National Recreational Trail Receives Restoration

  • September 09, 2015
  • Posted by MCC

Over twenty years ago, an inventory of Montana’s trail system catalogued just shy of 15,000 miles of public trails. While each trail offers something to its users—whether it’s a peak to bag or a vista to marvel over—only 53 trails in Montana can claim the unique distinction of being registered a National Recreation Trail (NRT).

The National Trail System Act of 1968 authorized the creation of a national trail system comprised of recreational, scenic, and historical trails. While the latter two may only be designated by an act of Congress, NRTs may be designated by the Secretary of Interior or the Secretary of Agriculture to “recognize exemplary trails of local and regional significance.”

The Whitefish Divide (Smokey Range) has been one of Montana’s 53 specially recognized trails since 1979. It truly embodies the requirements of an NRT as it supports bicycling, hiking, equestrian trips, and camping for all non-motorized users. In recent years, dwindling federal dollars coupled with the trail’s primary access road being closed nudged it into a state of disrepair. However, times are changing.

“Alpine trails degrade differently; some maintain their condition while others erode,” said Colter Pence, a District Trails Manager with the Forest Service. “The upper section of this trail will take a number of years to restore because of its current state and the condition we want to get it back to.”

Pence added that restoring this trail is special because it will restore access to areas and afford users new views into the valley.

“I hiked the trail a while back and it showed me views into the North Fork Valley that I’ve personally never seen before.”

This season several MCC crews began restoring key sections of the Whitefish Divide NRT. But like most things in conservation, there isn’t a quick fix. The first stage of the project is to reestablish the trail’s corridor—clearing out the overgrown brush and trees—making it easier for users to find the trail and travel along it.

Brushing miles of the trail isn’t for the faint of heart. The understory in this forest is thick with woody plants that proved to be a formidable foe for everything from loppers to chainsaws. The work might not be glamorous, but it is an essential and inescapable first step to building a durable trail.

After many days of painstaking cutting, another crew commenced phase two of the project; renovating the trail. The actual walking surface of any trail is known as its tread. The Whitefish Divide tread renovation requires a special blend of excavation, grading, and contouring to accommodate the area’s steepness. Other factors also dictate a trail’s shape: creating full-bench, backslope, inslope, outslopes, etc., but we’ll let our partners at the Forest Service cover those specifics.

The tread for this trail needs to be wide enough to allow for horses and other stock, deep enough to be on solid ground, and rise smoothly as to not make it too difficult to travel. Water is another concern.  If a trail doesn’t shed excess water, it could create nasty ruts or wash out a section of the trail. It may even leave behind obstructions that would make it difficult or dangerous for users to pass over.

And speaking of obstructions…as the name suggests, the Rocky Mountains aren’t just dirt. Oftentimes while digging new tread, crews unearth rocks and boulders that need to be removed. These may range in size from basketballs to boulders weighing hundreds of pounds. On trails like the Whitefish Divide, these rocks must be moved away by hand and foot. What’s left behind could amount to a small crater! These impacts need to be backfilled with smaller rocks and earth to help bring the tread back to the necessary grade.

One of the last steps to completing a section of new tread is making some fine adjustments. This includes removing excess debris from integral parts of the trail, walking the section repeatedly to check the specifications, and taking a few ”after” shots of a job well done. While substantial work was accomplished this season, restoring the Whitefish Divide NRT will be an effort years in the making.

“There’s a commitment and cooperative partnership between the Forest Service and Montana Conservation Corps to keep this trail maintained and accessible,” said Pence. “Each season, crews will continue pushing the tread forward, then the next year another batch can jump in right where they left off.” 

MCC is already looking ahead to next season and the work that remains to restore a great National Recreation Trail to its former glory.



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