Go and Do: ‘Hike dirt, not mud’ springtime hiking do’s and don’ts | PostIndependent.com

Go and Do: ‘Hike dirt, not mud’ springtime hiking do’s and don’ts

A pair of hikers and a dog make their way back to the parking lot at the Red Hill trailhead near Carbondale.
Chelsea Self/Post Independent

Mud season. It’s not pretty. In fact, it’s just plain, well, muddy. But for those of us itching to get outside and enjoy some spring hiking, it can be hard to say no after the long winter months.

The sun is shining, birds are chirping, and trails are calling. However, in the shadows of canyons or on north-facing slopes lurks melting snow and mud.

During those first few weeks of spring, area trails are in their most fragile state because of moisture conditions and is often when most trail damage occurs each year.

Knowing the condition and geographic location of a trail before even heading out is the first bit of advice given by National Forest Service Recreation Manager Todd Parker, who works out of the Rifle district office.

Trails on north-facing slopes, along creeks and drainages or under tree cover are bound to be muddy this time of year. Damage done to trails early in the season will persist for the remainder of the year or longer.

“I urge the public to pick a trail wisely and avoid damaging trails if possible,” Parker said. “When you are on muddy trails, the best thing to do is hike down the middle. You’re going to get your shoes wet or muddy, but that prevents widening of the trail.”

A once muddy portion of the Red Hill trail system now dry sits rough and damaged.
Chelsea Self/Post Independent

Damaged trails have to later be fixed by trail crews that are in short supply and generally made up of volunteer groups such as Roaring Fork Outdoor Volunteers or Wilderness Workshop.

“They help us maintain trails because our resources are often limited. … I currently have two on staff that I count on every year to work in the summer and maintain the Rifle district trails,” Parker said. “I think everyone is antsy to get out there after a long winter, but a little patience goes a long way for keeping the trails in better condition.”

Red Hill

Chris Brandt is the president of the Red Hill Council, a nonprofit created to preserve and maintain the scenic Red Hill trails and Mushroom Rock in Carbondale — a popular hiking destination year-round but especially in the spring. The trail averages around 65,000 visits per year, according to the council.

“Red Hill is one of the first places that dries out in the spring when people are getting desperate and tired of winter,” Brandt said. “It’s very much loved by the community, and in some ways it’s maybe loved a little bit too much during certain times of the year.”

The Red Hill Council has been actively working to educate the community and visitors to the recreation area about hiking in the spring and what people can expect on the trails.

Muddy boot prints sit in a portion of the Blue Ribbon Trail of the Red Hill trail system.
Chris Brandt/Red Hill Council

Signs have been posted at the kiosk at the trailhead with information and quick hit tips such as “hike dirt, not mud.” Hikers who choose to proceed on muddy trails are asked to walk through the mud rather than around it to avoid widening the trail.

“Basically you’re walking on wet concrete, and once it dries it persists for the rest of the year,” Brandt said. “When we get up there and work on it we have to bust open that crust with tools and that ends up exposing a fluffy, highly erodible moon dust type of material that also disappears quickly.”

Though leaving rutted boot prints is less than ideal, the impact is less detrimental to the area than trail widening.

When users continuously widen a trail, it damages highly sensitive cryptobiotic soil, a type of soil made up of microorganisms that help stabilize the dirt from wind and erosion. This type of soil is found in high desert terrain but is quickly disappearing due to damage done by people, dogs and grazing livestock, Brandt said.

A trail runner heads downhill to the Red Hill trailhead for a morning run near Carbondale.
Chelsea Self/Post Independent

Echoing what Parker said about volunteer work, the damage done along the Red Hill trails leads to the need for additional volunteer hours to fix impacts and maintain the structure of the trail.

Springtime hiking doesn’t have to be automatically ruled out but should be done wisely. Muddy or wet trails can often be avoided by hiking earlier or later in the day when the ground is frozen or hard. Pick trails that are south facing and are more rocky or sandy in nature. Walk the Rio Grande Trail or around Garfield County’s many historic downtowns.

Or do what Parker does this time of year.

“I do what a lot of Coloradans do in the spring and that’s go hike in Utah,” he said.

Visual Journalist Chelsea Self can be reached at 970-384-9108 or cself@postindependent.com.

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