Now that we’re starting to see some warmer weather, hikers are dying to get back out on the trails, but Colorado warns their outdoor enthusiasts that Spring is mud season.
Colorado sees roughly 67.30 inches of snow each year. Once it gets warm, those nearly 70 inches of snow turn into 70 inches of water that soaks the earth and turns trails into miles of mud. For hikers, their biggest concern about mud season might be carrying dirt all the way home. But for park officials, mud season means destruction.
“There’s two ways to damage the trail,” explained Mary Ann Bonnell, visitor services and natural resources director for Jeffco Open Space. “The primary one is that people try to avoid the mud, go around it, and trample the plant material that’s actually there to help keep the trail from eroding. We want to keep the plants that are growing next to the trail, because if you lose those plants, you can start having the trail crumble down the side of the mountain. You have erosion that erodes the very trail you’re trying to use.”
Hikers aren’t the only ones that tend to damage trails during mud season. Bikers, too, are unintentionally guilty. When a mountain bike passes through a muddy trail, they create a channel that turns into a deep rut when the ground fully dries. That’s a huge hazard for any unsuspecting ankles. So, park officials then have to repair these regions, closing these trails for even longer.
Colorado Officials Say Trails Can Handle Rain, But Not Mud Season Damage
It might seem like Colorado’s hiking trails are quite fragile with the potential damage they see each mud season. But that’s not necessarily the case. According to Bonnell, the trails can handle rain events just fine.
“When you have a rain event in August, there isn’t a block of snow sitting up there to weep for the next three days while it melts,” Bonnell told the Denver Post. “The trails are designed to manage the water and sheet the water away. We’ve got water bars, diversions, culverts. We have infrastructure to deal with a rain event. People don’t understand the difference between a rain event and a giant mass of snow that sits there and melts and weeps water continuously for four, five, six days.”
That said, she warns hikers that using the trails doesn’t just affect the muddy ground – it takes away from the whole experience.
“You’re not just killing the plants, you’re killing the experience,” Bonnell said. “Who wants to walk on a 20-foot-wide trail? The answer is no one. We love our single-track, this nice corridor of vegetation and beautiful wildflowers. When you walk off the trail, no matter what time of year, you’re jeopardizing that experience.”
Hikers looking to spend time in state and national parks should look to see if the ground is dry and one tone. If there are white patches on the trail, that means the earth is still damp. If you run into mud, stay on the trails, do not widen your path into the vegetation as this will widen the trail and kill these plants.