Venturing New Trails

4:16 p.m. on January 14, 2009 (EST)
19 reviewer rep
160 forum posts

So I read the article about staying on the trail, and I hear this all the time. And I always do when crossing private property, but when I'm in a park, sometimes their is the hint of adventure to go explore something off trail. Last year for example I took my time following a small creek and deer prints in WV along the New River to discover a beautiful secluded spot that turned that lil creek into the top of a waterfall.

How do new trails get blazed? Some people seriously object to people wondering a foot off the path, because of the possibility of erosion damage or plant life damage. Which I think is over the top.

But doesn't anyone explore new areas? Does the park service just establish the trails? What about wilderness areas where no trails are established? Are people allowed to explore in designated areas?

7:21 p.m. on January 14, 2009 (EST)
4,429 reviewer rep
6,014 forum posts

Regulations and practice are very dependent on the land owner and/or land manager. In the National Parks and many State Parks, it is ok to venture off trail. In some of these, however, there are restrictions to stay on established trails. In some cases, this is for safety. In others, it is environmental concerns. Many areas have regulations related to endangered species. For example, in Pinnacles National Monument, off-trail travel is forbidden in certain areas, due to raptor or condor nesting (many of us have been on climbs in Pin and had a condor land near us, within the official minimum distance of approach and had the beast just sit there staring at these strange creatures climbing up the rock with ropes and such - hard to abandon the area quick enough, but we all strongly support the recovery efforts for these prehistoric creatures who came so close to extinction). Also in Pin, there are strict rules about "off-trail" approaches to the climbs (basically, use only the marked "Climber Access" entry points).

In popular parks (such as the East Bay Regional Parks or the Mid-Peninsula Open Space Reserves), the parks are so popular and the erosion develops so quickly with "casual" trails that the rules have to be pretty strict. I have seen this in Yosemite as well, such as the huge grid of criss-crossing trails on peaks like Mt Hoffman (mentioned prominently in a couple of John Muir's books, hence the popularity).

Question is how fragile is the area, how sensitive in other ways, how many users, and how many people are likely to become users (hence serious erosion or wildlife interaction problems are there likely to be?)

Setting a foot off the trail is potentially very damaging, because so many people get tempted to cut the switchbacks. Go to some of the really popular trails and look at how eroded the switchback corners have become, and how they make water channels that erode massively during rain storms.

There are ways to explore with minimal impact, even in extremely fragile areas. The thing is to learn about what areas are fragile and to what extent. You do this by taking a Leave No Trace course (not just the 10 minute onceover, but a full multiday course), or better, by going through the 3 day LNT Trainer course or week-long Master Trainer course, and then by lots of study of the areas you are going to.

You state, mikekey, that setting a foot off the path is "over the top". You forget that the impacts are cumulative, and that some environments are much more fragile than others. I have seen areas that were once pristine and showed no human impact become severely damaged over the years, and others that were previously impacted slowly slowly begin to recover when access was restricted. Couple of examples - the approaches to Kings Peak in the Uintas look like multilane swamp slogs in the meadows. But sections of the Muir Trail that once were multi-lane freeways have now, after years of limited access, started to recover to looking like a faint path.

If you want to explore an area, contact the land owner or land manager. Explain your purpose and practice, including your LNT training. You just might get permission to enter an area where only 1 or 2 people a year go, or where no one has been for a couple decades.

7:40 p.m. on January 14, 2009 (EST)
0 reviewer rep
693 forum posts


If you hike off-trail it presupposes that you don't want to also create a new trail. This may be easy enough to do if you are just bushwhacking solo, but becomes more difficult when you are part of a crowd.

I have been able to establish temporary trails for personal use into and out of a long-term camp without others detecting them - thus these "trails" did not offend anyone. This requires more patience in picking your pathway than great skill. Blazing such a trail can be done quite innocuously - using signals that only the "builder" would look for - thus no trace of a trail proper exists.

Of course, the environment you hike in may be fragile and quickly show wear. In that instance I would stay on-trail for the benefit of all, unless an opportunity arose to leave the trail without committing lasting damage.

