Trails take a ton of handiwork
EAGLE COUNTY -Envision the Vail Valley without trails – all the forests, wildflowers and waterfalls, but with no way to view them. Local trails don’t always just spring up under the hooves of passing elk herds. While many of the valley’s most popular trails branched off of pre-existing dirt roads and game trails, many were built by hand after a huge amount of planning, purpose and elbow grease, not to mention a great deal of maintenance to keep them rideable for mountain bikers and smooth for foot traffic.Local organizations like ECO Trails and Trail Action Group spend a large chunk of time from spring through fall working with the Bureau of Land Management and the U.S. Forest Service to build new trails in the valley and to keep existing ones in good condition.”When the BLM started, it was just ranch land. Nobody ever thought people would be riding motorcycles or bikes or doing anything else out there,” said John Bailey, who has built about 50 trails throughout the Vail Valley, including several on Vail Mountain. “The process with the BLM is now becoming the same as the Forest Service with all the multi-users.”
Sunday, Bailey will be spearheading a project with ECO trails and BLM on The Boneyard trail in East Eagle. The project will involve building a section of singletrack connecting the loop that was first built last year. And there’s more involved in the process than tools.”We have it GPSed out,” Bailey said. “We usually bring in a botanist to make sure you’re not getting into any kind of wetland or endangered plant life. We don’t have much of an issue here because the area is so dry. You have to appeal to the BLM, Forest Service, or whoever the governing body is. There has to be a reason, whether it’s linking another trail or a loop system linking in like this one does, and defining the user groups – hiking, biking and horses.”The process for building a new trail begins with some imagination on the part of Bailey or whomever is scouting the trail. “You have to walk it first,” he said. “I go out there with a tool that tells you the percentage of grade. The animals do an amazing job – there’s a lot of pre-made trails. They’re not always in the best places, but you can piece it together. The industry standards have changed a little with mountain bikes. The standards were written more for hikers. The switchbacks were tighter and you weren’t thinking about having little pitches for granny gear climbs as opposed to sustained climbs.”While Bailey marks trails with mountain bikes in mind, he doesn’t forget special considerations for other users.
“I’m building with the heart of a mountain biker. But my wife’s a runner,” he said. “The Eagle Valley Runners come out to help us with projects because they enjoy the trails. I also have children that ride, so I can gauge them if a trail is rideable for a family. The majority of trails built around here were built for mountain bikes. But if the bikers can use it, the runners really can. With the horse people, you have to think of parking and low branches that might interfere since they’re higher than we are on mountain bikes.”The offslope of the trail is important to consider for water runoff and so the trail doesn’t erode, and also something called trail creep, which refers to how much the edges of the trail erode to cause narrowing.Once the trail is marked, that’s where the need for volunteers comes into play, as cutting is a strenuous process. But, like most forms of physical exertion, the process is also very fulfilling, trail advocates will tell you.”They’re your trails. Take pride in them,” Bailey said. “It’s such a great valley we live in. The outsiders don’t realize how great the riding is here. From early spring to late fall, Eagle’s got great trails. Preseason to late season in the past, you’d drive to Fruita to ride. Now there’s no need. And once all the other trails are open, you have incredible riding upvalley all summer.”
What it takes to open a trailTrail maintenance, like the building process itself, is not easy work. Trail Action Group, led by local pro mountain biker Dawes Wilson, does what it calls “walk through maintenance” for trails that are reopening for the spring after elk calving and other environmentally related closures. The group recently worked with Specialty Sports to clear the North Trail system in Vail. The walk through was no walk in the park. Five crews of five people worked all day last week and Wilson’s crew alone cleared 10 fallen trees off of the trail.”Some trees can be moved by hand,” Wilson said. “They’re pretty light when they dry out. If they can’t be removed by hand, we use small saws, and if they can’t be sawed with small saws, we have larger saws. Most of our volunteer days are solving more major problems that have taken place on a trail – a major piece of erosion or trail damage. It’s more concentrated, heavy construction. Sometimes, it means the trail needs to be relocated. We’ve done expansive reallocations of trails. Sometimes, to avoid 150 yards of trail, we might have to put in a quarter mile to relocate it.”Wilson said that 90 percent of the local trails weren’t formally constructed. They were originally old road beds or grazing routes. However, those trails have required reconstruction – boardwalks over wetlands and diversions which local trail advocacy groups and volunteers are largely responsible for.”I like the trail work,” Wilson said. “It’s a physical challenge. It’s a design challenge to do it in an intelligent, efficient and sustainable way. People have fun when they work with us. They learn a lot. Riding or hiking on a piece of trail you’ve helped build is a nice feeling.”