Every Hiker Should Help Build a Trail

Use some elbow grease to give back to the land you love.
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trail work

A crew works on the Little Bear Trail near Flagstaff, Arizona.

Like a lot of hikers, I took trails for granted for far too long. But that changed six years ago in the North Cascades, when the path I was following disappeared into a brush tunnel of alder and willow so high and thick, I immediately regretted wearing shorts. While my hiking partner and I paused to debate the pros and cons of continuing, a woman and her two kids burst through the wall of branches. The look on her face clearly indicated that the cons had won out. “I’m kind of mad at the Forest Service right now,” she half-joked as the trio squeezed past.

Now, I recall this woman’s words while on a trip with my Forest Service trail crew. We’re 5 miles deep in Washington’s Glacier Peak Wilderness, a district that has a checklist of brush tunnels and downed trees to contend with every year. Loppers and folding saw in hand, I give the foliage a drive-by trim as I descend into a forested drainage where downfall dominates.

Mad at the Forest Service?! I understand the frustration, but my six-person crew has more than 700 miles of trail to maintain. We have no money for overtime, and—with fire suppression eating up more of the budget every year—we rely on volunteers. Any hiker dismayed by the sorry state of a neglected trail should pitch in. Channel your frustration by swinging a tool. It might change the way you look at trails forever.

It did for me. It’s mid-morning, 7 miles along the Buck Creek Trail, a path that burned last year, and we’re here to clean up the mess. First: a 50-yard stretch of deadfall piled like pick-up sticks. By now, my partner and I know the routine and drop our packs. We prep each log by whacking off its limbs, making our cuts, and heaving the pieces off the trail. Settling into the rhythmic pull of a two-person crosscut saw is simultaneously soothing and trying—we move through wood with a back-and-forth stroke that feels like relief, even as my back and arms and legs ache.

These days, when I’m off the job and I hike through a corridor of cut logs—maybe cleared so long ago they’ve started to decompose into the dirt or sprout shelves of fungi—I imagine what the pileup looked like before a trail crew came upon it. Once, in Canyonlands National Park, I paused to marvel at a 20-step rock staircase, remembering days I spent on Colorado trails, heaving boulders into hand-dug pockets and crossing my fingers each one fit so I wouldn’t have to haul it back out.

As we descend—now on the Boulder Pass Trail—we stop once more. I force my way into the tangles of a vine maple to reach the base of a long limb with my hand saw. I haven’t returned to the North Cascades trail where I once encountered the mom and her two kids in years, but I find myself wondering if the brush has been cut back. Maybe it was trimmed by a trail crew like mine, or maybe by volunteers. I hope she was one of them.

Help out 

Want to work on a trail? Inquire with your local hiking club or look into the American Hiking Society’s volunteer vacations. Day trips often involve cutting brush, while longer ones give you chances to tackle big projects like constructing bridges or walls or even building new trails