If you choose an area that is far from a large human population - most of Canada comes to mind - then the amount of damage you will wreak in merely treading the ground will be of little moment - certainly it is not greater than the imprints of a moose - and will not be seen by others, inducing them to follow. Most of Maritime Canada, for example, has been cut over at least twice - yet it has still a certain beauty if you look for it. To find the best you must seek it, IMO.

9:58 p.m. on January 14, 2009 (EST)
19 reviewer rep
160 forum posts

I took a 3 day LNT course that one of local outfitters offered two summers ago.

I think I'm just curious about the areas that have the least human visitation. I've heard about the damage in major parks.

But when and how do they establish a new trail?

10:20 p.m. on January 14, 2009 (EST)
110 reviewer rep
762 forum posts

To me the question is "Why?' rather than "How?" If a trail is established, and used, why create new ones. Think back 2 summers, young Grasshopper. You learned the answer you seek then.

10:24 p.m. on January 14, 2009 (EST)
1,663 reviewer rep
3,956 forum posts

This is strictly meant to be humorous and based on my travels on the Appalachian Trail where I met a lot people. Like the guy who made his own tent from recycled (dumpster diving) tyvek and bamboo poles with a door zipper from a dress. I'm serious!

This is a good subject, some people will say: Stay on the designated trail and only step in the footprints of the person in front of you. Do not spit, sneeze, breathe or exhale. For God sakes don't build a fire and wait till you get home to use the bathroom! These are usually the type that don't eat meat or dairy, wear little beady glasses and are convinced they know how to bring about world peace in three easy steps. They love hostels, hemp clothing, and recycle newsprint, you know, for toilet paper.

Others say: (and I HAVE heard this)
I'll go anywhere I dang well please and do anything I please 'cause no one owns the wilderness. Usually while the song "A country boy can survive" blares from their 4x4 at the trail head. Sometimes there is a rebel flag, some Copenhagen, and the King of Beers involved. Many of them do recycle the cans, you know, for beer money.

But seriously....
I think most reasonable people fall far from these extremes and somewhere in the middle.
I also think most people seek adventure/challenge of some kind. For those of us that love the outdoors and seek our adventure there, we must balance our use of the wilderness, with preserving it.

It is quite possible to love the backcountry to death!
In fragile environments and/or in areas with lots of use we must lean more towards preserving the area. Staying on trails, practicing strict LNT, (packing EVERYTHING out) and even closing sections so that the area can recover are often necessary.

In areas that are not so fragile and/or see little use we can do our adventuring a little more freely, we must still practice LNT, follow the rules, and use common sense.

It is no secret that I often travel off trail in order to get to special places. But I try to keep in mind that the whole area is special in terms of habitat to flora & fauna and may well have a fragile ecosystem in ways I'm not aware of.
I only go off trail in areas that I feel see very little traffic, usually solo or just one other person, and I pay close attention to not disturbing my surroundings.
I try to tread lightly and avoid stepping on delicate plants or flowers as these are important to the balance of that particular ecosystem. If I dig a hole, I save the moss and place it back, ect.
I used to think some of these things were a bit silly, but as I've gotten older I realize how our impact affects things we may not be aware of. This is the reason LNT guidelines were developed, to protect the wilderness.

I have a few very discreet trail markers that only I know about that lead to some of my favorite spots.
It's hard to know for sure, but sometimes I like to think I may be the first "white man" to sit on a particular rock or to look up into the boughs of a huge old growth tree.

It's an intriguing thought!

10:40 p.m. on January 14, 2009 (EST)
1,663 reviewer rep
3,956 forum posts


Here is a 6 page PDF file on the Southern Appalachians that I think you would really like, especially since you are living close by.
I liked it so much that I copied it, check it out, it is a very good read!
This is the Southern Appalachian Conservation Assessment of 2004

12:36 a.m. on January 15, 2009 (EST)
4,429 reviewer rep
6,014 forum posts

Thanks, trout. I learned a few things from that assessment. Somehow, for example, having lived in Mississippi for a decade, I thought that loblolly was native to the area. But I realized on reading this that this impression was because there is so much tree-farming in MS (mostly for pulp for paper). Just goes to show how an invasive species, forced on the land, can come to appear as if it always belonged there.

