Foothills trails: Use them, don’t abuse them

Foothills trails get damaged when they’re wet

rphillips@idahostatesman.comFebruary 20, 2014 

  • TOP 5 FOOTHILLS TRAILS TO AVOID WHEN IT'S WET

    Part of the challenge of choosing Foothills trails is that conditions can vary, and they’re often inconsistent throughout the system. So while one trail may be dry and usable, another may be wet and muddy.

    David Gordon, trail manager for Ridge to Rivers, listed these trails as the top 5 to avoid because of soil type, aspect and likelihood of damage if used.

    They’re also popular trails, so as warmer weather returns, it’s time to find some different trails:

    1. Table Rock Trail (No. 15).

    2. Old Pen Trail (No. 15A) This connects with Table Rock Trail. Avoid them both.

    3. Cottonwood Creek Trail (No. 27) This trail leaves from Military Reserve.

    4. Ridgecrest/Bucktail (Nos. 20/20A) These also are in the Military Reserve area. An alternate is an out-and-back on Toll Road Trail (No. 27A) which is about a mile and a half round trip.

    5. Polecat Loop (No. 81). Much of this trail system is north-facing and slow to dry. There’s also a lot of clay in the soil, so it’s a muddy mess when wet. Trails off Seaman’s Gulch or the Eagle Bike Park usually dry out faster, but not always, so beware.

Hikers, runners and other visitors are abusing Foothills trails, causing long-term damage to the popular system, according to Ridge to Rivers officials.

Trail damage can occur year-round, but it’s most problematic when trails are wet, and it gets worse after the first hints of spring, when people want to enjoy warm, sunny days.

“Unfortunately, this is the same problem we see every year,” Ridge to Rivers trail manager David Gordon said. “Trails are being widened as users walk to the sides to avoid the mud, and deeply rutted when they continue through softening soils.”

Ridge to Rivers provides daily trail condition reports at ridgetorivers.org and on its Facebook page.

“People can get a good idea of what they can and can’t do based on that report,” Gordon said.

Too many people continue to use trails despite signs, chains across trailheads, and public outreach about trail conditions.

“It’s very evident from the tracks in the mud that most of the irresponsible use is from hikers, runners and their dogs. However, bike riders, too, can do their share of damage this time of year,” he said.

Freezing nights and cold mornings before the temperature gets above 30 degrees is typically safe, but direct sunlight can make trails muddy even when temperatures remain below freezing.

A few sunny, warm days won’t necessarily dry out trails. It may dry out a few, but that’s where things get tricky.

Trail conditions vary throughout the Foothills on a daily, often hourly, basis.

MORE DAMAGE, LESS TRAIL WORK

Ridge to Rivers manages about 150 miles of Foothills trails with its three-person staff (and one part-time person) during winter, and a crew of 5 1/2 positions from April though October.

Trails range from within the city limits of Boise up to the Bogus Basin, and from East to Northwest Boise.

Crews try to maintain the whole Foothills network, but when sections of trails get damaged, they have to spend an inordinate amount of time working on them, and other trails may not get maintained.

“We’re spending a significant amount of time on these trails that are suffering from abuse,” Gordon said.

“Folks need to realize that their taxpayer dollars are being spent unnecessarily in attempts to reverse the damage from irresponsible trail users, and that some of this damage just can’t be fixed,” Gordon added.

Most trails are single-track, or about wide enough for people to hike single file.

Trails contain drain dips that are designed to shed water from the trail tread. Drain dips get flattened and become ineffective when hikers and riders use the trail under muddy conditions.

“They’re not working anymore when we need them the most,” Gordon said.

Water then stays in the trail tread, gathering speed and eroding as dirt is carried down the trail.

Eventually, trail tread becomes U-shaped, and it’s harder to channel the water off the trail.

In severe cases, deep gullies are cut into the trail tread.

Once the soil is lost, it is difficult and very expensive to restore the trail back to a flat tread.

Trails on flat ground are less susceptible to that type of erosion, but they can still be damaged.

Water settles into low spots that remain muddy when the rest of the trail starts to dry.

When people walk around a wet spot, it widens the trail and kills the trail-side vegetation. The tread widens until it is no longer single-track, and the muddy area gets worse as the size of the depression grows.

WRONG, BUT NOT AGAINST THE LAW

Closing trails is not an option, Gordon said, because the trails cross different properties, including city, county, state, federal and private.

There’s no law against walking on wet trails, Gordon said, so people can’t be cited, but he hopes peer pressure will discourage people from using them.

“It’s a community-wide problem, and maybe it’s a community-wide effort to get people to do the right thing,” he said.

That raises a Catch-22: Responsible users won’t be on the trails when they’re wet to stop or discourage those who are.

But Gordon said, for example, if you’re coming off a trail in the morning when it’s starting to soften up and someone else is just starting, you can share that trails conditions are getting worse and suggest a different area if you know one.

NEARLY ALL-WEATHER OPTION

Gordon said no trail is usable year-round under all weather conditions, but one well-suited for traffic in most conditions gives you a scenic 2.5-mile loop.

Start at Camel’s Back Park and take Red Fox Trail (No. 36) to Foothills Learning Center, and circle around the building and go back on Owl’s Roost (No. 37) to Gold Finch (No. 35) and Hulls Pond (34) back to Camel’s Back.

MORE ALTERNATIVES

When trails are wet, Gordon recommends people check out their neighborhood parks, many of which have all-weather walking paths, or large grassy areas where people can walk or jog.

The Greenbelt is an obvious choice, with more variety than many people realize, from urban paths downtown to the suburbs in East Boise to forests in Northwest Boise, Garden City and Eagle.

Runners and cyclists can hit roads in the Foothills, including 8th Street. (It’s gated and locked 3 miles up until May 1, but you can still ride a bike or jog.)

Cartwright and Dry Creek Road north of Boise offer popular loops for cyclists with fairly light traffic, and there are numerous loops available on rural roads south of Interstate 84.

The Eagle area west of Idaho 55 also has lots of lightly traveled rural roads that cyclists use for training when trails are wet.

Eagle Island State Park features a 5.5-mile trail network that is usable year-round. The terrain is flat and the trails are wide, which makes this a good place for jogging or a casual stroll. Dogs are allowed on leash only.

The park is about 3 miles west of Eagle at 4000 W. Hatchery Road, which is located off Linder Road between Idaho 44 (State Street) and Chinden Boulevard.

DOGS

If you want to exercise your dog, dog parks are located at Military Reserve, Morris Hill, Pine Grove and Sterling.

Off-leash areas within other parks are at Ann Morrison, Castle Hills, Cypress, Manitou, Redwood, Sunset and Winstead parks.

For a map and other details, click here.

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