WNC’s mountainous terrain and large tracts of public lands bode well to our recreational enjoyment, including various forms of backcountry travel such as hiking and mountain biking. And, of course, most of this travel occurs on trails. Ah, the trail. A path to a waterfall, a path to a view, a path to freedom and relaxation. Humans have the natural ability to follow paths like instinct – some of us better than others, of course – but when traveling we know what to look for to stay on course.
Perhaps my faith in the path-finding skills of my fellow man is overreaching, but it seems that more and more often people are straying off course – and across switchbacks.
Now I doubt it’s any lack of instinct that’s causing these diversions. I’m almost sure most people who find themselves tumbling down a steep mountainside between legs of a switchback still have the ability to see where the trail goes, and where it doesn’t. I’m sure they saw that the trail went on a hundred feet further, and then turned 180 degrees to end up 30 feet down the slope from where they took off the path. So it must’ve been a conscious decision to cut corners that caused them to take the path of least resistance – and shortcut the switchback!
Honestly, I don’t see the point. Almost everywhere I hike or bike, the trail surface is MUCH more desirable than traversing whatever vegetation and geology is jutting up from the ground on either side of the path. But even a relatively clear shortcut can be steep and inefficient. I enjoy the smooth, gradual climb and descent that the switchbacks provide. So I stay on the trail! But apparently this isn’t enough to keep some people on course. Perhaps the following discussion will change a mind or two.
I’ve been guilty of cutting a switchback or two in my day, and I regret it. Perhaps I just wasn’t aware of the damage it causes. So let me make it clear to those of you who might be thinking about taking a shortcut next time: IT CAUSES DAMAGE! Water is the primary factor causing trail erosion, and on a shortcut, it runs straight downhill. Compaction of the soil and the death of vegetation (such as Trilliums and other wildflowers) by user impacts both accelerate the rate of water flow, and your favorite shortcut quickly becomes a rocky, rooty, or knee-deep gully. Where does all that dirt end up that was once in the gulley? Probably on the next section of trail, as a layer of mud, or worse, in your favorite, clear-running trout stream.
Other negative impacts of trail shortcutting include trampling of possibly rare or endangered species of plants and animals. They’re usually steep and sometimes dangerous, increasing the risk of injury to yourself. Trail shortcuts are plain ugly. And they’re a slap in the face to those who designed the trail. Taking a shortcut is like saying, ” Hey trailbuilder, I don’t like the way you built this trail. To heck with the hours of backbreaking work you put into it. I’m going this way!”
But perhaps the most destructive consequence of shortcutting the trails is that it gives land managers yet another reason to complain – and close trails. Similarly, it gives them reason to squirm when it is suggested that new trails be built. This is tragic, and it happens all the time. The trail is set aside as an area that we humans can keep destroyed. It is it’s definitely not the natural state of the land to have a hardened, brown strip running through it – so let’s keep our privelage sacred and leave the rest of the land undisturbed!