Turns out we have a few trees here in the SFBay Area that everyone thinks of as native, but are invasive. And when I was growing up in Arizona, sitting around the campfire (made from mesquite we had chopped down), listening to the coyote (which were considered varmints in those days, with a bounty for every hide you brought into the county agricultural agent), and singing "Tumbling Tumbleweeds" as we strummed our guitars, we had no idea that tumbleweeds (aka Russian thistle ) were invasive - they were so prevalent.

We also were unaware of cryptobiotic soil ( ) thinking it just looked like slightly crusty sand, never knowing it was a life form that would become considered endangered.

Hey, nothing there, it's just dry, empty desert (NOT!!!)

9:14 a.m. on January 15, 2009 (EST)
1,663 reviewer rep
3,956 forum posts

Thanks, in turn, Bill S.

I have never seen a tumble weed except on TV, but now I know a lot more.
I also do not know much about desert ecosystems, but I enjoy learning, now I know something about cryptobiotic soil, how cool. Its not just dry sand!

10:47 a.m. on January 15, 2009 (EST)
2 reviewer rep
29 forum posts

Don't tell anyone this but I have unwittingly cultivated nearly an acre of highly aggressive, invasive, non-native plants in the meadow behind my home. When I first moved in the rear acre was covered in white clover and bees. In my great quest to reclaim the former farm field and naturalize it (on a budget), I searched the yard and found some "native" plants and scrub trees, from which I nurtured by eliminating all competition from surrounding plants. Well, 10 years later, I have over an acre of beautiful flowering meadow and black locust, that stands up to high winds, drought, dogs, and heavy rains. The flowers and trees propagate by seeds and roots and have quickly and quietly eliminated the other native plants that I had left in the yard. And though I mow down the meadow once a year, it returns stronger than ever. The high winds have likely spread the "native" seeds by the millions to any and all farrow fields. Fortunately, or unfortunately, the neighbors and farmers dump tons of pesticides to eradicate all weeds and any other forms of life from their property. Its all relative I guess... though the flowers and trees are highly invasive weeds, the meadow is the only naturalized place for miles around, providing a haven for nesting birds, rabbits, toads, snakes, praying mantis, walking sticks, bees,field mice, rats, skunks, and the hawks, owls, and bats that frequent the area. If it were not fenced, I'd likely have deer and other larger animals. Sadly, this meadow will not last since my home is on the market and the new owner will likely rip it all out and cover it with non-native, invasive, lawn grass maintained by pesticides to keep it looking nice.

Kind of off topic but does anyone have an opinion on whether we should continue to eradicate undesired plants, insects and animals from our parks and trails... or should we allow nature to take its course, even to the point of closing down cherished trails and places like Yellowstone, and other popular parks (to all visitors includiing hikers and those in RV's )long enough to allow wildlife and plants to return to a more naturalized state of existence.

12:36 p.m. on January 15, 2009 (EST)
4,429 reviewer rep
6,014 forum posts

laughingbear -
I am sorry to inform you that there is no such thing any longer as "letting Nature take its course." Example - in California, in many of the parks and open space reserves, the policy is "letting nature take its course". Unless ... a fire starts somehow (we had literally thousands of lightning strike fires last spring). Then the cry goes up to "protect property". Then everything from modified DC-10s and helicopters to bulldozers and "inmate volunteers" are called in to suppress these horrific fires that threaten houses and pets, er, I mean, domestic animals, oh wait, no, we are protecting the deer. A few thousand houses are burned and a few tens of thousands of people are evacuated (except for those unfortunate souls who stayed to "protect" their property and died in the process). The outcry (lots of media stories with heroic reporters standing next to the flames) goes up over the horror and loss and why didn't the government do more to protect us. When the next rainy season appears on the horizon, suddenly people realize that there are no plants (all killed and the roots destroyed by the heat generated by the 20 years of accumulated fuel load going up all at once), so the hills get soaked and houses slide down the hills (multi-million dollar mansions - well, gee, that's what a tarpaper shack costs in California these days, thanks to the real estate boom). So the outcry goes up again.

