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Trail Talk: Keeping up with the Joneses and local trail maintenance

Starr Jamison
Parks and Trails Manager, Town of Snowmass Village
Trail maintenance on the Tom Blake Equestrian/Hiking Trail in Snowmass Village.
Starr Jamison/courtesy photo

There is a reason people flock to Snowmass in summer; the hiking and biking opportunities are endless.

It is estimated that 8.5 million people (age 6 and older) went mountain biking in the U.S. in 2014, according to The Outdoor Foundation. An estimated total of 34.4 million people went hiking during the same time, the foundation says.

These statistics show that trails play an important role in people’s lives. With such a large number of people on trails, inevitable environmental impacts occur. Some of those impacts include trampling of vegetation, soil disturbance leading to erosion, widening of trails and informal trail braiding (Martin, R.H., Journal of Outdoor Recreation and Tourism, 2018, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jort.2018.08.002).

On our trails here in the village, we see the leisure group ride or hike, a quick lunchtime fitness ride/hike/run, a full-face helmet, a running or biking race or STRAVA use. It feels like keeping up with the Joneses or Kardashians with the diversity of trail use changing so precipitously, and it’s becoming more challenging to manage all user types, ensuring everyone is receiving an experience they are seeking on the trail.

The bike industry is playing a big role in the changes we are seeing on the ground. Mountain bike tire sizes have increased and bike geometry has changed. These changes dictate how a person rides a bike and that alone impacts the trail. I find the bike tire and geometry evolution comparable to what we have seen in ski width and flotation — downhill travel becomes more comfortable at higher speeds with a slacker head tube angle, and bigger tires lend to wider turns and better stability. What we see on the trail then is a wider turning radius being created with increased speeds, earlier access to trails due to the larger “fat bike” tires (causing drainage failure) and brake bumps (the teeth rattling bumps before a turn or steep section).

In addition, user increase will bring changes to the look and feel of trails. This can be seen at trailheads where trails tend to be wider to accommodate the users due to higher density, multi-directional travel and frequent passing. In a study I conducted in 2009 titled, “A Physical and Social Study of Mountain Bike Use on Five Segments of the Continental Divide National Scenic Trail in Colorado,” the trail width was wider closer to trailheads or trail intersections due to heavier, multi-directional traffic. In a recent study published in the Journal of Outdoor Recreation and Tourism titled, “The influence of tire size on bicycle impacts to soil and vegetation,” management implications were determined as:

1. The effect of bike tire width should be considered in areas of sensitive soils, especially for races and formal events

2. If a trail is frequented by multiple user groups and passing is frequent, the greater initial impact by bicycles should be considered when designating which user group must yield first, especially if trail widening is a concern. (Martin, R.H., Journal of Outdoor Recreation and Tourism, 2018, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jort.2018.08.002)

To accommodate this evolution, I’ve managed and adapted to these recreational changes, which tend to happen over a period of time. What we are seeing now is such a rapid change in technology, population growth and the added stress of a national pandemic. The bike industry worldwide has been inundated, creating an imbalance in supply to demand. Cities are limited in public transportation due to COVID-19 and more people are purchasing bikes for commuting. We’ve been told being outside is the safest environment, therefore our trails (according to our traffic counting data) are seeing twice the use from last year.

“Even well-built trails with proper outslope can lose their tilt over time and begin trapping and funneling erosive water,” (International Mountain Biking Association, 2004, p.201). Trails change for many reasons: increased use, direction of travel, bike technology, poor location or erosion. One must take all these factors into consideration when designing and maintaining trails.

In 1996, Snowmass Village hired Tony Boone Trails to construct the Tom Blake Trail, a machine purposed-built sustainable trail. He used a SWECO 450 48” wide machine to build part of this trail and volunteers hand built the remainder. Twenty-six years later, this trail is still a classic for all users with minimal maintenance needs where the machine was used. Why has this trail held up over time? A contouring trail with grade reversals is built with less maintenance and sustainability in mind. The Tom Blake trail does not open until June 21. At this time, all the snow has melted, which allows for the trail to dry before users can enjoy it because traveling on a muddy or snowy trail can lead to significant trail deterioration

Poorly designed, located and constructed trails can cause significant erosion. We see this in older trails which were ridden in, game trails, or built with steep grades and no drainage. These trails may be sustainable for a certain amount of time but, as we see more use, maintenance or redesign becomes inevitable.

If the world were my oyster and I commuted to work on a unicorn, we would eliminate multi-use and only build directional trails. It’s much easier to design or maintain a trail with a single use or one direction of travel. But, we live in a world where real estate isn’t cheap, and we have to share it with others and the wildlife who were here first.

I’ll say it again: We are lucky to have such a diverse trail system. We have equestrian and hiking only, uphill and downhill only, rugged and purposed built trails. It is a multi-faceted job, but we maintain a majority of our trails as multi-use and multi-directional with safety as the No. 1 priority and to protect the resources you all love and share “nicely.”

If you would like to learn more about our trails or trail maintenance, check out our social media pages. Or better yet, come out and volunteer on one of our trail projects.

The monthly “Trail Talk” series is published in partnership with the town’s parks, recreation and trails department and explores trail issues, etiquette and rules for shared trail use in Snowmass Village.


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