The Making of Trails

September 2, 2017

Sarah Rohde

Recreational trails are some of the most accessible ways for us to get into nature. There are thousands of miles of hiking, biking, and horse packing trails that expand across the U.S making nature accessible to everyone. But have you ever wondered how these trails got to where they are? From short trails leading to a scenic lake outside of the city to 20-mile trails leading to the peaks of some of the tallest mountains, these trails weren’t made over night. Personally, I believed that these trails were made from one person who bushwhacked up a mountain and overtime people reused which made a trail. However, during our time in Montana I have quickly learned that this assumption is false; there is a lot of hard work and dedicated individuals that go into the making of recreational trails.

Expedition Fall 2017 group holding axes

So how do recreational trails get created? During our time in Yellowstone National Park, I learned about the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC); this was a work relief program created in 1933 by President Franklin Roosevelt to help combat unemployment after the Great Depression. Through the CCC, thousands of young men were put to work on environmental conservation projects under the supervision of the U.S. Forest Service, the National Parks Service, and the Departments of the Interior and Agriculture. These men are the reason why we have such an expansive National and State Park system; they were responsible for most of the infrastructure, trails, bridges, and park facilities which we still use today. Driving through Yellowstone you can still see signs that show projects, trails, and bridges built by the CCC. They are truly the ones to thank for a lot of our trails which we use today.

So is that it? All our trials were built by the CCC? False. There are still hundreds of organizations, volunteers, and dedicated trailblazers who build recreational trails for us today. Luckily, our expedition team got to try our hand at trail building during our stay in Red Lodge, MT, and let me tell you, it is a lot harder than it seems.

Two students working with tools in the dirt in a wooded area

In Red Lodge, MT, our expedition team teamed up with the Absorka-Beartooth Wilderness Foundation and U.S Forest Service to help build the Nichols Creek trail in Red Lodge, MT. The trail stretches 4 miles in from Red Lodge Ski mountain and is open for hikers, horse packers, and mountain bikers. Thus far, it has taken 3 years and countless volunteers to construct a little more than a 2 mile stretch of the trail; and our expedition team spent two days constructing the remaining bits of the trail. Trail building is a lot more than just bushwhacking and hiking. We hiked to the unfinished part of the trail with saws, loopers, pulaskis, and macleods to a steep mountain slope. The forest service employee who oversaw building the trail had marked off the edge of the trail with pink ribbons and flags in the dirt. Our work began as we dug into the side of the mountain removing dirt and raking the sediment until it began to resemble a trail. There was a lot of sweat and dirt flying as we removed tree stumps, cut roots, moved rocks, and continuously shoveled dirt down the mountain. I can honestly say that I have never been more exhausted than I was after building the trail; I can also say that I have never felt more accomplished after looking at the trail we had constructed.

So the next time you go hiking or mountain biking on a trail, think back to the people who built it. It could have been made by the hardworking men in the CCC 84 years ago or by a group of dedicated individuals a couple of weeks ago, but take some time to reflect on the hard work that went into making the trail and making nature accessible to you and hundreds of others.

Many students working with tools in the dirt in a wooded area

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