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When Good Trails Go Bad

by Fredric L. Rice Monday, Nov. 10, 2008 at 6:46 PM

Hiking and trail repair in the Angeles National Forest

What happens when a much used hiking trail suddenly goes bad to the point of being unsafe and unusable? How does the trail get fixed? Who pays for the trail restoration effort? How does the restoration project get scheduled and who restores the trail?

Hiking trails can go bad for a number of reasons including fire and insect infestation which can drop so many dead and dying trees on a trail that sections become entangled in interlocked limbs. Trees that don't fall entirely can form interlocked umbrellas of dead limbs and trunks such that over the course of several years they impose a safety hazard as limbs, trees, or previously suspended fractured trunk fragments work free and crash to the ground.

And of course sections of hiking trails can slide off into the canyon up against a cliff face or a steep hillside so that either no passage is available or a narrow, dangerous width is all that remains.

If I may, I'd like to describe two trails, one that was heavily damaged in the Curve Fire of 2002 (see Click Here ) and another trail which has a 15-foot extremely unsafe gap caused by a land slide which carried the trail -- and thousands of pounds of San Gabriel granite -- down in to the canyon about 500 feet below the trail.

Soldier Creek Trail is located in the Crystal Lake Recreation Area of the Angeles National Forest (see Click Here ).

The trails within that recreation area are the responsibility of the San Gabriel River Ranger District of the United States Forest Service (see Click Here ) which routinely asks the San Gabriel Mountains Trailbuilders (see Click Here) to perform volunteer trail repairs.

The campgrounds themselves are the largest grounds in the ANF, boasting over 300 individual camp sites and numerous hiking and nature trails.

Soldier Creek (located at North 34 degrees, 19.354 by West 117 degrees, 49.976 at 5656 feet) burned in the Curve Fire of 2002. Helicopter and fixed wing aircraft mounted a massive effort to save Crystal Lake campgrounds which is contained within a basin, and Soldier Creek forms a very large circle which cuts through a section of that basin. The forest along parts of the trail were saved while other parts could not be saved.

Of those sections that burned, now six years later we find that much of the undergrowth has returned with plants that thrive after fires coming back full steam, choking off much of the Sunlight-exposed parts of the trail. Catalina Cherries (Prunus Lyonii, see Click Here ) are now growing along much of the newly Sun-exposed trail, affording the local bear population a good source of fresh fruit.

Those exposed sections of the trail are relatively easy to restore, needing only to have the plants in the trail removed and the plants growing along the trail to be cut back -- with the occasional down tree bucked up and removed.

The sections of the trail which previously formed a canopy of tree limbs before the fire, however, have been left a twisted mass of interlocked limbs and tree trunks -- some of them extremely heavy, all of which is blackened to some degree.

The burned trunks don't slip past each other as easily as hard bark does so what's left are settled and locked safety hazards hanging over the trail where people are expected to walk. Because rot and corruption continues, on occasion parts will break free and so we get a condition where -- left naturally on its own -- it would all take decades to fall to ground on its own.

Soldier Creek is closed due to the fact that the Crystal Lake Recreation Area itself is closed, currently getting rebuilt and restored in the aftermath of the 2002 Curve Fire and the resulting heavy flooding of 2005. The campgrounds should re-open some time in 2010 and when they do the campgrounds themselves as well as the infrastructure -- drinkable water, electricity to the amphitheater, new environmentally friendly toilets -- all of that will be new and pristine.

But what about the hiking and nature trails? As you probably know, the economy is in the toilet -- and the current political environment is not nearly as friendly to the forest's ecology as the new plastic toilets up at Crystal Lake. By that I mean that the economy, such as it is, has not much room for budgets that would pay for environmental trail restoration efforts past a certain dollar amount.

In the aftermath of the Curve Fire a series of contractors were called in to place bids on the restoration of some of the hiking trails damaged by fire and floods. One contractor outfit won the bid (led by a rugged outdoors man named Marvin) and the restoration of a number of hiking trails was performed using trail machines and experienced people to do the work.

