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Let’s Talk Dirt on Trails

Trail crew volunteers on the Robert Frost Trail

Getting out on a trail for a hike or walk is a simple pleasure, providing a way to reconnect with nature. Yet, planning and maintaining trails that give you the experience you want can be surprisingly complicated. So, what does it take to care for the trails you love? Here’s the dirt.

The Truth About Tread
Trail “tread” is simply the surface you walk on. The shape and location of that tread when first constructed is critical to the trail’s long-term sustainability. Trails that cut diagonally across hills with the tread pitched slightly downhill allow water to sheet off without eroding the tread. And, tread width must balance the needs of the users with the impact on surrounding vegetation. Over time, tread can break down and become rutted, rocky, or full of exposed roots. Crushed stone might be added to make a less hazardous surface. Falling branches and downed trees are a natural part of the forest cycle, but as climate change intensifies storms, more trees need to be cleared to make the trail passable.

Treading Water
We’ve all seen locations where people have stepped out around a wet spot. This expands the width of the trail unnecessarily, tramples plants and erodes healthy soil. Chronic wet areas can be dealt with in several ways, including rerouting the trail, digging shallow drainage channels, placing step stones, building “bog bridging” of planks attached to wooden blocks, or installing short-span footbridges. Creating infrastructure to cross wet areas is actually a last resort that can be avoided with careful trail design.

Slippery Slopes
Hiking uphill is part of the adventure, and good trails are designed both to make the climb safe and minimize impact on the land. When creating trails on steep slopes, the aim is to limit the incline to an average of 10% depending on soil and topographic conditions. Instead of going straight up a steep slope, trails are often designed with “switchbacks”—a zig-zag pattern that changes elevation more slowly. Grades can be decreased by widening climbing turns, and strategically placed “grade dips” can prevent washouts. In some places, large flat rocks or thick wood planks can be used to create natural stairs.

All of these techniques not only improve your trail experience, but also help protect the land. Trail work often requires review by permitting agencies like conservation commissions and the Massachusetts Natural Heritage program to ensure that rules protecting our ecosystems are being followed.

Iconic Trails Need the Most Love
Well-known, heavily used long-distance trails like the Robert Frost Trail (RFT) and the New England National Scenic Trail (NET), which overlap along the Mt. Holyoke Range, are especially in need of upkeep. With support from a 2022 Mass Trails Grant, Kestrel is partnering with Appalachian Mountain Club and Massachusetts Department of Conservation & Recreation to improve the RFT and NET. Many dedicated volunteers are also helping our staff to get this important work done.

Improvements planned for this year include:

  • rerouting a wet area of the newly designated RFT on the Low Place Trail to address significant water and erosion issues,
  • improving several water crossings on the RFT north of Mt. Norwottuck, and
  • improving the trail tread on the NET ascent of Mt. Norwottuck from the Notch Visitors Center.

Next time you’re hiking, look for examples of the care that creates the trails you love.

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