Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Another Look at Trail Building

I've written here about trail building before, but since it's been taking up quite a bit of my time this fall I figure it's time to come back to the topic once more.

For the time being my trail building energy is being spent developing a short (approx. 3 mile) mountain bike/hiking trail network at North Road Nature Preserve, a county park in my home town of Warren, Ohio.  This piece of land is bounded on one side by swampy, slow Mosquito Creek, with a big apartment complex framing the other side. The land was put into a conservation easement by a developer, then the state of Ohio transferred it to Trumbull County Metroparks for possible future development.  The total acreage is about 140 acres, but because of some site features we've limited our trail network to about half of the site.

The terrain is gently sloping towards the creek, with not very good drainage.  Part of the land was bulldozed back in the 60's as it was intended to become an addition to the apartment complex.  The vegetation on this part of the land is recovering forest, with some fairly good sized trees and patches of dense scrub in the lower, wetter spots.  Back by the creek there is strip of more mature, open forest, with some trees in the 4 to 5 foot diameter range.  And then there is a section of dense, short scrub  - the worst stuff to build trails through that I'm familiar with.

Three years ago I heard that the Howland Wellness Committee had volunteered to build trails at this site.  Since I had some experience helping  CAMBA (Cleveland Area Mountain Bike Association) build trails at West Branch State Park it seemed like I should join them and help to get this accomplished.  Turns out that I was the only one who actually had trail building experience, so I got to be the informal boss of the crew.

A section of the Red Trail, raked and ready to ride.

That first year we spent a bit of time just walking the site, getting familiar with what it had to offer.  What we found out is that the site wasn't particularly well suited for hike/mtb trails - the drainage is poor enough that during wet seasons the whole thing pretty much turns to mud.  But this would be the first shot at mtb trails in our county, and if we turned down this opportunity it might take 20 years for us to get a second chance. So we flagged a 1 mile trail loop through the second growth woods near the apartments and set to work.

One of the wet spots on the Red Trail, with a rock stockpile for armoring.

Our crew has varied over the years, but it's always been a small group.  Most of the volunteers are even older than me, and are not mountain bikers - just a group of nature-loving community people who aren't afraid to get their hands dirty.  We've had some help from other groups - Boy Scouts, Girl Scouts and once from a small local mtb club.  Since we're such a small group we don't limit ourselves to fall/winter work sessions like the bigger clubs in our area - we work all year long, conditions permitting.  But with an older core group we limit our work days to just a couple of hours, so it helps to get out more often.

The trail building process goes like this - flagging, detail flagging, corridor cutting, and tread finishing.  We start by flagging a rough line through the woods, avoiding as many wet spots as possible and hitting as many desirable areas as we can.  After that we pin-flag the trail to a more precise route, picking which side of which tree we want to pass and how tight we want the curves to be.  The next step, corridor cutting, is where it actually starts to look like a trail.  Using loppers and saws we cut back the trees and undergrowth to create a corridor about 4' wide and 7' tall.  Cutting corridor through the mature forest is pretty easy.  Cutting corridor through the newer forest is quite a bit harder.  Cutting through the scrub is brutal.

Once the corridor is cut in we have to make the tread that actually forms the trail.  We're aiming for an 18" wide tread of clear dirt in the center of the corridor, with the undergrowth trimmed down on either side.  That involves a lot of cutting out of small sapling stumps and pulling of weeds.  In the sections going through scrub this part of the job is amazingly difficult.

But persistence pays off and after the first year we had our initial trail loop finished.  That gave us 1 mile of beginner level trail, so we began planning for phase 2.  This was an out and back trail that cut down by the creek through the more mature woods.  We'd tried to run part of it right alongside the creek, but the whole area near the water was too low and soft, so we had to keep a good distance back to take advantage of more suitable soils.  It took the whole year to finish phase 2, but it turned out pretty nice.  With this trail being an out and back, now we had a 2.5 mile ride possible in one 'lap'.

In the spring of 2013 we started flagging the phase 3 of the trail.  We wanted to take advantage of the more mature forest area, and also run trail down a section of higher creek bank downstream, but in order to do this we were going to have to run a section of the trail through the dense scrub - not an optimal choice, but it's what we have to deal with.  We worked on it through the summer and fall, but when last winter hit us with long periods of heavy snow and extreme cold progress almost stopped.  Then the late spring and early summer of 2014 turned out to be so rainy that the trails were barely even suitable for walking, much less riding or working.  So it was into August before we were able to get back on track.

