When Trails Go Bad

In most cases, trail failures are the result of bad design, poor construction or lack of maintenance. Trail failures can have severe impacts on natural resources. In most cases the problem is erosion, and trail users finding ways to avoid the unstable (and sometimes unsafe) tread. This usually results in braiding – users making a new route beside the failed section, then another and another as the parallel routes fail for the same reason the original eroded. It also can result in multiple user-created alternative routes that can wander well outside the trail corridor, with potential impacts both to natural and cultural resources.

Proper design and construction are critical to prevent future headaches, and also minimize – but do not eliminate – maintenance requirements.

AZT eroded

Maintenance efforts have stopped the spread of braiding on this section of the Arizona National Scenic Trail, but it keeps stewards busy. The only way to avoid constant maintenance would be a reroute, replacing it with a contoured trail that doesn’t carry water downhill

Mt. Baldy Crossover

The popular Crossover Trail in the Mt. Baldy Wilderness (Apache-Sitgreaves National Forest) has a few sections that suffer from poor original design and deferred maintenance – the result of decades of insufficient funding doled out to federal land management agencies. This erosion channel has deepened to more than a foot in some places, and will continue to be a headache until such time as recreation on public lands receives sufficient financial support.

Saguaro Rock Work

Rock steps can be a valid solution in some instances, but are not always the best option. This trail in Saguaro National Park shows they can create problems as well. These well-crafted steps slowed water flow down the trail, but were obviously not a hit with trail users, who simply walked beside the steps, creating a new place for water to flow unimpeded. In the Desert Southwest, erosion channels form rapidly and can run deep in sandy soils that lack organic material.