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Why Do We Fix Popular Trails?

Posted by Anna Roth at Jul 26, 2022 09:04 AM |

Popular trails can need as much — or more — maintenance than less-well-known routes. Find out why.

With the Snow and Annette Lake trails closed for maintenance this year, you may be wondering: what’s the point of fixing popular trails that you (and other hikers) have hiked countless times? It's not uncommon to see a trail that needs a lot of repair and wonder why that one isn't getting attention instead of a more popular one.

Washington has thousands of miles of trails and they all need annual maintenance. But how that maintenance gets implemented depends on dozens of factors, including how difficult the work will be, how unsafe the trail is in the meantime, who is available to do the work, and the number of people visiting those trails.

The Snow Lake trail in the foreground on a green hillside with a background vista of rocky mountains. The trail is evidently sliding down the hill. Photo by cascadeyeti.
The Snow Lake trail is closed this summer for improvements. This photo illustrates one issue on trail — tread creep. The trail here is narrow and angling downhill. Without a fix, this will erode as hikers walk over it, damaging the plant life below the trail. The work performed during summer 2022 will create a wider, more stable tread that can handle the number of people that hike it in a season. Photo by cascade yeti.

Weighing those factors is key to the decision about what project get addressed. For example, in a ranger district dealing with decreased funding (and therefore less capacity to deal with the required maintenance in a given year), a trail with erosion concerns could be put on the back burner if it doesn't get much foot traffic.

But if it's a popular trail, the number of hikers passing through will quickly exacerbate the erosion and damage the surrounding greenery, so it's important to fix that trail quickly.

WTA adds capacity, of course. Each year, we work with land managers to determine where we'll send our work crews. This includes popular trails as well as those way in the backcountry.

Volunteers standing on a recently repaired section of graveled trail. Photo by Mike Bellis.
Earlier in 2022, WTA crews repaired a huge blowout on the Horseshoe Bend trail, reopening this popular location in a matter of weeks. Photo by Mike Bellis.

We try to ensure our trail crews have the most impact wherever they work. In some cases, volunteer crews like WTA are the only trail maintenance staff a district has. Whether that is the case or not, we comple maintenance to the land managers' specifications while supporting our own campaign work.

In 2021, 76% of our trail work fell under our Trails Rebooted campaign, which focuses on keeping popular trails well-maintained as well as making hikers aware of other trails they might like beyond the best-known ones.

An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure

Keeping trails in good shape is an ongoing process. Trails can fall apart pretty quickly if you don’t keep up with their annual maintenance needs. Projects like bridge building or new trail construction may be perceived as more impactful — but they're expensive. It's much more cost-effective to keep up with annual maintenance like brushing and drainage clearing whenever possible.

lost trails found_zachary toliver.jpg
Trails like Mineral Creek (pictured above) are great examples of what happens when annual maintenance is deferred year over year. Here, brush has grown over the trail, obscuring the way. WTA's Lost Trails Found crews have been able to address some of this deferred maintenance thanks to Great American Outdoors Act dollars, but not all maintenance can be done by volunteer organizations. Photo courtesy Zachary Toliver.

Of course, since each trail requires a healthy dose of annual maintenance and land managers (especially federal agencies like the Forest Service) are strapped for funding, not every trail gets that ounce of prevention every year. That's when you end up with a deferred maintenance backlog. Currently, there is about $6 billion of backlogged maintenance on trails across America. That's billion with a B.

WTA volunteer trail crews help address some of that deferred maintenance. But there are some projects that volunteers can't do, like using dynamite to blast away rocks or heavy machinery to widen the trail tread.

Several women stand in front of a large tree that they are sawing out. There is a crossut saw in the tree and a crew leader is holding onto the saw handle.
WTA crews do, however, hundreds of hours of crosscut saw work on an annual basis all across the state. Photo by Shelly Urlacher.

Thanks to the passage of the Great American Outdoors Act, new funding has been unlocked to address some of those larger deferred projects, which is what's going on at Snow and Annette Lake this summer.

Projects like this may seem like they make a trail less rugged, but what they're really doing is reducing the impact of the thousands of people who hike these trails each year. This specialized work requires certified workers, and for safety reasons, requires trail closures to complete. The end result of this work won't necessarily make the trail easier — but it will make the surface you walk on more sustainable and less prone to erosion.

Two volunteers working on removing a rock on the popular Rattlesnake Ledge trail. Photo by Jay Schram.
Volunteers working on the Rattlesnake Ledge trail in 2022 helped reestablish a wide and flat tread. Photo by Jay Schram.

If a trail is fixed in the forest, does anyone notice?

The thing about good, long-lasting trail work is it's invisible. Once the work is done, you may not even notice it. Hikers often walk right over major trail projects without noticing what's been done. It's like fixing the foundation of your house. It's an expensive project that requires outside experts and more time than you might want to dedicate to it, but if you do it right, your house won't fall down.

Similarly with trails; you notice trail work only when a bridge is broken or a trail is flooded, and it's clear that these trails do need some help. One trip reporter said this of the Lake Annette trail this year:

There is a log bridge about a mile in that has some of the railing falling off, and there are quite a few loose stones around. One spot about half a mile from the lake has a blowdown that landed exactly on the trail, not across it. A makeshift path has been made around to the left of it to make it passable, but it is definitely an obstacle.

Of course, when a trail is clear and in good shape, most people don't give a second thought to the work that went into making it that way. One WTA crew spent five days building a 12-foot rock wall to support a failing section of trail, and on the last day of our work watched hikers walk right over it, oblivious to the structure keeping the dirt under their feet. And that's okay! The point of good trail work is to facilitate a safe and fun walk through the woods. Being in nature is good for you, and WTA and land managers want hikers to have a great day when they step on trail.

Several people sit on a rocky overlook above a lake with forest in the background at an orange sunset. Photo by Sean Downes.
Trails like the one at Rattlesnake Ledge are key for providing a nice first (or fifty-first) time stepping on trail. Photo by Sean Downes.

A gateway to adventure

Popular trails like Snow and Annette Lake are gateway trails — routes where people learn to love hiking and begin their journey of becoming champions for trails. They're popular because they lead to gorgeous places. It's important to ensure that these trails can support the number of people who are hiking them each year. Trails create a path of concentrated impact in a wilderness. A few months of work to improve a trail can result in reduced overall environmental impact to the area at large.

There's no denying that a trail closure can be disappointing, especially when it's a trail you were excited to hike. But luckily, there are plenty of alternate locations to be found. We offer nearby hiking suggestions, or you can browse our Hiking Guide, and when it reopens the trail will be better than ever.

Tap in: Learn more about how WTA is supporting popular trails and offering more options to hikers than ever.


MeLuckyTarns on Why Do We Fix Popular Trails?

Spending 90% of your time fixing wilderness freeways might not do much for supplementing govt. maintenance backlogs or preserving deteriorating trail systems, but it does get your organization a lot of exposure.

Posted by:

MeLuckyTarns on Jul 28, 2022 08:52 AM

Washington Trails Association on Why Do We Fix Popular Trails?

Hey there, MeLuckyTarns -- We love that our volunteer crews can inspire other hikers when they're out on trail. Those crews do work on a lot of popular trails, but they also work in local parks and deep backcountry trails that haven't seen maintenance in years. If you want to see where we're working right now and join a crew, you can check out

Posted by:

Washington Trails Association on Jul 28, 2022 03:04 PM