But that contracted effort only covered a percentage of the trails -- something like 15% or 20%, by my calculations, and five miles of that effort was Upper Bear Creek Trail which is some 8 miles South of Crystal Lake campgrounds. There was no money -- and perhaps no desire -- to have a contractor restore any of the other trails which were less damaged.

The San Gabriel Mountains Trailbuilders are responsible for maintaining the hiking and nature trails within the San Gabriel River Ranger District, and we are a pretty healthy and rugged band of outdoor people who have the tools, experience, and dedication to do the work for free that contractors would want to be paid for.

In addition to hiking and nature trails, we build access trails to new toilets that have been installed to reduce the human waste being dumped in to or along the streams and rivers that are conveyed to our drinking water faucets down in the cities below. We also widen existing trails so that horses and mules can be used to haul out garbage collected by USFS people and by volunteers, making the effort easier and faster and thus allowing for greater volumes of garbage to be hauled out of our forest.

We also build bridges, install signs, build water sluices and spillways, repair drainage culverts, stamp out minor fires when we feel it is safe to do so, answer people's questions, and pretty much do whatever we're asked to do. We do this by turning out to work every other week end as a regular schedule, and by turning out on other days for special projects.

We coordinate groups of other volunteers -- Boy Scouts, High School clubs, church groups, Buddhist youth groups, where ever young, strong backs can be found.

So while the paid contractor performed their work on the trails they had been contracted to restore, the SGMTBs got to work restoring and maintaining the other trails. Lost Ridge Trail, Golden Cup Nature Trail, Tototngna Nature Trail (which we eventually abandoned,) Half Knob Trail, Sunset Ridge Trail, Windy Gap Trail, Cedar Canyon Trail, and so many others.

The missing trail in all this work was Soldier Creek Trail. The trail had been surveyed periodically (while wearing hard hats!) to get a general feel for the restoration effort that's needed, and while most of the volunteers apparently set the restoration aside for more pressing jobs (such as building the second foot bridge behind the Environmental Education Center at Rincon Station) I looked at the trail and considered it to be too dangerous to attempt restoration.

That danger changed a bit over the past two years.

Last year and now this year Soldier Creek has had its two ends worked on by volunteers removing plants from the trail, clipping back growth, removing downed trees, right up to the areas where I consider it to be too dangerous for young volunteers (even a minor hazard is considered too great for other people's children to be exposed to. Safety is damn frigging the absolute number one priority on these projects and if anything is conceivably dangerous, we don't ask kids to participate in it.)

The hung up canopy of dead trees and limbs is the real problem now. Some of it can be brought down with chainsaws and ropes safely and then the remains, once on the ground, can be bucked up and hauled off of the trail. A lot of the really hazardous knots can't be taken care of that way, though. Even free-standing dead trees are a hazard when they're cut down, but having thousands of pounds of materials above which could fall while we work becomes too hazardous.

None of the Trailbuilders have blasting licenses and even if we were granted permission to blast apart such knots, that's not really a good solution.

Blasting using detonation cord (see Click Here ) is only done when there is an extreme need, and blasting is heavily controlled at all stages with extreme care, checks, double checks, and pre-planning. Blasting is also forbidden within designated wilderness and Soldier Creek abuts a designated wilderness.

The only solution that remains is the difficult, heavy labor one. Chains with hooks will need to be looped carefully around hung-up tree trunks and larger limbs, then the chains will have to be tied to a griphoist (see sample griphoist manufacturer information at Click Here ) which is anchored by cable to large boulders or large surviving trees if any are in the area.

The hand-cranked lever on the griphoists that the Trailbuilders can use get about a half inch to one full inch of contraction per crank on the lever, and since the griphoist pulls on both the up and down stroke of the lever, we can move tree trunks about 1 or 2 inches every 5 seconds or so. Cranking a griphoist itself is fairly easy but it quickly becomes exhausting -- more so if the capable load is exceeded and the safety pin needs to be replaced.

