of RTLC will create experiences of intentional Christian community for youth, families and adults that foster spiritual growth, personal development, opportunities for renewal, and leadership development.
At first glance, you would think that the famous Rainbow Trail would easily be associated with a Lutheran Camp. However, the RTLC’s history with the actual Rainbow Trail wasn’t considered early on. Good Luck Camp or Horseshoe Camp could have been considered, but most church people were looking for anything connected to Martin Luther or well-known church names, like Prince of Peace, Holy Cross, or even Luther.
In what has become known as “Futch’s Folly,” the United Lutheran Church of the Rocky Mountains was asked to consider potential sites for annual Luther League (i.e. youth gathering) conventions. From the synod, a group of leaders, both pastors and volunteers, began the search for a new site. Their goal was to find a location that was convenient enough for the entire synod to use for any event. A couple of sites that had been rented were available for purchase. After taking a more extensive look at those and also looking at one recommended by Dr. John Futch – the synod president – as possibilities, a small group of pastors concluded that none of the sites were right for what the synod was looking for, especially the site recommended by Dr. Futch. At a synod board meeting, Pastor Don Simonton of St. Luke Lutheran Church in Albuquerque, New Mexico opened his big mouth and said that none of the sites were suitable. Ironically and humorously, Dr. Futch proceeded to appoint Don as the leader to find a more suitable location. It was as if Dr. Futch knew what he was doing, as he had a smirk on his face, and a wink of his eye; “Futch’s Folly” created a more ambitious quest to find a permanent campsite. Rumors of and a subsequent merger with the Augustana Lutheran Church made for a natural partnership.
In the fall of 1956, Pastors Don Simonton and Leland Soker were walking along at the Rainbow Lake Club. As they walked, considering the great possibilities there, they came across a horseshoe pit. Lee bent down, picked up a horseshoe and said, “If I make a ringer, we’ll buy the place.” He then turned, aimed and let fate take its course. Ah, the Holy Spirit, a ringer. Sure enough, the legend was born and in 1957, Rainbow Trail Lutheran Camp was established.
Utilizing most of the buildings from the original Rainbow Lake Club, the summer of 1958 was filled with work camps to help develop and remodel the camp for use. Of those projects, more notable ones included clearing the ball field of large oaks and creating a primitive trail to Balman Reservoir to avoid using the road for hikes.
By August, the camp was ready for campers, and had designated two weeks for the Augustana Synod and two weeks for the United Lutheran Church. With a new camp, the time came for creation of a camp philosophy. It was decided that camp was not going to be Sunday School in the mountains, but rather, an opportunity to bring people closer than ever to God and prepare them better than ever to live a Christ-centered life upon returning home from camp.
With mountaintop experiences of faith, there come times when that faith is challenged. During the summers of 1993 and 2011, RTLC was threatened by wildfires, challenging a worldwide community with the natural reality of life.
In 1993, a lightning-started fire came within several hundred feet of the camp. The fire started on Thursday, July 8 and as the camp was evacuated to part-time staff member Mary Frank’s ranch, summer staff members kept the camping experience as normal as possible. The Forest Service moved their base of operations into camp. For about an hour on Saturday, July 10, the camp staff was able to return to the site and briefly meet, share Holy Communion, and retrieve some necessary programming gear and personal items. We noticed a whiteboard indicating the firefighters’ priorities, “Save Lives, Save the Camp.” A week after it had started, the fire was contained.
In 2011, the Duckett fire came even closer than the ’93 fire. Halfway through the first week’s registration, the camp was evacuated. Relocated to Westcliffe High School, camp leaders considered what was next for the week – and the summer. RTLC’s Bible Study for the summer was “Living on a Prayer.” Enter Doug Jones, the executive director of Horn Creek Christian Camp. Doug approached Dave Jarvis and asked if RTLC wished to continue their ministry. The answer was “yes,” and Doug offered a portion of Horn Creek for the camp’s use. It had room for 140 people, a kitchen and dining area, a covered pavilion, a shared recreation area and other outdoor venues; RTLC became a resident. However, God must have been involved because the cost would be free. “This is what neighbors do,” said Doug. For almost half the summer, the camp operated out of Horn Creek. Following the summer, supporters of the camp donated a thanks offering to Horn Creek in appreciation for their generosity. Living on a prayer, indeed.
The Duckett fire burned over 5,000 acres and literally came within feet of RTLC. Currently, a rock cairn sits three feet to the northwest of Bristlecone Lodge, signaling how close the structures were to burning. Living on a prayer, absolutely.
Today, the RTLC has become one of the most successful youth and family camps of our time. It is a place that has grown into an impactive, spiritual sanctuary that taps into the beauty of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains and the Wet Mountain Valley.
While operating on a lease agreement with the United States Forest Service in the San Isabel National Forest, RTLC is in the process of a land exchange with the Forest Service in order to own the land outright.
Many have come to love the camp and its purpose. Celebrated in worship, song, prayer, Bible study, dance, games, fun, and views that take your breath away, RTLC supports and reaches over 5,000 people each year with its wide-ranging ministry. RTLC is more than a 14-acre site; faithful experiences happen in churches – like over 30 day camps a summer; in communities – like satellite camps in southern New Mexico and western Colorado and mission trips to Joplin, Missouri and New York City; and around the globe – like mission trips to Mexico and Puerto Rico, and counselors from Madagascar serving at RTLC. The camp’s ministry is about taking the love and faith of Christ down the mountain.
RTLC has been blessed to be a blessing. For many years, the camp’s full-time staff, along with numerous volunteers, have hosted the people of the Wet Mountain Valley for a free Thanksgiving feast – a way of serving and saying thanks to the people of Central Colorado.
RTLC is a hidden treasure in Central Colorado. Come for a visit to see why RTLC is such a special place for faith and spiritual formation and experiences. The same view of rainbows is unmistakable from the Rainbow Trail and RTLC. For the past 25 years, the primary camp song has been “The Song of Blessing.” Sing along and take it home with you.
For more information about RTLC, go online to www.rainbowtrail.org. You could even stop by – just look for someone wearing a wooden name tag to check in – but calling ahead (719-942-4220) would be nice.
Special thanks to Brandon Wade of Brandon Wade Visuals (executive producer of Let It Shine- Rainbow Trail- A Celebration of Ministry; brandonwade.tv); Angela Tarrant, author of When the Bell Rings; and Dave Jarvis, executive director of Rainbow Trail Lutheran Camp (rainbowtrail.org).
Rev. Dave “Cruzer” Cruson is pastor of Prince of Peace Lutheran Church, Colorado Springs. He has been a Rainbow Trail Lutheran Camp camper since 1982, staff member from 1989 to 1994, and a visiting camp pastor since 1999. Dave considers Rainbow Trail to be a Colorado Central hidden treasure, one worth discovering and enjoying. A blessing for all …