Stay off: Emerald closed due to mud as trails can’t handle traffic yet

The city of Steamboat Springs has closed trails on Emerald Mountain, except for Blackmer, due to wet and muddy conditions. Using trails while muddy can cause permanent damage to the trail and the surrounding area. (Photo by Shelby Reardon)

STEAMBOAT SPRINGS — This weekend, everyone will be itching to get outside as the temperature rises above 55 for the first time in awhile. However, after a wet week, trails may not be ready to handle the foot or tire traffic yet.

With Emerald Mountain melting off, and Spring Creek and Mad Creek trails being open since April 16, trail usage is on the rise, but people have to remember to be patient. The snow is nearly gone in the open, lower portions of the trails, but the ground is still soft, especially with the recent rain.

Just walking can leave deep footprints or divots in the earth. Biking can do even more damage, setting deep ruts in the trail that will eventually dry and harden.

The city of Steamboat Springs has closed all trails on Emerald Mountain due to conditions, but Blackmer remains open.

“We’re asking people to be more educated in what they’re doing,” said Craig Robinson, the city’s parks, open space and trails manager. “If you really want to ride a mountain bike, it’s time to go somewhere outside the county. It’s called mud season for a reason.”

The key, of course, is determining how muddy is too muddy.

“If you’re traveling on a trail, and there’s only one or two little spots that are moist, and you’re leaving a print from your tread, but it’s not actually causing a rut, you’re probably fine,” said Brendan Kelly, Hahns Peak-Bears Ears Ranger District recreation specialist. “But, if you are causing a noticeable rut by whatever trail activity you’re doing, you should turn around at that point.”

A muddy footprint leaves a large hole near the Ninth Inning Trailhead of the Emerald Trail Systems. (Photo by Shelby Reardon)

The city’s online map will be updated as trails open and includes a large notice asking people to not ride on wet or muddy trails, as it causes damage.

Small prints in trails won’t do too much harm and will soon get worn away. It’s the trail-wide puddles, streams or deep mud that causes the most damage.

“One of the biggest problems is when you come to those big mud pits, people tend to not go through them, and they walk around them,” said Jenny Carey, open space and trails supervisor. “That causes a lot of trail widening and braiding. So it’s just a greater impact over time.”

One of the largest problems the city encountered last spring was the creation of new social trails. People would opt to avoid the muddy, natural surface trails and walk on grass and underbrush that was less muddy.

“We’re challenged to maintain the existing trail system as is,” Robinson said. “Now, we have people traveling off trails and making their own trails. It’s harmful to the environment and harmful to wildlife.”

The City of Steamboat Springs has elected to close trails on Emerald Mountain, aside from Blackmer, due to muddy conditions. Using muddy trails can cause longterm damage to the trail and the surrounding environment.

Social trails can lead to compacted soil where plants no longer grow. Additionally, it can lead to startling animals in habitats they’ve come to learn are not near trails. That can stress out animals and lead them to burn through fat reserves or lead to displacement.

The damage goes beyond that, too. If a rut is formed on a muddy trail, any future rain or runoff will travel in those ruts and erode the trail. Not only does that degrade the experience, but it negatively affects the surrounding environment.

“That sediment is getting deposited into streams, which could affect municipal watersheds as well as aquatic systems,” Kelly said.

Bike tires, feet and paws leave noticeable ruts at the Ninth Inning Trailhead of the Emerald Trail System. (Photo by Shelby Reardon)

Until the trails are dryer, Routt County residents will have to exercise a little bit of self discipline and patience. Kelly suggests recreators of all types visit the Tread Lightly website to learn how to use trails with minimal negative impact.

“They will dry out; it’ll get here,” encouraged Carey. “It’ll be here soon enough.”

If anyone has any questions, they can call Parks and Recreation at 970-879-4300.

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