How to Create a Trail

Volunteer Coordinator Jennifer Sublett and Steve Newhall work on trail

It begins with a simple question: wouldn’t it be great if you could get from point “a” to point “b” more easily on foot and safely on horseback or mountain bike? This is the start of a modern-day trail creation saga.

Unlike a number of more recently built trails around Santa Fe, this one is an “a-to-b” trail with the notion that you want to get someplace, not just have some mileage for a nice walk. The city/county La Tierra and Dale Ball Trails are a bit more of the latter: lots of loops which maximize the trail miles in the acreage you have available. No, this new trail needs to start HERE where there is room to park a truck or horse trailer, and get up THERE where folks could hook in to a variety of other trails.

First consideration: this will be a trail on Santa Fe National Forest. So the proposed trail must go through a daunting series of tests to gain acceptance. Is there backing from the prospective user group? Are there areas of archeological/historic importance which must not be disturbed? Are there sensitive species birds or animals which hibernate or nest in the proposed trail area? Are the practical logistics of building this hillside trail something which can be tackled with current budgets and manpower?

After the first year of surveying, a proposed trail route is approved. A twenty-foot wide corridor has been given the go-ahead. But this is New Mexico, a landscape which has been long inhabited and there are plenty of archeological and historic features which mustn’t be harmed. So the route is not ideal and trail building will be more difficult.

A “before” section of the trail

Stage right: enter the volunteers. Jennifer A. Sublett is Volunteer Coordinator for Santa Fe National Forest and has helped transform how work gets done on forest lands in the immediate area. Because of budget cutting and fire fighting, there is little money for recreational concerns. No regular employee crews build or maintain trails (although special grants periodically help), and for some years less trail maintenance had been performed. Jennifer, who’s been on the job here for about three years, has been a dynamo for bringing together different groups in order to build, formally “adopt” or otherwise take care of the trails we love. This has involved a lot of volunteer training, because a really good trail is somewhat more complicated than you might think.

Trail engineering diagram from the International Mountain Bicycle Assn. (Click for larger display)

Building up the trail bed

Back to this trail. About a mile has been completed, rolling over relatively flat terrain, dipping into a couple of arroyos to reach the slope where it is theoretically feasible to crest the mesa through a break in the caprock and route approval has been given. Much of it lies along a 40-degree slope so switchbacks are mandatory, but they must be constructed here to withstand the weight of livestock without eroding.

Re-enter the volunteers: I was fortunate this week to participate with a small volunteer crew of seasoned trail builders, serious and well versed in trail engineering, but very jolly folks nonetheless. We were a good mix of gray hairs and muscle. In about four hours of diligent work (okay, there was a little shovel leaning, too), we were able to nearly complete 80 feet of trail with two nasty switchbacks. The switchbacks involved constructing retaining walls of heavy basalt, then building up a trail bed first with rock and then canvas buckets of dirt from the adjacent arroyo. The surface dirt is shaped and graded so that water will sheet off and not run down the trail to create a gully. Turns which bank inward as one might imagine for pavement or speed tracks are a no-no here because of erosion concerns.

One nearly-complete switchback

There remains about one hundred vertical feet to traverse (which I suspect will be covered in about five hundred feet of trail). Jennifer and volunteers are hoping for a spring “opening” of this trail but would love to have more help. Do you need prior experience? No, every outing includes trained volunteer crew leaders who will help keep up standards. But for this project you should be fit and strong enough to carry dirt or use a shovel for at least a while. Throughout the forest this season there has been good volunteer participation by horseback riders and mountain bikers. Sadly and despite the number of people I see walking on trails, a fewer percentage of folks who identify themselves primarily as hikers seem to turn out for this or other projects on SFNF trails.

Given that we’ve been having mild weather this fall, Jennifer will probably schedule some additional work days. If you can help on this or other trail projects, please do so. I’ll try to post announcements on the Outspire Facebook page as they are planned.

I’m still a little creaky from using some unaccustomed muscles, but I feel good for having spent time with some great folks and doing what I was able in a short day. And I plan on doing it again soon. Anyone who’d like to join is welcome to contact me through the Outspire website

About Outspire

The natural outdoor world is exciting, restorative, and infinitely fascinating. More people should spend time there!
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