Winter on the Trails

Winter is a beautiful time around Ken-Caryl Ranch and can be a great time to get out and enjoy the trails. If you’ve ever gone snowshoeing, cross-country skiing or hiking on our trails you know what I mean, but it is also a time when responsible trail use is essential. Every year Ken-Caryl’s Open Space trails are damaged due to improper trail use, especially when the trails are muddy.

Due to Colorado’s Front Range weather, snow usually doesn’t stick around for very long — but the mud does. Muddy trail conditions usually exist longer in the winter months, which increase the impacts of trail users. Trail surfaces that are saturated from either rain or snow melt may lose compaction and their ability to withstand trail traffic. This process is accelerated when high impact trail use is continued throughout these time periods.

Of all trail user groups, horses have the highest potential impact to muddy and soft trails. A horse carries a heavy weight on a small, usually shod, hoof. This weight can exert as much as 1,500 lbs. of pressure per square inch. According to an article by Carolyn Widner and Dr. Jeff Marion titled Horse Impacts: Research Findings and Their Implications, “Horse traffic causes significant compaction to the underlying soil layers, thus reducing water infiltration. In addition, the action of horse hoofs tends to dig up and puncture the soil surface. The process of loosening the surface trail tread while compacting the subsurface soils leads to impermeable basins, which retain water and mud long after runoff events occur.”

Mountain bikes can also damage trails during muddy periods. Research by Gordon R. Cessford, in Off-road Impacts of Mountain Bikes, found that bicycles create a linear track, which tends to promote channeling of water, as opposed to creating puddles. These channels negate the benefits of a trail with a proper outslope that conveys water off of the trail tread. The channels keep the water on the trail, causing dishing and erosion. Even though the actual tire tracks disappear, the damage caused becomes irreversible and the altered trail surface continues to erode, creating a need for more trail maintenance. Heavy downhill braking and skidding can also accelerate erosion. These impacts can be avoided by using proper brake modulation and riding at slow, manageable speeds.

Another sign of improper trail use not specific to any trail user group are trails that develop around muddy areas created primarily by rain and snow melt runoff, these new trails cause all the damage previously mentioned and also widen the zone of impact for the trail. The widened trail, although not obvious in the winter, severely degrades the plant life around the original trail.

Winter Trail Use Tips

Some rules for all of our trail users: Say no to mud. According to an article published by the International Mountain Biking Association (IMBA), Low Impact Riding Techniques for the X (TR) Generation, “Riding when the trail is muddy can cause tremendous damage. Find trails in your area that are durable, drain well and ride these when it’s wet.”

Become familiar with the trail system and pay attention to the trails and trail segments that dry out first. Service roads like the Manor House Trail, Hogback Trail and Cathy Johnson Trail can absorb more damage and usually dry out faster than single track trails.

Avoid higher elevation trails like Upper Bradford (over Tin Cup) and trails in softer soils like the Lyons Hogback Trail. Avoid high snow melt times. Trails are generally more solid in the early morning hours. Trails tend to be sloppier in the afternoon. If you must be out on the trail, stay on the trail surface at all times “GET MUDDY.”

Dogs should be leashed and under the owner’s control at all times. Unleashed dogs invoke a “flight response” in wildlife which severely depletes their limited reserves. Coyotes and other predatory animals can be more aggressive toward domestic dogs during winter months when food sources are low.

Our trails are a wonderful resource for exercise and to enjoy the beauty that surrounds us in Ken-Caryl; let’s all work to keep them safe and enjoyable. See you on the trails.

by KCRMA Open Space Trails and Maintenance Ranger Mike Rogers

Ken-Caryl Ranch