For Colorado hikers, trail runners and mountain bikers, spring is mud season. Warm sunny periods punctuated by heavy spring snowstorms turn trails in and near the foothills into muddy messes, just when outdoors enthusiasts are fed up with winter and itching to get outside to play.
You probably already want to avoid muddy trails because you don’t enjoy having your boots covered in fetid glop, but Front Range open space managers are practically pleading for you to find other places to hike when trails are muddy. Hiking on muddy trails causes damage to trails through erosion. And, when people walk on drier ground beside muddy trails, single-track trails get widened.
Fortunately, trails usually dry out between storms. Open space managers close trails when they are muddy but reopen them when they can be used without causing damage. Jeffco Open Space, Boulder County Parks & Open Space and City of Boulder Open Space & Mountain Parks all use social media to let users know when trails close and when they reopen.
“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.”
The other way to damage the trail is by causing deep footprints or tire tracks. Mountain bikes create grooves that allow water to stream down the trail.
“The bike actually creates a channel that water goes down and carries the actual trail surface,” Bonnell said. “So the very thing the trail is made out of is getting carried away in a water event, especially if there is a bike channel.”
Trail damage causes open space managers to spend resources to repair.
“We’ll get deep ruts, and when they dry up and harden, they need to be repaired because they’re hard to walk on — deep ruts, footprints, hoof prints,” said Vivienne Jannatpour, public information manager for Boulder County Parks & Open Space. “It costs money and time to go in and smooth it out.”
In recent years, Boulder County Open Space has been increasingly proactive about closing trails, Jannatpour said, and they were surprised to find a lot of support in the community for doing it.
“We used to really try to avoid closing trails for muddy conditions because we didn’t want to cut people off — we like to please the public,” Jannatpour said. “But honestly, once we got on social media (to announce closures in real time) the past 10 years, we started seeing more and more support, and even people asking us to close trails.”
But there is plenty of push-back, too. Bonnell recently talked to a user who complained that Mount Falcon Park “has been closed for months.” Not true.
“Well, sir, it’s been closed off and on for months,” Bonnell said she told him. “It has not been closed for months (continually) because we’re in this cycle of a decent amount of precipitation, a couple days of warmth, and then more precipitation.”
Rangers go out in the morning and afternoon to check trails to see if they are ready to open or not.
“We have people who say we’re lazy, we’re not getting out there and reopening these parks,” Bonnell said. “I can show you the patrol logs to say that’s not true. We look at the conditions and make sure the mud closure is still warranted.”
Soil makeup is another factor in trail conditions. Much of the soil along the foothills has a high clay and silt content, the result of a shallow inland sea that covered Colorado 70-100 million years ago. That’s the mud that clings to your boots and makes them start to function like platform shoes. Those soils also take longer to dry out than sandy soils.
“That’s our geology, we can’t change that,” Bonnell said. “That’s why mud is problematic in the spring in the Front Range.”
These conditions are pretty unique to spring. We can still get monsoon rains in the summer, but normally the trails are quick to shed that moisture and dry out.
“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 said. “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.”
Users can check open space websites for current conditions and sign up for text alerts when trails are closed. They can watch for alerts on Twitter. Another clue is to keep an eye on the foothills from a distance in the days following a snowstorm. When temperatures are above freezing but the foothills remain white, that means snow is melting and trails in the vicinity are probably muddy.
“Once you see that white is gone, and it’s been gone for a day or so, that sometimes means things have drained and dried,” Bonnell said.
When your favorite trails are muddy, open space managers suggest turning to what they call “regional trails,” meaning concrete paths along creeks that flow eastward through multiple municipalities. Examples of those are the Clear Creek trail (which extends from Golden to the South Platte in Commerce City), the Ralston Creek trail (in Arvada, which connects to the Clear Creek trail), the Bear Creek trail in Lakewood (which connects to the South Platte) and the U.S. 36 Bikeway from Westminster to Boulder.
The Clear Creek trail was extended a mile and a half into Clear Creek Canyon just west of Golden last summer. Known as the Gateway Segment of the Peaks to Plains trail, it features steep rock walls on its south side with beautiful views of the creek, and it offers a wide, concrete surface that makes it an excellent mud-season alternative.
Another thing to seek out during mud season is improved trails where open space managers have laid down “crusher fines,” which are small rock particles that stabilize the surface. They tend to shed water and dry out faster so they can be used for hiking, running and biking even when they are damp. Examples of that can be found at Crown Hill Park in Wheat Ridge. That park has concrete trails, but it also has dirt trails topped with crusher fines.
Mud season in the Front Range will end soon as the frequency of spring snowstorms decreases. Then we’ll be running and hiking and biking on the trails that are problematic now, while we wait for mountain trails to emerge from their winter snow cover. But even in the summer, open space managers urge users never to venture off trails.
“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.”
How to get info on Colorado Front Range trail closures
Jefferson County Open Space: Go to the website (jeffco.us/open-space), click on Parks & Trails, then Alerts & Closures. Closure are listed there. If you want to sign up for text alerts, click on Notify Me on the Alerts & Closures page and follow the prompts. You also can follow on Twitter (@JeffcoOpenSpace).
Boulder County Parks & Open Space: Go to the website (bouldercounty.org), click on Parks & Trails, then click on Trail Closures, Notices, Alerts, & Conditions. On that page you also can sign up for text and email alerts. Another source is a free app, Boulder Area Trails.
City of Boulder Open Space & Mountain Parks: Closures are listed on the website (bouldercolorado.gov/muddy-trail-closures). You also can sign up for text alerts by texting OSMP to 888-777.
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