Mud season. It’s not pretty. In fact, it’s just, well, muddy. But for those of us who are itching to get out and do some spring hiking, it can be hard to say no after the long winter months.
The sun is shining, the birds are chirping and the trails are calling. However, in the shadow of canyons or on north-facing slopes, melting snow and mud lurk.
During these first weeks of spring, the trails in the area are at their most fragile due to the wet conditions and this is often where most trail damage occurs each year.
Knowing the condition and geographic location of a trail before you even set off is the first piece of advice given by National Forest Service recreation officer Todd Parker, who works in the Rifle District office.
Trails on north-facing slopes, along streams and drainages, or under tree cover are bound to be muddy at this time of year. Damage to trails early in the season will persist for the rest of the year or longer.
“I urge the public to choose a trail wisely and avoid trail damage if possible,” Parker said. “When you’re on muddy trails, the best thing to do is walk in the middle. You will get your shoes wet or muddy, but it prevents the trail from widening.
Damaged trails must then be repaired by trail crews which are understaffed and usually made up of volunteer groups such as Roaring Fork Outdoor Volunteers or Wilderness Workshop.
“They help us maintain the trails because our resources are often limited. … I currently have two staff members that I rely on each year to work in the summer and maintain the Rifle District trails,” Parker said. “I think everyone is eager to get out after a long winter, but a little patience is all it takes to keep the trails in better condition.”
Chris Brandt is the President of the Red Hill Council, a non-profit organization created to preserve and maintain the scenic trails of Red Hill and Mushroom Rock in Carbondale – a popular hiking destination all year round, but especially in the spring. The trail averages about 65,000 visits a year, according to the council.
“Red Hill is one of the first places that dries up in the spring when people are desperate and winter-weary,” Brandt said. “It’s very well-loved by the community, and in some ways maybe a little too well-loved at certain times of the year.”
The Red Hill Council has been actively working to educate the community and recreation area visitors about hiking in the spring and what people can expect on the trails.
Signs were posted at the kiosk at the trailhead with information and quick tips such as “hike dirt, not mud”. Hikers who choose to proceed on muddy trails are advised to walk through the mud rather than around it to avoid widening the trail.
“You’re basically walking on wet concrete, and once it dries, it lingers for the rest of the year,” Brandt said. “When we get up there and work on it, we have to open up that crust with tools and it ends up exposing a type of fluffy, highly erodible moondust-like material that also disappears quickly.”
While leaving ornate boot prints isn’t ideal, the impact is less detrimental to the area than widening the trail.
When users continually widen a trail, it damages highly sensitive cryptobiotic soil, a type of soil made up of microorganisms that help stabilize dirt against wind and erosion. This type of soil is found in desert highlands but is rapidly disappearing due to damage from humans, dogs and grazing cattle, Brandt said.
Echoing what Parker said about volunteer labor, the damage done along the Red Hill trails requires extra volunteer hours to repair the impacts and maintain the trail structure.
Spring hiking should not be automatically ruled out, but should be done wisely. Muddy or wet trails can often be avoided by walking earlier or later in the day when the ground is frozen or hard. Choose trails facing south and more rocky or sandy in nature. Walk the Rio Grande Trail or through Garfield County’s many historic town centers.
Or do what Parker does this time of year.
“I’m doing what a lot of colorans do in the spring and that’s hiking in Utah,” he said.
Visual reporter Chelsea Self can be reached at 970-384-9108 or [email protected]