Wilderness Trails (Part Two of Part Two)

A wilderness trail cuts through an open area in Dolly Sods

By Dave Johnston

In the first part of this series, we looked at how trails–unquestionably a human structure–can be justified, and even encouraged, in Wilderness areas, which by definition are supposed to be free of human manipulation and evidence of their presence. In the second part we examined how trails can be planned to compatibly fit into the primitive character of Wilderness, or how we have to make the best of existing, less than ideal routes. In this final installment we’ll take a look at how carefully calibrated human intervention can be used to keep trails primitive and natural, with minimal impact of the Wilderness and human safety.

Whatever their type or origin, trails need to be maintained. Plants will grow around, over and through the trail, and trees will fall across it. Water will take advantage of downhill slopes to create channels and eventually erode the trail. Or water may take advantage of poor drainage and the deepening trough of the trail tread to just stand there and create a mudhole. Hikers will try to avoid obstacles or mud and bypass the trail, impacting the environment to the side and creating an ever-widening scar in place of an unobtrusive wilderness path.

The fundamental goals of trail design and maintenance are to keep water off the trail and keep people on the trail. That means that the flow of water should be visualized and controlled so that water will not stand on the trail or flow quickly or in large volume across or along it. Importantly, “hiker psychology” should be anticipated, and an attractive means of passage be provided that encourages hikers to stay on the center of the trail tread and not be tempted to skirt the edge or entirely bypass the trail.

Ideally, trails will be sloped to the downhill side so that any water that arrives on the trail can drain uniformly off without forming channels. In practice the up and down contours of trails need to be used to create periodic drains that channel water off the trail, and the tread hardened or placed with rocks to provide a surface that is both durable and attractive to hikers. On flat contours or wetland crossings drainage may not be possible, so rock stepping stones, a boardwalk or raised causeway may be provided.

Clearly, trees or limbs that have fallen across the trail, which could represent a safety issue for hikers or force them off the trail, need to be removed. Similarly, overgrown vegetation that makes the trail hard to follow, unsafe, or excessively unpleasant should be trimmed away.

However, all of this “engineering” may not be compatible with the idea of inherently primitive trails in designated Wilderness. Wilderness trails need to provide for the safety of users and protection of the resource while still retaining a primitive feel and avoiding evidence of human intervention or manipulation. Applying these principles to Wilderness requires special considerations and application of a “light touch” wherever possible, following the dictum of “minimum requirements.”

The best approach is to design and place trails in the first place so that they can still be primitive, with the characteristics of Class 1 or 2 types, without obvious structures or manipulation of the landscape to allow for drainage and user fidelity to the tread. Such “hidden engineering” is entirely compatible with Wilderness.

Where existing trails must be maintained (and can’t be rerouted) unobtrusive drainage measures can still be used and may be better for the environment than doing nothing. However, their goal may not be to provide a nice, dry footpath, but rather one that offers the hiker a more attractive option among other less than perfect ones. The trail may still be wet or muddy, but natural materials such as steppingstones, logs, or selective fill used to create the “best” route through the area. For wetland crossings, a boardwalk or puncheon system, which allow for continuous sheet flow of water, may be preferable to an elaborate causeway or turnpike, which are more intrusive structures, interfere with natural wetland flow, and usually require “borrowing” materials from somewhere else in the landscape.

A similar light hand can be applied to clearing vegetation. Fallen trees must be cleared to provide for safety and keep hikers on the trail. But logs that can easily be stepped over need not be removed, and not every leaner needs to be eliminated. While more developed trails may have bushes cut away several feet beside the trail, such a “parkway” look can be an obvious sign of human manipulation. A better approach is to thin branches that impinge on the trail at their base, leaving shorter branches to maintain the natural corridor.

So to sum up: though they may be simple footpaths, there is a lot more “under the surface” of trails than you might expect. The type of trail and the manner in which it is created and maintained needs to be consistent with not only its environment, but also the type and expectations of users and the requirements of the natural area they traverse. This is particularly challenging for Wilderness trails, which must provide the access for people envisioned by the Wilderness Act while still providing a primitive experience and minimizing signs of human manipulation. 

The trails of Dolly Sods are notoriously primitive and challenging. This is partly due to their origin as railroad grades and the long-term effects of logging and fires, but it is also in keeping with the intended character of wilderness trails. Some of them could stand to be relocated (and that may happen in the future), and many areas could benefit from better water management and drainage, or from setting up a more attractive way to get through long mud holes. The Dolly Sods Wilderness Stewards Trail Maintenance team expects to be working with the Monongahela National Forest to take on some of the worst areas over the coming years.

But it is also true that Dolly Sod trails will always be rocky, uneven, unblazed and unrefined, with natural obstacles and the need for mindful navigation. Dolly Sods trails will always traverse wetlands and poorly drained slopes, and there will always be a need to contend with mud, and to exercise care to stay safe and to minimize further impact on the resource. But this opportunity for access to a primitive, challenging, even humbling experience is precisely what the framers of the Wilderness Act had in mind! 

JOIN US: You can join the Wilderness Stewards and be part of our Trail Maintenance team. Just go to the Conservancy website (wvhighlands.org) and follow the links for Dolly Sods Wilderness Stewards to read more about what we do and access the online signup form. Once you sign up you will receive more information about upcoming training and work project opportunities.