Cover image: Trail Maintenance efforts in Yosemite National Park. All images: Rich Van Antwerp
“Ten years ago ... the job of the Trail Crew was to make passage through the mountains easier for the people who hiked. Now the main concern of the Trail Crew is to lessen the impact on the environment that great numbers of people make.” –APPALACHIAN MOUNTAIN CLUB trail crew leader
Over the last year, I’ve been fortunate to experience some great hikes and backpacking trips across the country. From my home in Iowa, to the mountains of California, Colorado, Oregon, New York and Virginia, I’ve been logging a lot of miles in my Oboz boots and shoes.
Giant downed old-growth Douglas firs on the trail to Mary’s Peak in Oregon.
As the miles continue to add up, one of the things I’ve begun observing more is the condition of our nation’s trails. With an increased emphasis on getting outdoors, more people are heading out on our trails, whether on foot, bike, or horseback. The increased traffic is resulting in more wear and tear on our trail systems and the condition of many of our trails is deteriorating faster than ever before.
I often come across sections of trails that have been worn to the point where they are nearly a foot below grade and instead of hard pack virtually all topsoil has been washed away leaving only jagged rocks and boulders. Instead of a trail, it seems as if you are hiking a dried out creek bed. Unfortunately, for many of the agencies that oversee our trail systems, the backlog of maintenance and improvement projects is growing while budgets are shrinking. Now more than ever our trails need maintenance, stewardship, volunteers, and our financial support.
So what is trail work, exactly? Here’s a great explanation by Woody Hesselbarth, author of Trail Construction and Maintenance Notebook:
“The first priority for trail work is to correct truly unsafe situations. This could mean repairing impassable washouts along a cliff, or removing blowdown from a steep section of a packstock trail. The second priority is to correct things causing significant trail damage–erosion, sedimentation, and off-site trampling, for instance. The third priority is to restore the trail to the planned design standard. This means that the ease of finding and traveling the trail matches the design specifications for the recreational setting and target user. Actions range from simply adding ‘reassurance markers’ to full-blown reconstruction of eroded tread or failed structures. Whatever the priority, doing maintenance when the need is first noticed will help prevent more severe and costly damage later.”
Boulders dominate the trail to Mt. Marcy in the NY due to years of erosion.
The encouraging news is that I’ve been pleasantly surprised by how many volunteers I’ve encountered along the trails over the last year. I often stop and talk with them about the work they are doing, and what organization they work with. Before I depart and head out back on my trek, I always thank these volunteers for their tireless efforts, enthusiasm, and passion for making the trail experience safe and enjoyable for all.
In Colorado this summer, as I was climbing Quandary Peak, I came across a group of volunteers armed with sledge hammers, pry bars, shovels and buckets who were part of the Colorado 14ers Initiative. Their job for the day was to clear loose scree and rebuild and secure loose boulder steps along the trail. The Colorado 14ers Initiative works closely with the US Forest Service and Bureau of Land management on their projects. Their mission is to protect and preserve the natural integrity of Colorado’s 54 14,000 foot peaks through active stewardship and education.
The Colorado Trail Foundation, which organizes week-long, weekend and sometimes one-day volunteer trail crews who do routine trail maintenance and improvement projects. They also run an Adopt-A-Trail program where individuals or groups take ownership by volunteer to take care of a particular segment of the trail by doing regular maintenance and water diversion projects to prevent continued erosion.
This type of work is certainly not relegated to Colorado. I suspect every state in the nation has its own network of trail crews—and all are searchable on the Internet.
Trail crews regularly replace and adjust loose scree and build steps on the trail to Quandary Peak in Colorado.
Nationally, the National Park System has a vibrant volunteer program, and it’s no surprise that Yosemite attracts many of those hard working folks. In 2015 more than 10,600 people volunteered over 179,000 hours of service to the park.
Last year I ran into several crews working on the John Muir Trail and Clouds Rest Trail. These volunteers were working for The Yosemite Conservation which has many opportunities for enthusiasts to volunteer on work crews.
Zion National Park.
On my Mt. Marcy hike in the Adirondacks this past spring, I had a long conversation with a Backcountry Caretaker for the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation. She lives in a cabin in the backcountry and on this day, with saw and shovel in hand, was out clearing downed trees and doing maintenance on recently eroded culverts to help improve drainage and prevent more erosion.
Along my hike I could see signs of Backcountry Caretaker work from repaired bridges and boardwalks over streams and marshy bogs to freshly cut downed trees nearly every mile.
One of the biggest trail volunteer maintenance programs in the nation is organized to support the 2,190-mile Appalachian Trail. The Appalachian Trail has 31 Trail Clubs responsible for sections of the trail. That’s a lot. Each club actively recruits volunteers and coordinates trail maintenance with agency partners such as the National Park Service and the U.S. Forest Service.
So the next time you come across a trail crew, whether they are a volunteer or agency employee, take the time to have a chat and make sure you thank them for their hard work and dedication. More importantly, check out the volunteer opportunities for your favorite trails and put some muscle behind your passion. Trail maintenance is something we all need to give back to.
Rich is based in Cedar Rapids, Iowa and Summit County, Colorado. He’s now a full-time hiker, skier, and snowshoer working his way through his “bucket list” of adventures.