We can examine hang ups, pull down trunks, and then re-examine the remaining hang ups for safety, then we can pull down some more, picking the jackstraws tangle apart over the course of many months -- if not years. What gets pulled down can be bucked up with chainsaws and get carted away. Four teams can work, two teams on either end of the trail, one team on an end pulling down tree trunks, the other de-limbing, bucking up, and hauling away the limbs and trunks that are pulled down.

Though Soldier Creek Trail will be marked closed during the restoration effort, we often encounter hikers using the trails any way -- despite signs being posted on both ends. Because of this we post volunteers at safe distances from the work and we do not allow hikers to proceed through the work areas. Safety is always, always the number one priority in any of the work that we do, and having people without safety clothing, equipment, and training around the work area is absolutely forbidden.

This kind of work may be slow but it's safe. It's labor intensive and exhausting but it gets the job done. It re-opens the trail to a safe and usable condition without having to wait years or decades for nature to do it naturally. It also allows us to pro-actively down dead trees that will eventually cause problems, allowing us to drop trunks so that they can be used to retain soil during the rainy season.

Once the deadfalls are removed, the hung up trees are pulled down and bucked up, and the trail is cleared of plants that have grown in the fire-ash-rich topsoil, the Trailbuilders will take a look at the way rain water is drained off of the trail and the final touches will be carved in to the trail.

The last thing that will be done before periodic maintenance takes over is an effort to work with the U. S. Forest Service's Resource Officer to provide as many young pine tree saplings as possible so that volunteers can be assembled to enter in to the burn area along Soldier Creek and to replant the area.

Typically something near 300 or 400 four-year-old pine saplings can be planted by 50 or so volunteers in under four hours though I would estimate that in order to hike back and forth from the highway trailhead in to the burn areas to plant 300 or 400 trees would take more time -- perhaps 6 or 7 hours. Since the creek always has water running in it all year, water can be carried up from the creek and each pine sapling can be given a drink after they're placed in their new homes.

That's Soldier Creek, something of a representative of how a trail gone bad can be reworked to bring it back to a safe, usable condition once again. Reading about such an effort may look like it's hot, exhausting, sweaty, but rewarding work -- and it is -- but it's also fun. Working like this affords an opportunity that very few people living in the cities and urban enclaves of society ever get to experience.

There is also the added benefit of exercise.

I see a lot of cars parked outside of exercise companies such as one called "L. A. Fitness" which boasts a motto of, "Where fitness is a way of life," according to their web site.

I always wonder at why people will pay good money to purchase a contract to exercise in one, a contract which most people who purchase them use for a few months and then give up on, much like exercise bikes, weight lifting equipment, rowing machines, and all the rest that people buy thinking they'll use to get in to shape and then quickly abandon.

The volunteers who will be restoring Soldier Creek back in to its original wonderful self will be getting exercise for free, doing it outdoors, enjoying the hot Sun, the cold rains, and the companionship -- not to mention the laughter and yelling of Boy Scouts and other young volunteers enjoying the effort as well.

The other kind of trail which goes bad is the more common one where a section of the trail breaks off and slides down in to the canyon, leaving either no trail left or an extremely narrow and unsafe gap in the trail.

Upper Bear Creek Trail (North 34 degrees, 17.249 by West 117 degrees, 50.565 at 3273 feet, see Click Here for the trail's current status, and also see Click Here for local flora) is one such hiking trail.

This trail begins around mile marker 30 along Highway 39 (a.k.a. Azusa Blvd. a.k.a. San Gabriel Canyon) and climbs another 3000 feet or so up to Smith Mountain Saddle before the trail enters in to the designated wilderness.

The hiking trail is much loved and heavily used, at least when the Caltrans gate which currently closes the road is moved up the highway from its current position to just past the trailhead so that people can get to the trailhead. On any given day of the year regardless of weather there are people hiking up and down the trail.

