Trails for everyone, forever
What it takes to build a healthy, durable trail system. By Jessi Loerch
We’ve always known that trails are vital to our state and to the mental and physical health of all of us. As we all struggle with the many impacts from the coronavirus, the importance of trails has become even clearer. As people tried to find solace in space outside, we saw how quickly trails became overwhelmed. Our trail system couldn’t safely hold all of the people who needed time outside, leading to many areas being closed.
Trails for everyone, forever. At WTA, that’s what we work for every day — from urban trails to epic backcountry routes. But what does that mean? What does a trail system that meets everyone’s needs and stands the test of time actually look like? It really comes down to four things:
While Washington has some of the best hiking in the country, years of underinvestment and natural disasters have put trails at risk. We are at a critical point where we must act now if we want to ensure future generations access to the hiking experiences the Evergreen State is known for. As we think about the future of Washington’s trails, let’s explore the key components of a healthy trail system. With your help, we’ll build trails for everyone, forever.
Hikers need multiple ways to get into and out of an area. Important roads to trails need to be maintained so hikers can use them. And we all must be able to find the information we need to get outside.
In order for people to experience the joy of hiking, first they have to be able to get to the trail. Access to trails is a critical element of a healthy trail system. In urban areas, that means ensuring trails are nearby for as many people as possible. It can also mean ensuring that public transportation is available for close-in trails and trails a bit farther out. Trailhead Direct, which provides bus access to some I-90 trails in King County, is a good example of that.
The Suiattle River Trail is a powerful example of how much the trail system relies on access. In 2003, the road to the trailhead washed out. It took more than a decade to reopen the road. In the meantime, the trail, as well as those it provides access to, degraded without regular maintenance. By the time the road was reopened, it took a massive effort to make the trails hikable again. Even the Pacific Crest Trail, a well-known route, was neglected in the nearby Glacier Peak Wilderness because there was limited access for crews to work on it.
But simply reopening roads isn’t enough. Access means that roads to trailheads, particularly for more remote trails, are well maintained so most vehicles (not just four-wheel drive ones) can reach the trailhead. The importance of well-maintained roads became clear yet again last year when WTA was at risk of canceling a volunteer vacation at Green Mountain Lookout due to the condition of the road. To make volunteer vacations possible, including the Green Mountain trip, we routinely partner with packers who use their horses and mules to carry gear to our base camps. Last year, the road was so bad that our partner was worried they wouldn’t be able to safely access the trailhead with a horse trailer. Ultimately, they made it but were forced to drive at a crawl, making the trip slower and more stressful than it would have been if the road had been maintained.
The most robust trail systems offer multiple points of access. That way, if a single road or trail washes out, it won’t cut off miles upon miles of trail. Creating a trail system like that means careful planning around what trails to build and maintain, as well as what roads receive the limited funding that’s available for maintenance.
The final part of access is information. In order for hikers to get out on trails, they need to know what trails are out there, what they can expect on trail and how to have a safe trip. With our Hiking Guide, website, social media channels and more, WTA helps people learn about the many options for hiking in our state. We’re helping hikers get out responsibly and helping them find trails they might have never known about, which disperses use across the trail system.
Hikers need trails that are in good shape, but that’s not the reality everywhere today. We need trails that are easy to follow and designed to support the growing number of people who want to be outside. This makes for a better hiking experience and protects the landscapes we love.
Ryan Ojerio, WTA’s Southwest Washington regional manager, likes to think of a sustainable trail system like a healthy ecosystem. It’s dynamic, but it’s in balance. Even though things change, it’s stable over time and resilient to impacts. Creating a resilient system means looking at everything from the surface on a single section of trail to the larger scale of how trails fit in to the whole landscape.
For decades, WTA has been doing trail work. Thanks to that experience and our dedicated volunteers, we are able to build and maintain trails that can stand up over time. As we choose where and how to work on existing trails or build new ones, we also keep in mind the big picture of the full trail system.
Ryan explains that a well-designed trail system should fit in with the landscape and carefully consider the features along the trail. For instance, in a national wildlife refuge, trails would be designed for a quiet and slow experience — there would be ample space for people to stand and watch birds at various points along the trail. A trail that leads to a waterfall in the Gorge, on the other hand, would be designed to allow many visitors to view the waterfall without overly impacting the environment or the visitor experience.
Ryan says that diverse experiences on trails are also important.
“You have more harmony if you have a diverse trail system where people can self-select the trail they want,” he said.
That could mean trails with stacked loops, where some loops offer short nature walks while longer loops branch off to nice routes for trail runners or mountain bikers. Stacked loops allow space for different user groups. And if the loops begin at the same location, it allows for infrastructure such as trailheads and toilets to be consolidated.
Trails don’t just happen. They require ongoing investment. We need dedicated funding from multiple sources to support public lands and to pay for trail needs such as rangers, clean restrooms, annual maintenance and up-to-date signage.
Trails are a social good — hikers know that, and scientific studies have shown that trails provide benefits not just to hikers, but also to communities and to the economy. That makes trails worth funding, but years of underinvestment mean we have a lot of work to do.
While WTA’s volunteers do so much work for trails and make funding go further, even volunteers aren’t free. The work of managing volunteers and ensuring they have the tools they need takes money. And some work must be done by land managers and nonprofits like WTA, all of which require funding.
Funding is also required for behind-the-scenes work that helps guarantee a well-thought-out trail system. Andrea Imler, WTA’s advocacy director, thinks a lot about this aspect of support for trails. One area where she has seen funding make a big difference is in the Teanaway Community Forest, an area with enormous potential for hiking and other outdoor recreation.
Before any trailheads can be built or any signs can go up, time and money are needed to bring together the expertise to create a clear picture for the future. Luckily, the state Legislature funded the recreation planning process for the Teanaway. That allowed an advisory committee, which Andrea serves on, to map out a plan for the Teanaway that connects local communities to the forest and provides a place for hikers, bikers and horseback riders to all recreate in harmony — all while protecting natural resources.
Hikers must look after the land and each other. Your actions matter, whether that’s leaving a place better than you found it or being a friendly face on trail. Trails need hikers, and we want to ensure everyone feels welcome and accepted.
The hiking community is a powerful force. Together, there is so much we can do for trails. At WTA, we are devoted to helping create a diverse and inclusive community that comes together to shape the future of public lands and trails.
To help ensure a welcoming community, we’re constantly looking for ways to bring people together and ensure that. One way we have done that is through shared-identity work parties. These work parties have included events for Latina teenagers, the Asian and Pacific Islander community, women and the LGBTQ+ community. We’ve heard from volunteers on these events that, while they’d considered volunteering before, these shared-identity work parties are what encouraged them to try it out for the first time.
We’re also working to ensure our hiking community knows what they need to have a fun and safe time outside. That means Trails Smarts resources that help folks better understand issues such as how to cross a stream safely, how to protect sensitive habitats and how to stay safe in avalanche season. We also discuss more people-oriented skills, such as how to avoid judgmental gatekeeping that can make some feel unwelcome.
A healthy, sustainable trail system requires all of these pieces to create the physical infrastructure and widespread support to last for many seasons and many generations.
When we build a trail, we have to return to maintain it. When we advocate for funding for a new trail system, we have to keep working to ensure the plan gives hikers what they need. We can’t show hikers great places to hike without also giving them tips to be safe and respectful. Working for trails takes a lot of work, and it takes a lot of hikers.
It takes all of us. Thank you for all you do to support WTA and trails across the state. And we look forward to all we can do in the future with powerful supporters, devoted advocates and caring hikers.