Washington Trails Association
Trails for everyone, forever
Wondering what qualifies as a lost trail, what factors led to the loss of your favorite trail, or what can be done to stop trail loss?
Have trail conditions ever turned you around or made you think twice about forging ahead?
Trails are disappearing, due in large part to steep declines in trail and recreation budgets for our public lands.
Lost trails are places that haven’t been getting the care they need in order to make them accessible to the growing number of hikers. We’re defining a “lost trail” in four different ways:
Have you found yourself hiking on a lost trail? Read our guide on how to pick the right path.
So, what causes a trail to disappear? In general, the loss of a trail can be traced back to one of three leading causes, including lack of funding, environmental impact, and human influence.
Without question, lack of trail funding is the key factor leading to trail loss across the state and the country. Historic underfunding of public lands has led to a maintenance backlog of over $18.6 billion, causing forests and parks to make tough decisions on which trails can and cannot be maintained with the available budget.
Trail funding is crucial for the forest service and park service to afford the annual upkeep trails require. The cost to replace failing bridges, add in colverts and brush overgrowth all add up quickly when you have more than 200,000 miles of trails to maintain. Without full time trail crews and the necessary tools, drainage cannot be made, blowdowns cannot be cleared, and structures cannot be replaced.
Without adequate funding, maintenance of forest service roads also gets pushed to the back burner. Neglected roads accumulate massive amounts of potholes, washouts and fallen trees, creating insurmountable barriers for hikers.
The negative effects of funding cuts are further compounded by the constant stress of environmental impacts that trails face. Every year, natural disasters like wildfires, flooding, and avalanches put a major dent into our public lands ever shrinking budget.
Wildfire management is a major drain of forest service funding. Not only do fires require massive amounts of funding and resources to contain, they also cause increased, long-term maintenance needs for years to come. Wildfires rip through our forests, charring campgrounds, destroying wooden trail structures, hollowing out trees and putting a halt to any pre-scheduled work. Trails can become closed for months or years for fire-related safety issues.
Winter storms bring with them the chance of flooding along Washington's hundreds of rivers. Surging floodwaters can cause bridges to wash away, roads to be eroded, and fords to become impassable. Without safe river crossings, hikers and trail workers may completely lose access to a trail. High rainfall also leads to washouts, mudslides and switchback erosion on trail, which can create additional hurdles for hikers or cause entire sections of trail to fall out from under your feet. Without adequate funding, bridge replacements, road repairs and trail reroutes may take years to come to fruition, if at all.
After the winter downpours and before the summer fires, spring avalanches add another wave of massive blowdowns across the mountains. Entire sections of trail can be wiped out in one fail swoop, sometimes generating blowdowns hundreds of feet across. Avalanche damage can create an impenetrable wall, log piles so thick hikers are unable to climb over or go around. The only way to clear these areas is by devoting days or weeks worth of sawyer crews for a massive log out.
Human impacts can also lead to trail deterioration. Spur trails, boot paths, and switchback cutting are a leading cause of trail erosion. Illegal fires or unsafe activity in dry weather, can lead to destructive and widespread forest fires. Extra funds diverted towards rehabilitating improperly used trails can take away maintenance from the trails that need it the most.
All trails are different. How a trail gets restored really depends on what it needs — from sending volunteers to saw through fallen trees to the creation of safer water crossings, or the complete re-routing of a trail to move it to a more sustainable surface. Despite the varying needs, the backbone of all trail restoration projects can be traced back to trail funding.
While WTA has always worked to protect trails, trail funding and hiker experiences, Washington is at a critical moment.
Land managers across Washington (and the country) have been stretching resources for the most essential operational costs, with minimal leftover to address long-delayed maintenance or plan for the needs of the growing hiker community.
It is time to mobilize hikers to advocate for recreation and trail funding at the state and federal levels. We must see funding restored at a level that land managers need in order to care for the public lands that we all share.
If you find yourself hiking along a trail you believe is lost, the best thing you can do is flag the problem in your trip report. Along with the the thousands of hikers who read and benefit from your trip reports — land managers and WTA staff read them too, scanning for issues that require attention.