It was the Friday before Christmas two years ago. Highs in the mid-40s, lows in the mid-20s. Just a touch of wind. Not a bad day for a mountain bike ride, if you were dressed right. Brent Bonwell was up early and getting a few miles in on the trails at the Galisteo Basin Preserve before they started to thaw.
What he saw as he hopped on his bike was a growing mess at the trailhead. As people, pets, horses and bicyclists made their way into the preserve's 28 miles of trails, they'd created a mud pit. The problem continued further back, as horses and hikers and bikers had turned smooth singletrack into what would become a pockmarked path once it dried.
It's an understandable phenomenon. After a few days of cold and snow or rain, people are anxious to get out. The roads are dry, the sun is shining—why not? But if you've hiked, biked or hopped on your horse on one of those days, you know it can be a muck-filled slog that threatens to suck the boots off your feet. Each year, it costs thousands of dollars and wasted hours to fix, all falling upon the people who take care of the hundreds of miles of trails in and around Santa Fe.
Bonwell knew what he'd find that morning. A member of the Santa Fe Fat Tire Society, a mountain biking group, he was trying to make a case for educating people about the impact of using muddy trails. He snapped pictures of the mess and sent them to Gretchen Grogan, who manages trails for the nonprofit Commonweal Conservancy, which runs the Galisteo Basin Preserve.
Grogan knew the problem, too. The nonprofit pays contractors thousands of dollars to regrade the dirt parking lots at popular trailheads. Use on muddy days can deepen ruts to the point that it can be a challenge just finding a place to park that won't bottom out your car. "If it's like that at the parking lot, you can bet it's like that on the trails. You're better off just turning around," she says.
While the vast majority of maintenance on the trails themselves—at the preserve and elsewhere around Santa Fe—is done by volunteers, Grogan tells SFR, "We like to use them to build new trails instead of fixing old ones." For its part, the city of Santa Fe spends $50,000 every year to maintain its soft-surface (unpaved) trails through a contract with the Santa Fe Conservation Trust.
The problem is what trail stewards call cupping. If it sounds a little dirty, it is. Tramping or riding through a muddy trail sloshes mud to the edges. Then it dries. When it rains again or when snow melts, instead of a well-designed trail shedding that water, the higher edges trap it in a sort of cup. The water has nowhere to go but down the trail, creating a channel that exposes underlying rocks that get loosened the next time someone passes over them. Do it enough times on the same section, trail pros say, and you have a problem.
"It's not rocket science," Bonwell says. Which means the mess can be fixed with some time and training. The Fat Tire Society has nine members who have gone through crew leader training with the US Forest Service. For trail-repair days around Santa Fe, the group matches new members with experienced ones. Bonwell says the result is productive.
The Forest Service says our abnormally warm February hasn't presented any unusual problems. Trail gurus there ask people to use common sense when confronted with a muddy trailhead. If you have to get past the mud, they say, suck it up and go through the middle rather than making the "dry" edges worse.
Ultimately, word of mouth has proven to be the most successful tool for combating muddy trail usage. The Fat Tire Society has started to use #SFTrails on social media to highlight both good conditions and trails that are too muddy to ride. Most bike shops around town keep track, too. And like Bonwell did that December morning two years ago, they encourage riders to get out before the temperature warms enough to turn hard trails into mushy ones. It's the theory behind the group's signs urging trail patrons to "use dirt trails, not mud trails" at popular trailheads on the city's La Tierra system and at the Galisteo Basin Preserve.
It wasn't hard to convince Grogan to let the signs be posted at the preserve. It hasn't stopped the problem, but it has helped. So, too, have efforts to bring trail users together for maintenance work. It's not often you see hikers and riders of both mountain bikes and horses doing something together. As Bonwell saw, all three can do damage to the trails, so it makes sense that all three should help keep them in good shape.