Hiking takes its toll on the backcountry | VailDaily.com

Hiking takes its toll on the backcountry

Matt Terrell
Vail, CO Colorado

Shane Macomber/Vail DailyHikers start a walk up Booth Lake Trail in East Vail. It's a popular route that is getting worn out.

EAGLE COUNTY ” Spotting a day-glow orange tent on the shore of Lake Constantine sort of sums up the state of hiking in our wilderness today.

There’s just so many thing wrong with the scene ” the damage to the shoreline, the pollution of the water, the fire built with branches hacked off trees.

For a day hiker who climbed five miles to see a pristine lake, seeing a few tents right on the water can sort of suck the life out of the experience, said Jeff Thompson, a wilderness ranger with the U.S. Forest Service.

“When you set up a camp, you take that space as your own, and you’re sort of taking it away from someone else,” Thompson said. “When you camp, we encourage you to tuck your site away so it’s hard to see,” Thompson said.

But when you really think about it, the fact that hiking trails exist at all is the biggest impact on the environment, says Mike Bartholow, a trail crew leader for the U.S. Forest Service.

Before these trails were created, there was just wilderness without a soul to see it. What could be more disruptive than carving out an eight mile path through uninterrupted forest?

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That’s part of the reason of why the forest service doesn’t keep a “top ten list” of the most beat-up trails in the area. If a hike exists in Eagle County, it’s no doubt being used, no doubt suffering wear and tear, and no doubt affects the ecosystems around it.

Here’s a look at some of the real impacts popular hiking trails are struggling with. As you’ll see, there’s more to it than patching beat-up sections of rock and dirt. Trampled trails shake the wilderness, scare the wildlife, pollute lakes, stink-up campgrounds and destroy our solitude.

A few weeks ago, Michael Arnett counted 20 campsites around Lake Constantine, a popular hiking destination near Notch Mountain. Only five of those campsites were legal, he said. Most of them were too close to the water.

Arnett is a volunteer with the Friends of the Eagle’s Nest Wilderness, a nonprofit group that puts its members onto trails to greet hikers, answer questions, remind people of the rules, find noxious weeds and take campsite inventories.

Arnett says you find illegal campsites at busy places like Lake Constantine because of overcrowding.

“People break the rules when they can’t find a good spot,” Arnett said. “If you go, go in the middle of the week when it’s not as crowded and there are more spaces.”

Lake Constantine shares the same fate as Lake Whitney, Fancy Lake, the Missouri Lakes or any other hike with a picture-postcard lake or stream as a destination.

People like being near the water, and that closeness can end up harming the environment, especially when tents are involved.

When people camp near water, it discourages wildlife from stopping by for a drink, Arnett said.

It harms delicate plants right on the water’s edge. And there’s always the chance that chemicals like soap and shampoo will seep into the water.

And while people usually have the decency not to do their business in the water, even relieving yourself a few feet away can eventually harm the lake. In the East Cross Creek area, a favorite camping spot for those heading up Mount of the Holy Cross, more and more people are not burying their feces, Thompson said.

Booth Falls and Shrine Ridge both suffer from being perhaps the best tourist hikes around.

They both have beautiful, knockout destinations. They’re both quick hikes you can finish before lunch. And while they are by no means easy strolls up a hill, they aren’t grueling death marches, and even those of questionable fitness can make their way up after a few rests and a granola bar.

Booth Falls happens to be the very first trail listed in the Vail Hiker. Shrine Ridge, with 360-degree views of Colorado mountain ranges and a wild-flower lined path, is a top recommendation by many concierges in the area.

So, both trails can see a lot of wear and tear. For instance, when you see a mud puddle in the middle of either of these trails, you’ll likely see two well carved hiker-made paths around them. With traffic so high on these trails, the trampled off-trail paths are hard to grow back.

On the other hand, a highly used trail also gets the most attention from repair crews. Booth Falls has been sort of hardened over the years by good trail work, and it can take the constant use, said Jeff Thompson, lead wilderness ranger.

“We could see 100 people up there in a day,” Thompson said. “If some of our other trails saw that kind of attention, they would be destroyed.”

With the mountain pine beetle likely to kill off much of the White River National Forests, you’ll likely come across more dead and fallen trees blocking trails.

The effect, aside from how unappealing a forest of red and bare trees looks, is similar to what a mud puddle causes hikers to do. They go around.

Allen Smith, another Friends of the Eagle’s Nest Wilderness volunteer, recently saw a case of this at the Gore Creek Trail near East Vail. He knows it’s happened several other places.

“Hikers produced two collateral trails that chomp on the vegetation and take years to grow back,” he said.

And with the beetle problem becoming more intense, more trees are going to be falling over in the near future. Bartholow says the forest service depends on tips so they know where to go and remove dead trees from the hundreds of miles of trails they cover in the White River National Forest.

Impatience can destroy a trail during mud season.

Trails like the North Trail and Whiskey Creek are typically closed through the middle of June and even July because of muddy conditions and to give elk a little space while they raise their young and migrate.

Still, the forest service hears reports of people pushing through those delicate trails with boots and bikes every year.

“Mountain bikes are the main culprits, and you’ll see those folks going through a wet area, and you’ll end up with a trench on the path that will get deeper and deeper,” Bartholow said. “Footprints in the mud can cause deep holes where water can pool.”

Thus starts a long chain reaction that can damage the forest. Water channels down those trenches instead of moving off the trail. Water pools, erodes the path and creates gullies. The damage can be difficult and expensive to repair. The water can also wash sediment into streams and rivers.

Even during the warm summer months when the trails aren’t so muddy, erosion is one of those problems that shows itself over time. Years and years of rain water channeling down dirt paths can eventually do damage.

As for the elk, well, they need room to nurse and raise calves, and humans have a natural way of ruining that, Bartholow said.

“When they see you, they’re going to move and spend a lot of energy avoiding you,” Bartholow said. “Especially with the calves, you don’t want them to be stressed and spending energy avoiding people. They need to spend the energy getting stronger.”

For many people, hiking is a peaceful act only meant to be done alone or with a couple friends. But if you want to climb Mount of the Holy Cross, the county’s only 14er, you’ll be doing it with others. You’ll likely be camping real cozy-like with them at East Cross Creek.

It just so happens that many of the most popular hikes are really some of the best hikes, and those seeking the solitude of wilderness have to deal with a wilderness that’s no longer that quiet.

At Lake Whitney, you might have to deal with a day-glow orange tent ruining your view. On trails you can access within town limits, like Booth Falls, you’ll deal with locals walking their dogs, often without leashes. And even for the friendliest person, do you really want to say “hi” to 30 people on a hike?

It’s becoming increasingly harder to be alone while hiking, but it’s still possible.

“If somebody wants to be by themselves, we still have those places on the forest,” Thompson said.

If visitors ask the forest service for a great hike to go on, they’ll probably direct them to one of the popular hikes like Booth Falls or Gore Creek. They want to protect the areas that aren’t used as often.

“That’s part of the experience, looking at the map where there may or may not be a trail or trail head and saying, ‘That’s where I want to go,'” Thompson said.

Staff writer Matt Terrell can be reached at 748-2955 or mterrell@vaildaily.com.