In the meantime, hardly anyone notices that the trees that burned most fiercely are the eucalyptus ("gum trees" imported from Australia in the 19th Century that proliferate like the rabbits that were introduced to Oz by the British in the 19th Century as feed for the foxes, also imported, that were to be the game for fox hunts).

Meantime, the fishermen are complaining about the tiger mussels they have to clean off their boats, even after a short run in the reservoir (mussels which arrived on ships from Asia and have gotten into most streams, even well into the Sierra, thanks to the ships going up the Sacramento and San Joaquin Rivers a couple hundred miles to the ports in places like Stockton that can take ocean-going freighters. The fishermen also complain that there are hardly any rainbow or German trout (which are planted in huge quantities, and neither of which were found in California before hatcheries and plantings in the early 20th Century), thanks to certain fish native to the Great Lakes being surreptitiously planted in the reservoirs by immigrants from Midwestern states who consider them "better" for the challenge.

Meanwhile, South American fire ants have moved into the southern part of the state, along with "Africanized" honeybees (honeybees were introduced from Europe into North America not long after Europeans started coming here).

Well, you get the picture. I work with a couple of youth organizations which have camps in the mountains around here. One serious problem is the invasion of what is variously called "French broom", "Scotch broom", or a couple of other names. There are a number of trees that crowd into the forests that are also non-native. In some sense, Nature takes it course, whether we "let it" or not. People turn "pets" loose, many of which are non-native, some of which breed proliferately (like the infamous, but probably fictional, black mamba snake that roamed my neighborhood 15 years ago, or the famous parrots of San Francisco or our local cockatoo colony).

I am not supporting one side or the other by this post, rather, just noting some of the facts and reality. If we follow the course suggested in your last paragraph (shutting everything down and keeping people out), the invasive species will in many cases crowd out the real native species, losing lots of plant and animal types, because there are no natural predators for these invasive species. Your alternative of eradicating the "undesired" (who decides which are "undesired" - remember the fishermen who like certain kinds of non-native sport fish, or the back yard gardners who like certain non-native plants) is fighting an uphill battle against those who accidentally or intentionally introduce the new species.

Pick your poison.

5:17 p.m. on January 15, 2009 (EST)
2 reviewer rep
29 forum posts

Hi Bill S. Thanks for the update on California, its nice to get a residents perspective on the fires etc. Like I said in my post, just asking for opinions one way or the other.

Personally I feel that as long as we put our own needs ahead of everyone else there will be consequences; for all actions create a ripple affect somewhere in the world.

Would love to know where the photo of you in the snow was taken. My dream is to travel to the Canadian Arctic/Yukon.

9:08 p.m. on January 15, 2009 (EST)
4,429 reviewer rep
6,014 forum posts

Antarctica, Branscomb Glacier, approaching Mt Vinson

10:02 p.m. on January 15, 2009 (EST)
19 reviewer rep
160 forum posts

I had a fire-figther friend who was out their fighting last summer and he told me the big problem in CA is that the environmentalist about 10 yrs ago protested them cutting down the fire lanes or whatever those sections where they used to cut to prevent the fires from spreading. The reason is the environmentalist said it was destructive to the environment.

Of course you could argue that originally no one ever put those fires out, but also, over a million people didn't live there 100 years ago.

So is it not true, that sometimes in our attempt to tamper or protect or micro-manage nature we do more harm than good?

11:05 p.m. on January 15, 2009 (EST)
0 reviewer rep
84 forum posts


I can only say about what I have seen around my home area. In my area there are a lot of small parks, or nature preserves set aside. Almost if not all of them have designated trails with signage asking that all stay on the trail. Most of the time, the parks have small amounts, or communities of delicate vegetation unique to the area. In the fall it is hard to tell what type of plant may be underfoot when going off trail. The species damaged or destroyed may have been the strongest or hardiest of the species period or in that area.

We also have a number of Park Reserves which are Parks that have not been designated as open to the public as the parks people are still determining what is and which types of plants are going to be underfoot.

You talk of erosion in parks. I have hiked in areas that the trail is so eroded by hikers that your feet are several feet below ground. These are some of the most loved to death trails. They are still eroded, and if left alone may not recover for centuries.

