Trail Ambassadors

Volunteer trail ambassador Olivia Meigs warns a runner of a bull moose on the road about 100 yards from the Cache Creek trailhead in 2016. The program has helped inform dog walkers of the rules, including new ones like a leash law that covers trailheads at Cache and on Teton Pass.

Disregard of the rules at Cache Creek had grown so bad four years ago that dog owners received a one-week “timeout” during which furry friends weren’t allowed.

For one, dog poop at the popular near-town recreation destination was everywhere: One month that winter a Bridger-Teton National Forest patroller tallied 168 left-behind turd piles. Remote motion-sensor cameras snapped pics of pooches chasing moose. By the dozen, people violated leash laws along trails like Putt-Putt that abut off-limits wildlife winter range. The situation was tense and untenable, land managers declared when they scolded folks by imposing the “timeout.”

Fast forward to today, and that tension has largely been defused. It’s not for lack of people — in fact, when forest planners updated their master trails plan in 2015 they sought to concentrate the crowds at Cache and the greater Snow King area. But the people who are going are generally better behaved, as are their dogs. Chalk the newfound harmony up to organizations and community members that have donated time and dollars to improve the Cache Creek experience.

“To me,” Bridger-Teton Wilderness and Recreation Manager Linda Merilgiano said, “without all these partnerships there’s no way we could have achieved the improvement we’ve seen in that area.”

The volunteering and philanthropy-based effort at the well-trodden trails branching out of Jackson’s southeastern reaches starts with getting more boots on the ground.

The Jackson Hole group Friends of Pathways and the Grand Teton Association employ seasonal workers and track down volunteers who function as “trail ambassadors” and keep tabs on not just Cache but other popular valley trail segments and networks. These de facto patrollers inform dog walkers of the rules, including new ones like a leash law that covers trailhead areas at Cache and on Teton Pass and a prohibition against leaving bagged dog poop on the trail — even if you’re circling back to pick it up.

PAWS of Jackson Hole plays a major role, Merigliano said, by providing a never-ending stock of bags for that dog poop. Once the free bags serve their purpose and are stacked up by the dozen in bins left near the Cache trailhead, it’s PAWS employees who pick up and dispose of them.

Trail maintenance also falls largely on nonprofit organizations that volunteer their time and efforts.

Friends of Pathways’ trails program manager, Chris Owen, leads schoolchildren and volunteers to assist with trail improvement projects, Merigliano said.

The main Cache Creek drag in the wintertime is groomed with Teton County/Jackson Parks and Recreation Department machinery and funded jointly by the county and state of Wyoming. But grooming of the offshoot routes, like the Hagen and Putt-Putt trails, is another task that falls to Friends of Pathways.

More than 90 nifty new wayfinding signs that went up in the Cache, Game and Snow King areas in 2017 also trace to the Friends of Pathways. The donated signage includes GPS coordinates and precise mileage to the trail junctions and trailheads, but they also incorporate graphics-based messaging about best practices and expectations on the trail.

“Pick up your dog’s poop,” reads one of the messages.

Another message sign says: “Please stay on the trail. Short-cutting causes erosion and makes the trail crew sad.”

Nowadays, when cross-country skiers or hikers roll up to the Cache trailhead one of the first things they come across is a whiteboard on which people can jot down observations. The sightings marked down are intended to keep other users on their toes; the notes are often about ubiquitous moose and mule deer, but also rarer critters like mountain lions, wolves and bears.

“The little wildlife boards at the trailheads came from a suggestion from one of the ambassadors,” Merigliano said. “They’ve been really helpful, and people use them all the time.”

Cache’s flora and fauna, of course, aren’t limited to megafauna. Bridger-Teton retiree and author Susan Marsh, who has a guidebook about Cache Creek to her name, once tallied over 300 species of wildflowers and 54 species of shrubs and trees in the lower 2 miles of the drainage alone.

In yet another volunteer effort, the Bridger-Teton, Jackson Hole Wildlife Foundation, Wildflower Watch and Friends of Pathways have teamed up to track how that assemblage of plants is changing. A new project that uses volunteer citizen-scientist observations, called “Neighbors to Nature: Cache Creek Study,” is underway. The goal is to track changes in phenology, which is the study of natural phenomenon — like flowers blooming — triggered by seasonal changes in the sun and temperature.

The Bridger-Teton’s overall vision for Cache Creek is to make it an area that the Jackson Hole community has a sustainable, daily connection to, Merigliano said. By providing a place for recreation and respite, the goal is for Cache to improve residents’ physical and mental health and understanding of nature. At the same time wildlife populations and plant communities are supposed to retain their natural integrity, according to the forest’s plans.

The many partnerships helping support and upkeep Cache “have made such a difference” toward achieving those goals, Merigliano said.

“It’s not perfect by any means,” she said, “but many people have commented on how much better it seems.”

Contact Mike Koshmrl at 732-7067 or env@jhnewsandguide.com.

Mike has reported on the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem's wildlife, wildlands and the agencies that manage them for 7 years. A native Minnesotan, he arrived in the West to study environmental journalism at the University of Colorado.

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