Why Do We Fix Popular Trails?
Popular trails can need as much — or more — maintenance than less-well-known routes. Find out why.
With the Snow and Annette Lake trails closed for maintenance this year, you may be wondering: what’s the point of fixing popular trails that you (and other hikers) have hiked countless times? It's not uncommon to see a trail that needs a lot of repair and wonder why that one isn't getting attention instead of a more popular one.
Washington has thousands of miles of trails and they all need annual maintenance. But how that maintenance gets implemented depends on dozens of factors, including how difficult the work will be, how unsafe the trail is in the meantime, who is available to do the work, and the number of people visiting those trails.
Weighing those factors is key to the decision about what project get addressed. For example, in a ranger district dealing with decreased funding (and therefore less capacity to deal with the required maintenance in a given year), a trail with erosion concerns could be put on the back burner if it doesn't get much foot traffic.
But if it's a popular trail, the number of hikers passing through will quickly exacerbate the erosion and damage the surrounding greenery, so it's important to fix that trail quickly.
WTA adds capacity, of course. Each year, we work with land managers to determine where we'll send our work crews. This includes popular trails as well as those way in the backcountry.
We try to ensure our trail crews have the most impact wherever they work. In some cases, volunteer crews like WTA are the only trail maintenance staff a district has. Whether that is the case or not, we comple maintenance to the land managers' specifications while supporting our own campaign work.
In 2021, 76% of our trail work fell under our Trails Rebooted campaign, which focuses on keeping popular trails well-maintained as well as making hikers aware of other trails they might like beyond the best-known ones.
An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure
Keeping trails in good shape is an ongoing process. Trails can fall apart pretty quickly if you don’t keep up with their annual maintenance needs. Projects like bridge building or new trail construction may be perceived as more impactful — but they're expensive. It's much more cost-effective to keep up with annual maintenance like brushing and drainage clearing whenever possible.
Of course, since each trail requires a healthy dose of annual maintenance and land managers (especially federal agencies like the Forest Service) are strapped for funding, not every trail gets that ounce of prevention every year. That's when you end up with a deferred maintenance backlog. Currently, there is about $6 billion of backlogged maintenance on trails across America. That's billion with a B.
WTA volunteer trail crews help address some of that deferred maintenance. But there are some projects that volunteers can't do, like using dynamite to blast away rocks or heavy machinery to widen the trail tread.
Thanks to the passage of the Great American Outdoors Act, new funding has been unlocked to address some of those larger deferred projects, which is what's going on at Snow and Annette Lake this summer.
Projects like this may seem like they make a trail less rugged, but what they're really doing is reducing the impact of the thousands of people who hike these trails each year. This specialized work requires certified workers, and for safety reasons, requires trail closures to complete. The end result of this work won't necessarily make the trail easier — but it will make the surface you walk on more sustainable and less prone to erosion.
If a trail is fixed in the forest, does anyone notice?
The thing about good, long-lasting trail work is it's invisible. Once the work is done, you may not even notice it. Hikers often walk right over major trail projects without noticing what's been done. It's like fixing the foundation of your house. It's an expensive project that requires outside experts and more time than you might want to dedicate to it, but if you do it right, your house won't fall down.
Similarly with trails; you notice trail work only when a bridge is broken or a trail is flooded, and it's clear that these trails do need some help. One trip reporter said this of the Lake Annette trail this year:
There is a log bridge about a mile in that has some of the railing falling off, and there are quite a few loose stones around. One spot about half a mile from the lake has a blowdown that landed exactly on the trail, not across it. A makeshift path has been made around to the left of it to make it passable, but it is definitely an obstacle.
Of course, when a trail is clear and in good shape, most people don't give a second thought to the work that went into making it that way. One WTA crew spent five days building a 12-foot rock wall to support a failing section of trail, and on the last day of our work watched hikers walk right over it, oblivious to the structure keeping the dirt under their feet. And that's okay! The point of good trail work is to facilitate a safe and fun walk through the woods. Being in nature is good for you, and WTA and land managers want hikers to have a great day when they step on trail.
A gateway to adventure
Popular trails like Snow and Annette Lake are gateway trails — routes where people learn to love hiking and begin their journey of becoming champions for trails. They're popular because they lead to gorgeous places. It's important to ensure that these trails can support the number of people who are hiking them each year. Trails create a path of concentrated impact in a wilderness. A few months of work to improve a trail can result in reduced overall environmental impact to the area at large.
There's no denying that a trail closure can be disappointing, especially when it's a trail you were excited to hike. But luckily, there are plenty of alternate locations to be found. We offer nearby hiking suggestions, or you can browse our Hiking Guide, and when it reopens the trail will be better than ever.