National forest stewards in Colorado’s High Country have simple advice for recreationists pining to hike and bike this time of year: just wait.
Spring snowmelt means trails have never been messier as high-elevation areas like Summit County continue to thaw from a deep winter. But while residents and visitors may be eager to swap out their skis for hiking boots as increased temperatures herald the beginning of summer, trail systems are currently in their most fragile state.
“The biggest concern with recreating during mud season is just people getting out before trails are dry,” said Doozie Martin, executive director for the nonprofit Friends of the Dillon Ranger District. “When trails are still wet, in any way, it leaves ruts or footprints that oftentimes aren’t filled until next winter.”
According to Dillon District Ranger Adam Bianchi, the U.S. Forest Service typically sees a heightened amount of work on open space trails during this time of year, colloquially known as mud season. That’s because recreationists tend to skirt off trail to avoid making a mess, which can have damaging long-term consequences for not just the path but the entire surrounding area.
Bianchi said if recreation is going to happen, hikers and bikers should be prepared to get muddy.
“In order to eliminate a lot of the erosion and trail damage, you stick to the middle of the trail,” Bianchi said, adding that veering even slightly off the edge of a trail can create “braiding” that recreationists should seek to avoid.
Bianchi gave the example of a trail that may initially be 3 feet wide. As more and more recreationists traverse off the main trail to avoid splashing themselves with mud, it starts to expand the original trail’s width. This can encroach on adjacent vegetation and even impact the trail’s drainage ability, Bianchi said.
Trails are designed intentionally to avoid these issues, and by altering that design, hikers and bikers risk promoting an unsustainable path, Bianchi said.
“It takes a lot of effort to keep them in a good condition,” Bianchi said, adding that the time Forest Service officials may spend repairing a trail sucks up valuable time and resources from other projects.
Variable conditions are another concern for this time of year with many trails still covered in snow near higher elevations. That, coupled with warming temperatures, can increase the risk of postholing — which is when hikers sink into snow past their knees to the point where it becomes difficult to move.
According to Summit County Rescue Group member and spokesperson Anna DeBattiste, last month was one of the busiest in recent memories for calls for service, many of which included incidents of postholing.
On top of that, Bianchi said wildlife is especially present during mud season as moose, elk, deer and other animals return to Summit County after migrating to lower elevations during the winter. Wildlife can often be seen foraging, especially in drier areas near the beginning of trailheads, Bianchi said.
It’s why he advises recreators to “give the trails, give the wildlife, some time.”
Mud season typically lasts through late May and into early June, according to Bianchi, though some parts of the county can stay wet and muddy as late as July. North-facing slopes, drainage areas and densely covered forests will hold snow longer while South-facing slopes with less coverage will dry faster, Bianchi said.
Some of the first trails that are likely to be drier sooner include the Tenderfoot Trail, the Frisco Peninsula Recreation Area, the Oro Grande trail system and the Salt Lick Trail. They could be ready for recreation sooner, Bianchi said.
According to the Dillon Ranger District’s website, several trails and roads are not opening until late June or early July. More information on trail conditions can be found online at TinyURLl.com/SummitCountyTrails.