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Photo by Karen Wang.

How Trails Become Lost & Found

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.

What is a ‘lost trail’?

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:

  • Trails with major problem spots: These trails have problem areas—like downed trees, failing bridges and impassable creek crossings, failing boardwalks—that can discourage hikers from visiting them. These are trails that are listed as maintained, but are in a condition that limits access and detracts from the hiking experience. Hikers may still visit these trails, but inexperienced hikers, hikers with children or those with mobility concerns may avoid them. 
  • Trails at risk of total loss: These trails might be listed as maintained, but they have become so severely damaged and costly to fix that land managers are considering no longer maintaining them. Hundreds of downed trees, failed bridges, large sections of failed tread, thick brush that is nearly impossible to push through, or other conditions that require route-finding are all reasons that land managers with limited resources might believe removing the trail from their inventory is the best solution.
  • Unmaintained: These trails are official, designated trails that are now listed as unmaintained. Land managers haven't had the funds to maintain them for so long they they're at risk of disappearing altogether.
  • Inaccessible: Some lost trails are just completely inaccessible because of the road conditions leading to the trailhead and a lack of alternate, non-motorized access points.

Have you found yourself hiking on a lost trail? Read our guide on how to pick the right path.

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The trailhead at Staircase Rapids was wiped out by a flooding event in November 2017. Photo by NWSHIRE.

How does a trail become lost?

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.

1

FUNDING CUTS

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. 

2

ENVIRONMENTAL IMPACT

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.

3

HUMAN INFLUENCE

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. 

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The Angry Mountain Trail in the Goat Rocks Wilderness has suffered from years of blowdowns, to the point of becoming impassable. Thanks to the help of WTA donors and volunteers, crews have been able to start tackling sections of the trail. Photo by WTA Staff.

How does a lost trail get restored?

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.

How we can help

While WTA has always worked to protect trails, trail funding and hiker experiences, Washington is at a critical moment.

The dramatic decline in funds for public lands—coming at the very moment when trail recreation in Washington is climbing—is at the root of the problem. In 2012, the Mt. Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest had a $400,000 budget for their 2,500 miles of trail, which remained stagnant in 2015 in spite of increased recreation demand. The forest also faces a $43 million trail maintenance backlog.

Land managers across Washington (and the country) have been forced to triage their resources for the most essential operational costs, instead of being able 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.

Have you stumbled upon a lost trail?

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.