Hiking & Trails

People keep using muddy Foothills trails, leaving them in ‘the worst shape in years’

Winter trail etiquette in Boise Foothills

Here are some tips to protect the trails during the wet winter months.
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Here are some tips to protect the trails during the wet winter months.

If you’re taking advantage of the Treasure Valley’s recent spate of warm winter weather by hiking, please be mindful of the mud, Ridge to Rivers program manager David Gordon asks.

Definitely don’t walk through it. And don’t walk around it either, he said.

Both actions are causing potentially irreparable damage to the 190-plus-mile Boise trail system.

“The trails look worse than they have in years,” Gordon told the Statesman in a phone interview. “Some people are saying (they look) worse than ever.”

Instead, he’s urging trail users to turn back when trails look questionable. And he wants to help people understand why.

“There’s a lot of people that may not understand why they shouldn’t use muddy trails,” Gordon said.

According to Gordon, the warm weather has meant trails that usually freeze solid in the winter have instead been freezing overnight, then thawing mid-morning. Hikers and mountain bikers going through the resulting mud are churning up the ground, and those circumventing the mess are inadvertently widening the paths, Gordon said. Wider trails are more conducive to erosion — bad news in an area where soil is already erosive.

“A lot of (the damage) you can’t really fix, maintenance-wise,” Gordon said.

He said he suspects the trails are seeing more use in part due to the mild weather that’s creating the mud. He also thinks Boise newcomers could be contributing.

And then there are those who simply don’t care.

“There are people who are doing the right thing (and avoiding muddy trails), and others who aren’t seeing the big picture,” Gordon said.

In recent weeks, Ridge to Rivers has gone so far as to close certain trails, including Table Rock and Old Pen, two highly trafficked routes. Gordon reopened Table Rock Trail on Thursday morning but warned there are still some problem spots he hopes hikers and bikers will avoid.

In general, he said, trails whose soil has higher clay content should be avoided. Sandier trails make a good alternative as they drain moisture better.

“The trails in Hillside to Hollow Reserve look awful,” Gordon said.

Polecat Loop off Cartwright Road is another problem area, as is Ridge Crest in the Military Reserve. Gordon advised against trekking the north side of similar big loops. While the south half of those trails is often in shadow and remains frozen later in the day, sides that see sunshine can quickly turn to muck.

“Don’t get caught in the mindset of, ‘It’s a loop, I have to do the loop,’ ” Gordon said.

Ridge to Rivers has several all-season alternatives for those who just have to get out on the trails. Gordon suggested Harrison Hollow and Lower Hulls Gulch trails, as well as 8th Street above the Foothills Learning Center.

Compounding the issue is the fact that there are only three full-time Ridge to Rivers employees, and their duties involve more than just policing the trails. In addition, the volunteers that help enforce trail rules disband in the winter. Signs at each trailhead urge users to avoid the mud, but Gordon hopes responsible Boiseans will help the cause, too.

He suggests approaching rule-breakers with the goal of informing them rather than chastising. Remind them that Ridge to Rivers requires people to stay off muddy trails, Gordon said, and point them to the organization’s website or Facebook page, where it posts daily trail condition reports.

“I’m firmly convinced it takes an entire community to take care of a trail system like the one we have here,” Gordon said.

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Nicole Blanchard is the Idaho Statesman’s outdoors reporter. She grew up in Idaho, graduated from Idaho State University and Northwestern University and frequents the trails around Boise as much as she can.