Summit County, forest officials ask hikers, bikers to keep to trail
Living in the High Country and waiting on the close of our extended winter season is an experience that can test even the most resolute, with many of us dreaming only of kicking the dust off our beloved hikers or biking shoes.
Some simply sit tight just a bit longer, while others test our area’s notable trail system early in the spring. A great number playing guess-and-check end up stomping or riding through tracts of sludge, post-holing for significant stretches or dodging these occasional obstacles altogether by sidestepping established trail networks for makeshift routes.
Whether local or guest, the creation of “social trails” due to the eagerness of these preseason diehards is becoming all the more common by the year. Trails often don’t close throughout the year unless for restoration purposes or wildlife purposes, but knowing when to go — and conversely when to wait — is the main message from those who maintain them.
“We definitely deal with it all the time,” said Mike Connolly, executive director of Friends of the Dillon Ranger District (FDRD). “It’s a big concern of ours, because a lot of the deterioration of trails really takes place early in the season. People are walking up the trail and if there’s water or whatever … they’ll just end destroying both sides of the trail.”
FDRD is the volunteer-based, nonprofit organization working as a partner to the Dillon Ranger District on the White River National Forest. The group focuses its summertime work on forest stewardship education in addition to trail preservation and improvement projects, but even organizers don’t begin high-elevation undertakings until they’ve completely dried out.
In turn, regular early-season tasks include closing off a variety of these lower-altitude social trails devised from consistent foot traffic due to unsanctioned detours to avoid getting wet and soiled. Potential erosion and lasting effects on the area’s waterways are the most direct impacts from this seemingly benign choice.
“You have some marshy areas that people try to walk around and you’ve got all these so-called social trails that develop, which are really not good at all,” added Connolly. “And when people make social trails, they don’t realize that they’re walking in an environment that is not sustainable. It can really affect the whole watershed area.”
One particular high-traffic problem spot because of both hikers and bikers is Peaks Trail, which starts at the base of Peak 7 in Breckenridge, continuing through the Tenmile Range and concluding near Bill’s Ranch in Frisco. Others in Breckenridge include McCullough Gulch, Mohawk Lakes and the Wheeler Trail. Each of the three, among many others in the county, tend to retain snowpack for quite a while into the spring and early summer because they reach relatively high elevations.
Hikes and mountain biking routes in Frisco are no different. Though trails in and around the Peninsula tend to dry out and be more accessible early in the season, others from Rainbow Lake to Masontown stay soft and swampy usually until at least July.
“Unfortunately right now, the best thing to do is stay off them if they’re muddy,” said Diane McBride, director of recreation for the town of Frisco. “If your bike or shoes end up muddy and you’re leaving deep prints there, you should turn around and go a different day. That’s the best advice that we give out.”
As a result of the growing issue, Frisco is in the process of working with the local community, the county and the Forest Service to establish a trails master plan for the very first time. The goal is for the public to attend a meeting on Thursday, July 14, from 5-7 p.m. at the 1st and Main Building (104 Main St. in Frisco) to offer feedback and help the town better understand how to prioritize the trail network and improve the overall management of the recreational pathways.
Doing so, though, will always require cooperation from those who visit these invaluable amenities, both from within Summit and those who call on the region for their mountain and wilderness respite. But because snowpack totals can change dramatically by the year, there’s no real set standard for when exactly a trail will be in its ideal form. Early July is a good rule of thumb for most, but checking with the Dillon Ranger District — by phone or in-person to check their up-to-date trail board — before heading out is always a good first step.
And if the itch to go above the lower-level trails early in the season becomes too much and you’re are unwilling to run back, maintenance supervisors merely ask that you stay on trail, even if it means getting a little soggy or dirty.
“If they’re on the trail,” said Connolly, “we’d rather have them just stay on the trail and walking through the mud than going around the trail and creating different paths. It really is bad for the environment and bad for forest stewardship. It’s not great that they’re up there, but that’s the preferred way to go — stay on the trail and don’t start walking along the side or start cutting through the woods. That’s far worse.”
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