Erosion is exacerbated in wet conditions, but there are (sustainable) ways to work around it
Hundreds of hikers and a few renegade mountain bikers made their way to Donut Falls last weekend. By going early in the season, they mostly avoided the crowds, which can be relentless at the popular Big Cottonwood Canyon attraction on summer weekends. But one thing they couldn’t avoid was mud.
Early in the day, a crisp snowpack formed islands between stretches of silt along the 3.3 mile trail. By mid-afternoon, however, the snow began to melt under the pressure of the 80 degree heat, creating a slippery, slimy continuous trail up the waterfall. As a sign of their effort, each traveler received brown spots all over everything from calves to backs to behinds.
Such scenes are common in Utah in the spring, as residents and tourists begin to trade in their skis and snowboards for knobby tires and hiking poles. And they point to Lora Smith, executive director of the Mountain Trails Foundation, a trail conservation organization in Park City. She said hiking and biking through — and around — muddy sections can have worse consequences than embarrassing brown stains on pants.
“The reason we don’t want people on muddy trails,” she said, “is because it greatly accelerates the erosion of a trail.”
Some erosion, Smith said, occurs when mud sticks to shoes and tires, moving it from one part of the trail to another. Additionally, the track of a tire can become a path for rainwater to follow, which can lead to a “cut” in the track, Smith said. When this happens the trail starts to look like a long canyon with steep sides making it uncomfortable to walk on and difficult to navigate.
“If it sticks to your heels or your wheels,” she said, quoting a popular Mountain Trails Foundation motto, “it’s time to turn around.”
To avoid turning valuable trails into uncomfortable trails long after the mud has dried, Smith suggests choosing trails at lower elevations in the spring or in the days following a rain or snowfall. Next, checking the trail reports. Often, reviews on AllTrails or Trailforks note trail conditions (one post Monday called the Donut Falls trail “deathly muddy and muddy with snow.”) Additionally, Mountain Trails Foundation and Basin Recreation — which, according to its site Web, oversees over 2,000 acres of space in the Snyderville Basin near Kimball Junction – has interactive websites that give trail conditions. Currently, the Basin Recreation map has 76 trails listed as “good to walk” — nearly twice as many as at the start of the week. Eleven others carry the label “tread lightly” while five are still considered snow-covered.
Smith noted that designations can be misleading wherever they are. A trail may look dry and clear at the base, but be messy further down the line. It all depends on the orientation of the path, or the orientation of the side of a slope in relation to the sun. To deter people from assuming the trail is usable, the Mountain Trails Foundation deliberately leaves fallen trees and brush on the trails as a deterrent when they are not suitable for walking.
“It’s not like we’re understaffed and scrambling to access the trail,” Smith said, noting that the foundation has nine people lined up to do trail maintenance. “It’s just that we intentionally leave them.”
So where can you enjoy the rising sun while walking lightly? Here are some options to consider:
quarry mountain2.7 miles, easy/moderate, Park City: This hiking trail starts next to the famous McPolin Barn (aka the White Barn). It rises 740 feet, providing great views of the barn and Park City Ridge. This is a relatively steep trail through oak and sagebrush. The McPolin Barn offers restrooms, a historic farmhouse and a large lawn for a picnic.
PC Hill1.3 miles, 475 feet elevation gain, easy/moderate, Park City: This short hike leads to the top of PC Hill and is a great family option with plenty of parking. Above the iconic “PC” you get a 360° view. At the foot of the hill is an interpretive trail through the wetlands behind Treasure Mountain School. There are public restrooms behind Treasure Mountain, but it’s a good walk across the field from the trailhead. Dogs are allowed on a leash.
Huber Grove Trail, 1.8 miles, easy, Wasatch Mountain State Park: The trailhead for this kid-friendly hike is located across from the Visitor Center. He walks to historic Huber Grove, one of the first orchards in the Heber Valley, with apple trees over 120 years old that should be in bloom. The nature trail also leads through an aspen grove and is good for bird watching. Dogs are allowed on a leash.
sardine woodpecker7.9 miles, moderate, Snowbasin / Uinta-Wasatch-Cache National Forest: A relatively gentle trail without too many inclines that climbs (almost) to the top of Sardine Peak. It has beautiful views and wildflowers but is high up so bring your jacket. Dogs are allowed on a leash.
Twin Peak Avenues3.6 miles, easy/moderate, Wasatch Canyon/Avenues: A gentle trail that always gives a sense of accomplishment. It offers stunning views of Salt Lake City, but it can get hot in the summer, so spring is a great time to try it. Bikes and leashed dogs are also allowed on the trail.