How to Navigate the Shoulder Season

For Colorado hikers, trail runners, and mountain bikers, spring is mud season. Warm, sunny spells punctuated by heavy spring snowstorms turn trails in and near the foothills into muddy messes, just when outdoor enthusiasts have had enough of winter and feel like getting out for player.

You probably already want to avoid muddy trails because you don’t like having your boots covered in fetid glop, but Front Range open space managers are practically advocating that you find other places to hike when the trails are muddy. Hiking on muddy trails damages trails through erosion. And, when people walk on drier ground next to muddy trails, single track trails widen.

Fortunately, the trails usually dry out between storms. Open space managers close trails when 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 notify users of trail closures and reopenings.

Hiking and biking on muddy trails can significantly damage trails and widen them, as shown in this photo taken in Deer Creek Canyon Park. (Mary Ann Bonnell, Jefferson County Open Space)

“There are two ways to damage the trail,” explained Mary Ann Bonnell, director of visitor services and natural resources for Jeffco Open Space. “The main one is that people try to avoid the mud, go around it and trample the plant material in it to help prevent erosion of the trail. We want to keep the plants growing next to the trail because if you lose those plants you can start to see the trail crumble down the side of the mountain. You have erosion that is eroding the very trail you are trying to use.

The other way to damage the trail is to cause deep indentations or tire tracks. Mountain bikes create grooves that allow water to run off the trail.

“The bike actually creates a channel where the water goes down and carries the actual trail surface,” Bonnell said. “So the very thing the trail is about is getting caught up in an aquatic event, especially if there’s a bike channel.”

Damage to trails forces open space managers to expend resources to repair them.

“We will have deep ruts, and when they dry out and harden they need to be fixed because they are hard to walk on – deep ruts, footprints, hoof prints,” said Vivienne Jannatpour, head of public information for Boulder County Parks. & Open space. “It costs money and time to get in and smooth things over.”

In recent years, Boulder County Open Space has been increasingly proactive about closing trails, Jannatpour said, and they’ve been surprised to find a lot of support in the community for doing so.

“We used to 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) over the past 10 years, we started seeing more and more support, and even people asking us to close. trails.”

This is an example of how...

Mary Ann Bonnell, Jefferson County Open Space

This is an example of how a normally durable trail surface becomes brittle when muddy. The original trail tread is on the left side of the photo. You can see where park visitors leave the trail and walk on the right side of the trail to avoid the mud. It’s about trampling the plants and widening the path to the right. This photo was taken in Deer Creek Canyon Park.

But there is also a lot of pushback. Bonnell recently spoke to a user who complained that Mount Falcon Park “has been closed for months.” Not true.

“Well, sir, it’s been closed and open for months,” Bonnell told him. “It hasn’t been closed in months (continuously) because we’re in this cycle of a decent amount of precipitation, a few hot days, then more precipitation.”

The rangers come out in the morning and afternoon to check the trails to see if they are ready to open or not.

“We have people saying we’re lazy, we’re not going to go out and reopen these parks,” Bonnell said. “I can show you the patrol logs to say that’s not true. We review the conditions and make sure the mud closure is still warranted.

Soil composition 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 to 100 million years ago. It’s the mud that clings to your boots and causes them to start functioning like platform shoes. These soils also take longer to dry than sandy soils.

“It’s our geology, we can’t change that,” Bonnell said. “That’s why mud is a problem in the spring in the Front Range.”

These conditions are quite unique in the spring. We can still get monsoon rains in the summer, but normally the trails quickly shed that moisture and dry out.

“When you have a rainy event in August, there’s not a block of snow sitting up there to cry for the next three days as it melts,” Bonnell said. “The trails are designed to manage water and evacuate it. We have water bars, diversions, culverts. We have infrastructure to deal with a rainy event. People don’t understand the difference between a rain event and a giant mass of snow that sits there and melts and cries water continuously for four, five, six days.

Users can check open space websites for current conditions and sign up to receive text alerts when trails are closed. They can monitor alerts on Twitter. Another clue is to keep an eye out for the remote foothills in the days following a snowstorm. When temperatures are above freezing but the foothills remain white, it means the snow is melting and nearby trails are likely muddy.

“Once you see the white is gone, and it’s been gone for about a day, sometimes that means things have drained and dried out,” Bonnell said.

When your favorite trails are muddy, open space managers suggest turning to what they call “regional trails,” which are concrete trails along east-flowing creeks. across several municipalities. Examples of these are the Clear Creek Trail (which runs from Golden to 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 US 36 Bikeway from Westminster to Boulder.

Rebecca Slezak, Denver Post File

The new walkway segment of the Peaks to Plains Trail in Clear Creek Canyon west of Golden is a great choice for hiking, running, and biking when many trails in and near the foothills are muddy. The mile-and-a-half-long segment offers great canyon views and a concrete surface. East of here, the Clear Creek Trail extends to Commerce City.

The Clear Creek Trail was extended a mile and a half into Clear Creek Canyon just west of Golden last summer. Known as the walkway segment of the Peaks to Plains Trail, it features steep rock faces on its south side with beautiful views of the creek, and it offers a wide concrete surface that makes it a great alternative in the season of hiking. mud.

Another thing to look for during mud season is trail improvements where open space managers have established “grinder fines,” which are small particles of rock that stabilize the surface. They tend to shed water and dry faster, so they can be used for hiking, running and biking even when wet. Examples of this can be found at Crown Hill Park in Wheat Ridge. This park has concrete trails, but there are also dirt trails covered in grinder fines.

Mud season in the Front Range will soon end when the frequency of spring snowstorms decreases. Then we’ll run, hike, and bike the currently problematic trails, waiting for the mountain trails to emerge from their winter snow cover. But even in summer, green space managers encourage users never to venture off the trails.

“You’re not just killing the plants, you’re killing the experience,” Bonnell said. “Who wants to walk a 20-foot-wide path? The answer is nobody. We love our single-track, this pretty corridor of vegetation and beautiful wild flowers. When you go off trail no matter what time of year you are jeopardizing that experience.

How to Get Information on Colorado Front Range Trail Closures

Jefferson County Open Space: Access the website (jeffco.us/open-space), click Parks & Trails, then click Alerts & Closures. The closures are listed there. If you want to sign up for SMS alerts, click Notify Me on the Alerts and Closures page and follow the instructions. You can also follow on Twitter (@JeffcoOpenSpace).

Boulder County Parks and Open Spaces: Access the website (bouldercounty.org), click Parks & Trails, then click Trail Closures, Notices, Alerts, & Conditions. On this page you can also sign up for SMS and email alerts. Another source is a free app, Boulder Area Trails.

City of Boulder Green Spaces and Mountain Parks: Closures are indicated on the site (bouldercolorado.gov/muddy-trail-closures). You can also sign up for text alerts by texting OSMP to 888-777.

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