Santa Fe is blessed with a wide variety of trails for hiking, running, mountain biking and horseback riding. From the iconic Winsor to more recent developments like Glorieta Camps, they are invaluable assets for locals and visitors alike. Although many may take them for granted, most trails are the result of a lot of hard work, usually by volunteers. Ever wondered how these trails are built? Here’s the process we use at the Santa Fe Fat Tire Society to bring new trails to our community.
Every trail starts with an idea. It could be to provide a connection between existing trails or access to a particular area that has unique features, views, or ecology. Others are built for a specific purpose, like a mountain biking flow trail that includes banked turns and jumps. Some trails are historical, once used by Native Americans or sheep herders, homesteaders or commercial outfits.
Whatever the source, the first step is to get approval from the landowner. Many times this may be an informal agreement to approve work on a detailed proposal.
For public agencies this can be a very long process. Due to the many uses for our public lands, trail building has to compete with other users for limited resources. And the public decision making process can take time.
For example, club member Pat Brown has been working with the Bureau of Land Management to develop trails in the 68,000 acre Nambe Badlands area for several years. Projects include construction of two ride-overs to protect fencing for grazing and proposals for new trails in the area. Currently the project is waiting on completion of a public review of a regional travel management plan.
For private landowners the process can be much simpler. In fact, it’s not unusual for a landowner to approach the club with a proposal and a request for help. Club members Henry Lanman and Brent Bonwell have worked with the Commonweal Conservancy to build over eight miles of new trails over the past two years. And recently our club has contributed funds to Glorieta Camps for construction of a new climbing trail.
Flagging / Field Identification
Once the concept has been approved, the next step is to work on a more specific proposal. This usually starts with a walk of the area or proposed route and get a feel for the landscape, features, views, and grades. The goal is to build a trail that is fun, interesting, and sustainable.
Once there’s a general idea, the builder will mark a proposed route using flags and create a GPS track. One of the most important considerations is to make sure that the trail will drain properly. This will prevent washouts and minimize maintenance in the future.
The proposed track is then submitted to the landowner who will review it for preliminary approval.
With a proposed route in hand the next step is a professional review of the proposed track to make sure that the trail doesn’t damage the environment, archaeological sites, or encroach on endangered species habitat.
This process has to be done by licensed professionals and is the first step that requires funding. In many cases the Santa Fe Fat Tire Society will cover part or all of the expense. The image to the right is an example of an area that would be flagged for preservation, in this case the remains of a possible garden boundary.
This process is both time intensive and expensive–it’s not unusual for the cost per mile to exceed $1,000 when it’s all said and done. Assuming the reviews and surveys go well, the land agency will review the data and begin the formal approval process.
After reviews, the final step is approval to proceed with construction. For a private landowner this may be a formality and construction can start immediately. For government agencies the process can take years.
Now it’s time to move dirt! At SFFTS we follow guidelines established by the International Mountain Biking Association which are detailed in their Trail Solutions guide. Another useful resource is the US Forest Service’s Trail Construction and Maintenance Notebook.
Primary considerations are to maintain ‘reasonable’ grades while minimizing the tendency for erosion. This results in a trail that will require less maintenance over time.
Construction may be by hand tools or in some cases using powered equipment. Volunteers usually contribute a large part of the labor, but skilled trail builders have to be involved to maintain standards.
When working with Public Lands agencies, certain safety and planning guidelines must be followed. Certified Trail Leaders must be leading the work crews, who are trained on trail building as well as CPR certification and other safety protocols.
Once the trail is finished it will still require regular inspections and maintenance. Local organizations like the Fat Tire Society and Santa Fe Conservation trust are responsible for much of the maintenance on local public trails. In fact, most of our trailwork is not new trails, but maintaining existing trails. Aside from sawyers clearing hundreds of deadfall trees every year in and around Santa Fe, segments of trail may washout or users may start creating shortcuts and reroutes. We find ourselves in a constant state of maintenance to ensure erosion is controlled and user experience is exceptional.
As you can see, planning, building and maintaining our local trails takes time and money. If you enjoy using the trails please consider making a contribution by joining our club or contributing to specific projects.