Newly built trail on phase 3.

The section of phase 3 that we had built in 2013 down by the creek was still in good condition, but the rainy summer had allowed the undergrowth in the recovering forest to sprout up like weeds (amazing, huh?)  We spent a good deal of time re-working the tread as well as adding rock armoring to the wettest spots.  And finally, about 2 months ago, we cut the last section of corridor for phase 3, connecting the creekside trail with the trail through the recovering woods.  Unfortunately this connection is through the dense scrub, and is the least suitable terrain for trail building that we've encountered yet.  But we're not about to give up, so it will eventually get turned into singletrack.

Newly cut corridor through the dense scrub of phase 3.  Bleah.

One of the aspects of this project that has been a lot of work is the rocks - or more precisely the LACK of rocks.  With as poor drainage as the site has it's impossible to build trail that misses all the wet spots.  To deal with these wet spots the most common approach is rock armoring - in other words paving the wet areas with big rocks.  Unfortunately there are nearly no rocks on site bigger than an apple.  That means that we have to bring rocks from off site, and then carry them into the wet spots using our trail wagon.  So far I figure we've hauled in around 6 tons of rock and gravel - all by hand power.

More new phase 3 trail through the scrub.
Another problem for this site is the blasted multiflora roses.  These are an invasive species of wild roses that are widespread across the site. While their white flowers do look nice, and the rose hips provide food for the birds - these things are the bane of my existence.  One plant can spread out over a 20' diameter, with long canes that can grow up to a foot a week.  So not only are they a pain to get rid of when you're building trail, but they constantly need cut back during the spring and summer as they reach out onto the trail.  This fall I've spent a LOT of time on the existing trails, taking advantage of the sparser foliage to hunt down and eliminate rose bushes within 10' of the trail.  My hope is that this will save a ton on maintenance time this next riding season.

Gravel path and rock armoring on one of the wet spots on phase 3.

I'm guessing that we will finish off the phase 3 trail in 2015 (that is if it doesn't rain all spring and summer like in 2014).  That would complete the scope of our original trail plan, and give a 'lap' of  about 3.5 miles.  There is a tentative plan to change the phase 2 out and back trail to a loop, which would add a bit more trail.  Personally, once the phase 3 trail is done I hope to add some mtb specific trail features to phase 2 and 3, so that developing mtbrs will have a bit of challenge once they're used to the phase 1 beginners trail.  Once that's done I have another idea - I plan on approaching Mosquito Lake State Park (just 6 miles up the road) to see if they'll let me build a mile or two of trail in their 'multipurpose trail' area.

One other little nugget of trail news from this fall,  Way back in the woods, but still within sight of our phase 2 trail, one of our volunteers found a cache of suspicious looking containers hidden out of sight beneath a big fallen log.  To make a long story short, it turned out to be chemicals used for the manufacture of methamphetamine.  It doesn't look like they actually had the lab set up back there, but just had the chemicals hidden in the woods for some reason.  Our local police investigated and removed the hazard, but it just goes to show that you need to keep your eyes open at all times.

The stash of chemicals.

Here's a little video of the phase 1 trail - aka the Red Trail.  This is from just a week or so ago, and shows that our raked trail is maintaining a surprisingly good tread considering the rain and chill temperatures we'd had for the previous couple of weeks.

Special thanks to CAMBA for tools and encouragement - I really owe you guys a ton for believing we could do this.  Also, if anyone out there reading this is interested in helping us build, or just wants more information about our little trail system, go to the 'Warren Bicyclists' facebook page and ask there.  Hope to see you on the trail!

BTW it looks like I've been writing this blog for just over 3 years.  Today it says that it got it's 12,000th view!  Not too bad for such a wandering and disorganized mess.  Special thanks to all the Russians and Ukrainians who apparently check it out frequently (????).


  1. Looks like you've created a great little trail there. Your video has me missing the woods something fierce. :) (Just don't get that here int he desert).

    1. Thanks! The trail is really starting to get to a point where I can spend an afternoon just riding around.
      I know what you mean - the forest is my natural habitat. Plains and desert are nice, but before too long I'm looking to get back under the leaf canopy.
      Have a good Christmas!

  2. Replies
    1. Hope you had a good Christmas too, TJ.

      And I hope the New Year treats you better than the last one. Too much work isn't what us old guys need. Much better to spend some time with the dog and go for a nice, long bike ride.

      I miss your blog.

      Steve Z