Hiking past massive maple trees and sturdy stone walls, we are reminded of how old our Vermont landscape is. It’s easy to imagine that the trail you’re walking is as old as the stone walls themselves, but most often this is not the case. Here at Merck Forest our trails date back only to the 1950’s, and they are being reworked to this day. It is important to maintain trails not only for hiking pleasure, but also to preserve the physical environment. Trails that go straight up mountainsides are common here in New England where older trails were cut for the express purpose of enjoying a vigorous hike to the summit (there’s nothing more vigorous than slabbing straight uphill to a mountain peak!)
As it turns out, trails that shoot straight up a mountain are more susceptible to erosion. When it rains these trails become creeks. Mud ensues. Out west, however, trails were cut to be suitable for horses, so grades are never steeper than fifteen percent. Trail builders accomplished this by utilizing switchbacks (a switchback is a 180-degree bend in the trail that allows hikers and riders to ascend or descend a mountain on a gradual grade). Switchbacks, along with incorporated water controls such as water bars (small, well-placed ditches designed to redirect water flow), are also better for the mountain because they prevent water from simply running straight down the trail.
Here at Merck Forest we are in the process of modernizing our trail system by adding switchbacks to steeper sections. To do this we climb up our mountains to assess and map problematic segments, and then flag new paths. Once we’ve laid out a new section of trail, we go in with a host of tools including rakes, shovels, pulaskis and McCleods*, and cut new trail.
Currently our staff does monthly trail work as a team to deepen our connection with the landscape and improve the sustainability and enjoyability of our network. We would love to have volunteers come out and help us on our trail days. If you are interested in helping out, just let us know. No tools or experience is necessary, and we’d love the company!