If you are to hike off trail PLEASE be very careful where you tread. Preferably think before you go off trail. Ask yourself these questions Who What When Where Why.

In regards to tampering with nature – YES we often do more harm than good. As a society we are only now beginning to learn about nature and just what it is. Never mind knowing how to properly or correctly direct its future.

Walk softly and carry a big stick.

11:49 p.m. on January 15, 2009 (EST)
2 reviewer rep
29 forum posts

Do you think people might avoid the trails because they don't like following a pre-determined path set up by someone else, or that they don't like the texture of whatever is underfoot?

When I worked for the parks no matter how nicely groomed the trail, we would always find people following the path, but not on the path....bikers, horseback riders, hikers...

12:12 a.m. on January 16, 2009 (EST)
1,663 reviewer rep
3,956 forum posts

Hi laughingbear,

You have raised an interesting point.
I think some people have a strong desire for adventure that is not fully satisfied by using existing pathways, or by doing things that they perceive as easy or common place.

I personally suffer from this malady and have to remind myself that I must balance my need for adventure with preservation.

One of the reasons I go on solo trips is because I can't always talk a buddy into taking the difficult, adventurous route. They always say: "But if you look at the map you can see there is a road and trail head over here, so it would be easier to just use that route."
And I'm thinking, that old boring route??? Everyone knows that trail! It's all been seen before!

I like places that are remote, pristine, and I'm probably the only one there, not because I'm a hermit, but because it gives me control over how much noise is made, or how disruptive my presence is/isn't.

I enjoy being a part of the place I'm in, observing as much as possible how things are when there is no human disturbance.
The last thing I want is some guy pounding tent stakes in the ground with a rock, and yelling "Hey, did anyone bring toilet paper this time?" At his buddy 200' away pumping water from the stream.

Why not just light firecrackers?

9:22 a.m. on January 16, 2009 (EST)
873 reviewer rep
3,921 forum posts

An important distinction should be made between going off trail because you:

A) want to make a shortcut, are cutting off the switchback, don't want to get your boots wet or muddy, saw someone else do it so it seems okay, simply disregard the rules because you don't know or understand them, or just don't care, and,

B) go truly off-trail in remoter/less-traveled areas in a responsible, relatively non-impacting way.

For those in the second group, Leave No Trace suggests ways to travel off-trail and camp in undisturbed remote areas, when it's appropriate:

10:37 a.m. on January 16, 2009 (EST)
244 reviewer rep
5,299 forum posts

After hiking in the Grand canyon 6 months out of the year for 20 years, I started hiking off trail down side canyons and across the Tonto Platform. I got "caught" a few times by backcountry rangers. They told me it was illegal to do so.
I continued till I got a ticket for nonpermit hiking in the canyon while on a moonlight hike from the South Kaibab and out the Bright Angel trail. I was down on the rim of the inner gorge below the Tonto Trail sitting on my pad. A couple rangers just before sunset came up and took me back to Indian gardens and allowed me to stay overnight.
The next morning I had to hike out and report to the head ranger station.
I had to go to court three months later and got a 100 dollar fine, three years probabtion and one years restriction from the canyon. That was in January 2003.

11:33 a.m. on January 16, 2009 (EST)
19 reviewer rep
160 forum posts

B) go truly off-trail in remoter/less-traveled areas in a responsible, relatively non-impacting way.

For those in the second group, Leave No Trace suggests ways to travel off-trail and camp in undisturbed remote areas, when it's appropriate:

I fall into that category. And I'm a minimalist by lifestyle. My home and the things I do reflect it. So I try to leave the smallest foot-prints everywhere.

Around here it seems easier to go of trail because their is no low laying vegetation. The ground is mostly clay dirt and sand. Where there is, you can't hike because it's a swamp and you'd sink.

September 18, 2018
Quick Reply

Please sign in to reply

More Topics
This forum: Older: Suicides in national parks increased in 2008 Newer: Condensation question
All forums: Older: Kelty Sleeping Bag Newer: Outdoor Retailer Winter Market 2009