Trail closures and reroutes. It can be a sticky topic. You certainly can’t make everyone happy all of the time. Inevitably, when you make the decision to shut down a section of trail because it’s unsustainable or unsafe, you will be shutting down somebody’s favorite stretch of trail. When you do decide it’s best to close something down, it’s best to try your best to replace it with a reroute that will provide as many or more smiles as the section you’re closing.
We and our hosts, the Austin Ridge Riders, faced this very issue on our project this weekend. Walnut Creek Park is a very popular trail system in metro Austin and very heavily trafficked by mountain bikers, hikers, runners, and off-leash dog walkers. It’s a wonderful in-town recreation resource, but it’s being loved to death. The heavy traffic, drought-deluge cycles, and numerous unsustainably routed fall-line trails have led to ongoing maintenance issues on sections that hold water or are badly eroding. The Ridge Riders have been the long-time caretakers of this and many other trail systems in the Austin metro area, and they have to consider user safety and land manager relationships as well as the fun factor for trail users of all walks of life. And in this case, the land manager was emphatic that the section be closed down.
Yes, that badly eroding, steep, rocky, fall-line stretch of trail is fun to ride for many riders. For many others, it’s a section they steer clear of because it’s beyond their skill level. For all, it’s a source of unexpected cross-traffic at an unsigned four-way intersection. For the ecosystem, it’s two-foot deep, five-foot wide rut that has over the years dumped a great deal of sediment into the creek below as soil and rock has been displaced by water runoff and trail users. For the land manger, it’s a safety and liability concern.
In the end, the 160 feet of eroding fall-line trail was closed down, also eliminating the hazardous intersection. Volunteers in our trail building class installed log check dams to help mitigate continued run-off and erosion and help restore the profile of the hill. They also broke up the compacted soil, transplanted in some plants from the surrounding area, and mulched the area over so the area will re-vegetate with new growth over time, restoring stability to the hill. To close down the visual corridor and help the old trail to disappear, they installed a bunch of vertical pieces (trees pulled from the newly constructed trail and old tree trunks). These will create a visual screen until natural regrowth covers the area in the Spring.
So where’s the spoonful of sugar to help users swallow this loss of trail? The volunteers also cut in 425 feet of brand spanking new trail that joins up on the lower leg with the existing trail in a much safer way than the old intersection. Users are slowed down and merged with the existing trail below with riders also already slowed down by an uphill climb. There is a lot of visibility as the trails parallel each other for a stretch, allowing users to see oncoming traffic from the other trail well in advance of the merge. We designed the new trail to have as much descending as possible to make it fun for riders of all levels, while still keeping it within sustainability guidelines. We hope that the new, flowy downhill section will be a worthy replacement for the section that was closed down. All in all, users are getting almost three times the amount of trail in exchange for what was lost, and more users will be able to enjoy it.
Check out a bunch of before/after pictures in our Flickr! set or in the slideshow below. (To see captions, view them on the Flickr! site.)
Big kudos to all of the volunteers that put in a lot of great work on Saturday, and thanks to the Austin Ridge Riders for organizing this weekend, which also included a social at Gibson bar and a Better Living Through Trails presentation aimed at land managers and policy makers from Austin, Burnet, Cedar Park, Taylor, and San Marcos. It was extra special getting to do a visit in our home town!