You may be itching to put on you hiking boots this Memorial Day weekend, but before you head out on your trek, take heed of the trail conditions to avoid causing unnecessary damage. A long, snowy winter has many trails still buried in drifts, and hiking through mud can cause wear and tear to more than just your footwear.
Tony Overlock, lead trails technician for the town of Breckenridge Open Space & Trails department, said trail conditions are still snowy and muddy in Breckenridge and elsewhere in Summit County.
“Most of the trails still need some time to dry out,” he said. “We’re asking for hikers and riders to be patient and respectful. We’re suggesting that if people want to go riding, they should ride at the peninsula in Frisco and the Oro Grande trail in Dillon.”
MIND THE MUDDY METER
The town of Breckenridge uses what it calls “Muddy Meters” at many of its trailheads, which describe the trail conditions. Each meter has a slide with three different settings: green indicates a dry trail, yellow for a trail that is muddy and wet where hikers and riders are reminded to stay on the trail to prevent erosion and red to indicate that the trail is extremely muddy and should not be used.
“They’re great,” Overlock said. “We let our public and riders guide that meter to know what the trail conditions are on the trail. They are posted to help people make their decisions.”
Overlock said when trails have muddy spots, it’s generally preferred that people walk through that muddy spot to avoid trail widening and causing damage to the trail, including drainage issues that direct water to flow down the trail rather than across it, causing ruts. When trails are damaged, crews spend hours repairing those drainages when their time could be better spent improving the trails or creating new trails.
“Those ruts cause long-term damage that trail crews will have to come out and repair,” he said. “We just had a great winter, so people need to relish the winter we just had and be patient so we can have a great summer on our trails. Be respectful to the trails and let them dry out completely before causing permanent damage to a trail.”
STAY ON THE PATH
Rick Hague, a volunteer with the Dillon Ranger District, said there are two words to describe the trails in Summit County right now: snowy or muddy.
“What we’re telling the public is that most of the trails are covered with snow,” he said. “They can be patchy; there can be open areas, as well. The areas that aren’t covered by snow are very muddy.”
A lot of people have been calling in asking about hiking, biking and all-terrain vehicle use, Hague said. He said the Dillon Ranger District has also been encouraging people to use mud-free and snow-free trails such as the Oro Grande Trail, which runs from Dillon to Keystone.
“It has nice overviews of the lake, and it’s nice and dry because it’s been exposed to the sun,” he said.
Hague said the problem with muddy trails is that people tend not to walk through the mud but around it and go off the trail.
“When people hike when it’s all dry, they’ll stay right on the trails, which is the purpose of things,” he said, “but now if there’s a lot of mud on the trails, they’ll walk into the woods and create another spaghetti thing of informal trails, and we don’t want that.”
Jessica Evett, director of Friends of the Dillon Ranger District, said that prevention is the best sort of medicine for trail damage.
“Those signs are up for a reason,” she said of trail closures and Muddy Meters.
Evett said a well-constructed trail has an arch to it that allows water to run off naturally.
“When you go over a trail and disturb that natural plane that we’re going for,” she said, “it collects, sediment, which gets into our streams and wetlands. People avoid those muddy sections; the natural inclination is, ‘Oh I don’t want to get my shoes wet,’ and go off to the side, and that creates braided trails.”
WHAT’S OPEN, WHAT’S CLOSED
The town of Breckenridge maintains a list of which trails are open and closed on its website, www.townofbreckenridge.com. Last updated on Thursday, May 22, the only trails open through Breck’s open space were the Blue River Recpath, which was listed as dry, and Betty’s Trail and French Creek, which were both listed as mostly dry with intermittent mud patches.
In the Dillon Ranger District, the division of the White River National Forest that encompasses most of Summit County, only Keystone Gulch and Frey Gulch are officially closed, due to elk herds calving in the area, Hague said. Beyond that, he said, calling the Dillon Ranger District for updates is an option, but most information comes word of mouth from people who have attempted to travel the trails.
“People call and ask what’s specifically happening on this trail; we just don’t have it,” Hague said. “We do have a program where people can come in on an ad hoc basis, ‘Oh I was hiking on this and this trail and these are the conditions,’ and we write it down in a book, or if one of the rangers is here and we can say, have you been up such and such a trail recently. It’s too early in the season for people to have done much hiking like that.”
Hague said if you really have to get out and hike, the best national forest options to try are the Oro Grande, Angler Mountain north of Silverthorne, Salt Lick on the road up to Wildernest in Silverthorne, Lower Ptarmigan which starts near the Oro Grande in Dillon and the trails on the Frisco Peninsula.
“I tell them if you have some of those small bear paw, bear claw snowshoes, carry them with you, attach them to your backpack, because you’ll definitely post-hole in the snow,” he said. “It’s soft enough that that will happen; you’re not going to walk on top of it.”
BE PREPARED FOR ALL SEASONS
Especially in Summit County, you can have all four seasons in the course of a day this time of year very easily, said Rich Doak, recreation and lands staff officer for the White River National Forest, and post-holing can be more than just a nuisance.
“A few things key things that are very important — almost all trails over there will have some level of snow,” he said, usually scattered in the trees walking in and out of the shade. “That can create a very dangerous condition. You can be wet from the waist down if you don’t have the proper clothing on. It could be a very slow slog, and if you start getting your shoes, socks and pants wet, you run into other health risks like hypothermia.”
Doak said you also couldn’t count on the same conditions in the afternoon as you saw in the morning for stream crossings.
“Since you’re so close to the point of snowmelt, the streams and water crossings will be low in the mornings and by afternoons — on sunny, warm days, or if there’s a warm rain it’s sometimes even worse — those small streams or crossings could become large torrents of rushing water by the afternoon when you are trying to get back out,” he said.
Pack as if you were going to stay the night, Doak said.
“Make sure people know where you’re going and when you’ll be back, and try to always hike in groups, not single individuals going out,” he said. “Understand that while we don’t have as many people visiting, the trails that are open are going to be pretty busy because there isn’t a lot open yet to spread people out. If you take your dog or those types of things, especially outside wilderness without leash laws, be respectful that there’s still a lot of people out there doing the same thing as you.”
Doak reiterated that letting your local district know about trail conditions you encounter can better help those entities prevent trail damage and allow that information to be passed along to others who are looking for it.
“The local districts are always very accepting of folks calling and updating them on trail conditions and hazards that they may not know about,” he said. “They don’t have the resources, the public is really a help to them. If you do get back and you spotted something out of the ordinary, give the local district a call and let them know.”
For Memorial Day weekend camping information, check out Sebastian Foltz’s outdoor story from Friday.