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Trail Time? Not Quite

As Always, Mud Season Beckons Caution

Nichole Hastings received a disturbing email recently.

As a volunteer Appalachian Trail corridor monitor , Hastings was alerted to the sight of a mountain bike’s tire treads on the AT in Norwich, off of Cossingham Road. As a designated National Scenic Trail, the AT is meant for foot travel only and is subject to National Park Service regulations prohibiting bicycle and motorized travel of any kind, as well any use by riders of “pack animals,” i.e. horses, mules, goats and llamas.

The AT crosses Cossingham Road, a Class IV road near the intersection of Bragg Hill Road and Happy Hill Road that is popular for use among mountain bikers and horseback riders.

“The AT passes over the road, north-to-south,” said Hastings, who coordinates the Dartmouth Outing Club’s trail monitor program and also volunteers with the Green Mountain Club, which maintains the Appalachian Trail from Norwich to Woodstock. “It makes it convenient for ATVs or mountain bikers to go onto the trail, if they’re using that road. What some people don’t realize is that the trail is part of the National Park Service, and that keeping vehicles, including, bikes, off the trail is federally mandated.”

Aside from being unlawful, non-foot travel can have damaging effects both on the AT itself as well as the land it passes through, known as its “host properties,” or corridor. Much of the trail, particularly at low elevations, is on fertile soil passing through fragile plant and wildlife habitat and not maintained to withstand the heavy wear-and-tear of tire travel.

“The AT is a footpath. That’s how it’s described (federally) and that’s how it should be, from a conservation (point of view),” said Hastings. “If you start allowing vehicles and bikes out onto it, it’s going to have a negative impact on the condition of the trail and the rare plant species and habitat that surround it.”

As for alternatives to the AT for non-hiking trail enthusiasts, there are groups throughout the area who cater to motorized, bicycle and horseback recreation. The Green Mountain Horse Association, Sunapee Area Mountain Bike Club and Central Vermont Quad Runners are only a few of the groups whose contact information is available on the website of the Upper Valley Trails Alliance (uvtrails.org/groups).

UVTA executive director Russell Hirschler encourages anyone not strapping on hiking boots to consult these groups before setting out onto trails via their desired method .

“It’s important to find out which areas allow the type of activity you want to take part in,” Hirschler said. “There are places in the Upper Valley for all of those activities. It’s just a matter of knowing where they are and when it’s appropriate to use them.”

While Hastings supports protecting the AT corridor from non-foot traffic use, she can empathize with recreation seekers of all kinds. A Grantham native who grew up rummaging through the woods near her home with her brother and cousins, she understands the impulse and desire to utilize surrounding natural territory.

“When you have all this nature in your backyard, it’s easy to not really think about what you should or shouldn’t do, because it all seems so accessible,” said Hastings. “Pardon the expression, but it just seems ‘natural’ to get out and use it.”

The Appalachian Trail — as well as all maintained trails in Vermont and New Hampshire — are especially vulnerable to damage during mud season. In a news release issued Monday , the Green Mountain Club declared the start of mud season and is asking hikers to refrain from treading on high-elevation trails through Memorial Day.

When trails are saturated with melting snow and ice, they’re susceptible to erosion that can cause irreversible — or, at the very least, expensive and time consuming — damage in some cases.

“We put in a lot of effort to keep people off trails during mud season, because if we didn’t, a lot of trails would likely get worn right down to the bedrock,” said GMC Executive Director Will Wiquist, whose Waterbury-based nonprofit oversees the maintenance of more than 500 miles of trails throughout Vermont. “Whether it’s from hiking or multi-use, people should wait until the leaves are back on the trees. They’ll seep up some of the water and the trails will become more dense and firm.”

For those chomping at the bit to get out and hike before Memorial Day, there are trail systems throughout Vermont and New Hampshire that already have trails ready for treading. A list of mud season hikes recommended by the GMC contains none within the Upper Valley, but Hirschler said the hard-pack Northern Rail Trail is ideal for this time of year. He cautioned against venturing out into even low-lying trails comprised entirely of natural soil, at least for the time being.

“At least for the next 3-4 weeks, it’s probably best to stay on the Northern Rail Trail or some of the Class IV and Class VI roads in the area,” Hirschler said. “The trails are just too soft and soupy. We’ve all seen trails that are nice, two-foot wide paths and, five years later, they’ve grown to be 15 feet wide with huge puddles in the middle. That’s what we’re trying to avoid.”

Hastings wouldn’t condemn all trail use, but asks that hikers use sound judgement if venturing out.

“The most important thing is just exercising common sense,” she said. “You have options when you’re out there. If the soil is too soft, sometimes the best option is to turn around, get off the trail and do something else outside until they dry up.”

Jared Pendak can be reached at jpendak@vnews.com or 603-727-3306.

CORRECTION

This article has been amended to correct an earlier error. The following correction appeared in the Saturday, April 20 edition of the Valley News:

Nichole Hastings grew up playing with brother Jeff Hastings and cousins Justin Hastings, Ross Hastings and Wes Hastings. A story about mud season hiking in Thursday's Valley News incorrectly stated her relationship to the cousins.