Maybe it's a landscape that's tougher to love. Maybe it's that the trails were closed for so long. Maybe it's worry about water sources. Maybe it's that they can't bring their dogs. Kevin Stillman, trails work leader for Bandelier National Monument, has lots of speculations about why some of the options on the broader network of trails at Bandelier see so little traffic.
His recent work has been concentrated on bringing back some of the fan favorites, those trails that do still see travelers. This summer volunteer crews repaired the Frijoles Canyon Trail, which picks up at the end of the main loop trail that tours past those Hobbit hole-like cliff dwellings carved into the tuff and continues up the canyon following Frijoles Creek. Looped with the Frijoles Rim Trail from the visitor center, it makes for a 13-mile day.
Las Conchas fire damage in 2011 and subsequent floods wiped out whole sections of the trail. Trees had fallen over it, creating log jams to scramble, brush had grown up blocking it, and massive erosion had erased much of the existing trail's footprint.
"I couldn't put the trail back where it was because there was no place to put the trail, so a lot of it was a reroute, putting in a whole new trail," Stillman says. "It wasn't clearing the old trail, it was putting in something completely new, cutting through bushes, building rock walls and log walls, everything you can think of. Then we tied into some of the old trail—it was a little bit of everything."
Volunteer crews and Rocky Mountain and YMCA Youth Corps completed the work. The "kids," crews that drew from teens to mid-20s, finished it off this year, hiking in as much as four miles—sometimes up to two hours—working all day with shovels, picks, axes and two-person crosscut saws, then hiking out to camp.
"We just kind of plugged away and plugged away," Stillman says. "This year, after all that time, we finally got it back."
When Frijoles Canyon was done, work started in on the Frey Trail, once the only way to get into the park. The soil below the trail's rock walls, constructed by the Civilian Conservation Corps in the 1930s, has been eroding.
"It's kind of like a triage thing," Stillman ways. "I'm trying to get the things people used to hike the most, the most popular trails, back."
The Stone Lions Trail to Yapashi and the Capulin Canyon Trail to Painted Cave are on that list. An ambitious hiker can still reach Painted Cave, he says, and trails guide the way to Capulin Canyon, but traveling along the bottom of the canyon requires walking in the creekbed.
"There's 70 miles of trails, and a lot of it was bad even before the fires and floods, so you've got to catch up," he says.
Stillman's work as a trail ranger sees him hiking these routes to inventory them. It's one of the only jobs as happily done on days off as on your work days, which he does, often spending his vacations deep in the monument's backcountry. Over the decade he's worked and volunteered at Bandelier, he's accumulated months worth of time out there.
"There's a whole lot more than that main loop trail," he says. "It's not spelled out for you. It's an adventure, and it's a good place to go to get away from people."
Even when trail maintenance is completed, the work isn't done, and part of the issue is that people don't seem to be hiking these trails as much.
"Once I fix them, I need people to walk on them to keep them there," he says. "We go out and do all this work, everybody puts all this effort in. … A year later, it's like you can't find the trail because nobody is hiking it."
Foot traffic beats back the cheat grass and compacts the soil, keeping the trails more clear and visible.
"We fixed a trail this spring that had been gone for a long time, and I don't know if anybody has even hiked it this year," he says.
Some of that, too, may be a product of Las Conchas fire damage. Returning hikers found some of those trails in pretty rough condition initially.
"They'd give up and go away and do other things," he says, "and I don't think they realize a lot of the Bandelier trails are back."
The Enthusiast is a twice-monthly column dedicated to the people in and stories from our outdoor sports community.