Too often backcountry trail traffic is talked about only in terms of overuse. Old-timers complain about how they used to love certain trails until they became too popular. It’s common to hear “and we didn’t see anyone else the whole day” listed in the “Pros” column of a hike or a bike ride, and backcountry users generally love to grumble about crowded trails.
They have a point. We’ve all been on that run or ride where it felt like you spent more time dodging other users than actually riding or running, but I think it’s easy to fall into an elitist trap when we discuss how many other folks we run into on the singletrack. We’re all out on these trails for the same reasons, trying to do the same things we love, whenever our schedules allow for it. And it’s nonsensical to complain about the fact that the entire rest of Jackson also seems to be trying to grab a quick ride on Putt Putt at lunch when you’re out there, too, struggling to get out of your chamois and back into your work clothes before that client meeting at 1:30.
Popular trails are popular for a reason. They’re easily accessible, they go somewhere pretty, they have fun jumps or a pretty lake or interesting wildlife. They draw users, and those users bring their bad attitudes to otherwise great trails and create conflicts. There’s not really anything any of us can do about that but bring a smile and a forgiving attitude every time we head out for that convenient hike or ride.
However, in all the commotion about the more popular trail networks, miles and miles of backcountry singletrack are swept under the proverbial rug. And those red-headed step-children of the adventure destination family really deserve some more attention. Every trail at its most basic level is the product of some person or animal wanting to go somewhere, and following the path of least resistance to that destination. Eventually, if other travelers decide that the destination is worthy and the route is reasonably efficient, they wear a path.
However, modes of transportation change over time, and trail users’ priorities are as fluid as the seasons. Trails that once saw a lot of traffic from hikers are too steep to climb on a mountain bike. Old routes start to fade back into the undergrowth as new trails closer to town gain popularity. And once a trail starts to decay a little it quickly returns to its natural state. We get spoiled by our heavily traveled popular trails close to population centers, and we become less likely to put up with a little bushwhacking or route finding in our quest to get out and burn some calories in the hills. That’s a real shame.
Every time someone complains about how many people they just ran into on their run at the town trail network, I want to ask them when was the last time they just chased a line on the map that they’d never hiked or ridden before. If you recreate like a sheep you’re always going to be frustrated by the herd that surrounds you, and that’s your own fault. The greater Teton area has a huge network of historic trails. They’re out there, slowly narrowing as the forest works to reclaim them. Trails aren’t permanent, they’re a “use it or lose it” resource, and even as popular trail systems see more traffic than they were built to handle, less hyped options are disappearing.
So try breaking up your routine. Go to your local Forest Service office and buy a paper map. They’re cheap, they have all the trails you’ve never heard of, and they look good on your wall. Find a trail or two you’ve never ridden or run. See if you can figure out how to connect some of those lines on the map. Maybe even go put your tires on something that doesn’t have a real name, just a trail number. And then pack more food and water than you usually do, tell your roommate where you’re going, and get out there and chase some new trails.
Yes, you’re probably going to have to walk your bike. Yes, you might get bitten by a bug. Yes, you might see a bear. Yes, you could get prettier views just walking from the parking lot to String Lake. But did you start mountain biking because you wanted to ride Cache Creek after work with 200 other people? Did you start hiking because you want to travel with herds of cooler-toting tourists? Adversity is inherent to any outdoor sport, but somehow we build routines that eliminate any chance of it. We gravitate to easy, accessible trails and then complain when all our friends do the same thing.
Stop complaining, get out there and chase what might just be a slightly less brushy way down a drainage. You might find your new favorite trail, and if you do happen to see someone else out there, there’s a good chance they’re just as dumb and lost as you.