The main parking lot at the trailhead is huge, consisting of an area called the "Valley of the Moon" which boasts of parking for about 100 cars. The allure of the trail is that it tops out at Smith Mountain Saddle, dips in to the designated wilderness, and then heads downward again toward the direction of the Rincon Fire Station and then on to West Fork Road where the other trail head is.

In all Bear Creek Trail is about 11 miles long. Hikers find a huge number of areas where they may camp for the night, find water and solitude, commune peacefully with bears, and come back out of the trail back on to solid concrete where after it's another 2 mile hike to Highway 39 then another 7 or 8 mile hike back up to Valley of the Moon, if that's where they left their vehicle.

Day hikes and overnight campouts are very popular along Bear Creek Trail however in January of 2008 there were reports from hikers that the trail had gone bad about 2.25 miles from the upper trailhead at Valley of the Moon. This end of the trail is usually the starting point for the trek along the trail since most of the hike is down hill once Smith Mountain Saddle is reached, and the walk back up is on the road -- an easy hike.

What had happened was that a 15 foot section of the trail which abuts a San Gabriel Granite cliff face broke off along with thousands of pounds of dirt and rock under it (see http://www.CrystalLake.Name/twork/19jan08/19jan08.htm ) and left a gap across which it was extremely dangerous to pass.

The gap (North 34 degrees, 17.575 by West 117 degrees, 51.374 at 4175 feet) was such that the first survey used ropes and safety equipment to traverse at which point an estimation of the effort needed to rebuild the trail was made.

While the survey was being conducted, hikers attempted to pass through and while most turned back a few used our ropes to cross -- against our wishes but we could not stop those who had seen rock climbers using ropes and thought that seeing it on television qualified them to do it safely.

Ha! As volunteers we can ask that people not do things that are dangerous but we can't actually stop anyone unless we actually arrest them, something we have never had to do but might when it comes to falling trees, blasting, and other, more serious hazards when we work. Even then we can't physically restrain people.

If anyone wants to proceed and fights for their right to put their lives -- and other people's lives -- at risk, all we can do is radio up and down the line to stop all work, step back, retreat to safety, and allow the irresponsible people to pass.

Fortunately we've never had a serious problem, only people crossing on our ropes when we don't want them to and on rare occasion literally picking up our tools that we just set down, stealing them, and hiking off with our tools (I have to laugh a bit each time that happens. The audacity of some people is amazing.)

The Bear Creek gap left no conceivable foothold. People could climb down in to the canyon (about 200 feet at that point) cross the ravine, and then climb back up on the far side however we watched a number of hikers doing that and while they did so successfully and safely, there is still a pretty good danger in that a wrong step could mean a rolling fall of another 300 feet or so to the canyon floor.)

The canyon walls themselves are exposed to direct Sunlight for most of the day and as such California baccata yucca and other varieties of yucca (see ) grows very well on the canyon walls and the floor of the ravine -- at least where rock slides have not buried the plants below.) Bayonet yucca (or Spanish Bayonet) is very unhappy to fall on to since it's often got very sharp barbs and the sides of each palm can be extremely sharp.

At some times of the year the canyons in the area are crammed packed with yucca, usually the variety that looks like filamentosa which has flowers that I've eaten safely before -- something that's probably not really healthy to do because moths lay their eggs in the flowers.

Because of the danger the U. S. Forest Service pronounced the trail closed past the point of the gap, issuing official declarations and posting warning signs at the upper trailhead.

Two other surveying efforts which followed up the closure was performed by the SGMTBs which brought numerous tools to try to use to effect enough of a safe trail up against the rock face, if possible, to re-open the trail. After much pounding, chipping, prying and some abusive language, we left with the trail still being un-passable though we did block off the trail with a rope to keep people from proceeding.

After the rope was stolen we pretty much gave up trying to keep people from trying to cross the gap but since the trail is closed, anyone caught using the trail past the gap can be expected to be fined -- and the routine helicopters as well as fixed-wing aircraft patrolls can easily see people on the trail to call them in on the radio and give physical descriptions of their clothing. What fun!

