QUEENSBURY, N.Y. (NEWS10) – April showers aside, the time is here for early-season hikers to get busy exploring trails in the Adirondacks. Like every year, hiking in the spring invites muddy feet. The verdict: Trudge right through that mud, rather than going around, for the good of the trail.
This month, the Department of Environmental Conservation put out an advisory for hikers to keep an eye out for muddy trails as they take to the mountains this spring. Mud is one large contributor to trail erosion – and what hikers do while enjoying the trails can inadvertently tear things up further.
“The more people hike on these trails, the more muddy conditions get created. That’s the big message for us,” said Adirondack Mountain Club (ADK) Trails Manager Charlotte Staats. “Erosion, like we’re concerned with, is always happening, year-round and all the time, and in the spring it’s really the biggest time.”
ADK works with the DEC to maintain trails across the Adirondack Park, and assists in solutions for those that have been significantly damaged. In the spring, rainfall compounds with melted snow, mudding trails for early-season hikers.
When you see a muddy patch on a trail, your first instinct might be to go around, treading off the trail to do so. While hiking through mud can leave footprint indentations in drying soil and track moisture across more of the trail, it’s still the superior course of action. Treading off the trail can damage plants, further break up terrain, and even get you lost.
“You should be hiking through the mud, but not everybody likes to, and that spreads impact throughout the corridor. That can create unofficial trails – ‘social paths – which can remove people from the marked trail and jeopardize their way to safely make it back,” Staats explained.
In the spring, ADK and the DEC ask hikers to stick to lower-elevation trails, below 2,500 feet. Washouts and muddy conditions can become more extreme, dangerous, and harder to reverse the higher one goes. Vegetation at higher elevations can be more sensitive to human impact, and soil erodes more easily, giving way to exposed bedrock unsafe for walking.
Breaking down what’s breaking down
Mud is just the start. Trail erosion is a complicated problem, tracing back to the origins of most Adirondack trails.
Trails in the Adirondacks typically come from one of two points of origin. Some were first built as logging roads in the 19th and 20th centuries, before regulations like the state ‘Forever Wild” clause would limit the logging industry’s viability in the park. Those trails were designed to move timber, not people, and often run along streams and rivers. Those water bodies can add to the erosion problem, with rain and washouts wiping out sections entirely when levels rise.
Other trails were created by early Adirondack recreators, who were interested in blazing the most direct path to the top possible. Not only are the resulting trails steep – in some cases, they become the most severe examples of erosion in the Adirondacks.
Staats points to the example of Cascade Mountain, an Adirondack High Peak near Mt. Van Hoevenburg and the Keene Vallery area. The Cascade Mountain trail runs straight up the mountain’s fall line, with a rapid elevation gain. As hikers scale it, they knock bits of soil loose. When water flows – especially in the spring – it takes that loosened soil along with it down the trail.
“What you’ll see on eroded trails like that are exposed roots and rocks,” Staats said. “You might even find your feet are below where the surrounding forest floor is.”
The DEC is currently working on an entirely new trail up Cascade Mountain, starting from the Mt. Van Hoevenberg Olympic Sports Complex. Once completed using sustainable design practices, the new trail will become the sole way up the mountain, and its predecessor permanently closed.
A new trail isn’t always the solution. Mountains are evaluated case-by-case. In some cases, rock staircases and turnpiking are installed, to better hold soil in place and quickly shed water as it passes through. Hikers should use those staircases if they come across them. For those looking to get out before it gets dry and warmer, Staats recommends low-elevation hikes like the Ranger Trail on Poke-O-Moonshine Mountain.