Now the rock face needs to be blasted apart with explosives which can be used after an environmental impact survey and report are created and after the SGMTBs build protective covers for the variety of endangered plants that are in the area and then apply the protection.

Four hundred pounds of explosives were apparently planned for the blasting apart of the cliff face, something that I have to smile about. We can use rock hammer drills to drill blasting holes in to the cliff face, using safety ropes and equipment do to so safely. Then I would have expected that anywhere from 50 pounds to 80 pounds or so would have been enough to fracture the rock however 400 pounds has been requested.

Once blasting has been completed volunteers can come in and pry apart the loose rock, further chipping out the cliff face as needed and possibly requesting additional blasting if needed. 400 pounds of explosives and the assorted tools and equipment needed for the job will have to be carried in on people's backs or on the backs of horses or mules.

Once all of the rock face that is needed to be removed has been excavated and removed, another evaluation of the effort will be performed and the environmental safety measures applied to the protected endangered species in the area will be removed. Once that has been accomplished the SGMTBs will carve out a new section of trail where the rock cliff face previously was.

We have a couple of things going for us for when this restoration project takes place, hopefully at the beginning of next year if Caltrans allows us to cross the bridge along the highway that they are currently working on.

The biggest help for this project is the availability of water in a ravine about 500 feet further up the trail past the gap, water which should run perhaps four months out of the year. The second help is that there is some shade in the area during morning hours thanks to the hillsides and ravines.

We're not supposed to drink the water but having a source means that the dirt, grime, and sweat can be washed off from time to time and volunteers will be able to cool off during the restoration project.

This is how some of the things get done in the Angeles National Forest. Hiking trails and nature trails are established and maintained either by contractors or by volunteers (or by deer and other animals, I should add.) Volunteers are preferable since they don't need to be paid however contractors afford a professional level of workers who are trained in safety whereas volunteers may not be.

The best of all worlds is having experienced volunteers who are safe and do it all for free, or having experienced professional volunteers who work with inexperienced volunteers so that new generations of safe and experienced volunteers can have fun doing such work in the forest.

From time to time hikers will work their way through a trail restoration or maintenance project and they'll be amazed at the hard work and effort that goes in to keeping hiking trails open. Some seem to think that trails magically appear -- and some will trails do seem to thanks to deer and other animals -- and that trail maintenance is done by hiking clubs and paid Forestry employees.

Hiking clubs some times do form trail work crews and they will do a whole lot of work, rebuilding the trails that they love and making things safer, yet often trail clubs and hiking clubs don't last very long and while everyone in such clubs wish that more people would join and carry on the club's efforts, over the months and years such clubs often simply die out.

There are a number of organized, systematic trail working crews that operate in Southern California, teams which work closely with the U. S. Forest Service to maintain hiking trails all throughout Southern California. All such teams do pretty much the same work as I described above when trails go bad or just need some routine maintenance.

None are as majestic, rugged, and (let's face it!) heroic as the San Gabriel Mountains Trailbuilders, of course, but there are a number of groups out there that do a whole lot of good work.

If you're interested in joining such a group or just want to come out and participate on a project to see what it is like, email me at or contact Ben White at and we will let you know when the next work day is scheduled, where we will meet, what we will be doing, and what you should bring along.

All of the tools and equipment needed for trail work is usually provided by the crew team that you'll work with, needing only that you bring a hat, lots of water to drink, and your lunch. Often gloves are provided since experienced groups will require safety equipment as needed for each job and they will have plenty to loan out to volunteers.

The SGMTBs usually provides cold drinks in an ice chest where bringing in an ice chest is not too difficult. Our team also provides hands-on experience and organization for volunteers who might like to acquire chainsaw or crosscut saw certifications, wilderness first aid medical certifications, or delayed medical respnse certifications.

It's an opportunity for experienced hikers to see the other side of the trail. More than that, it's fun.

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