The Beaten Path

Ross Weller

The romantic imagery of the untraveled way might fill our literary annals (recall the well beaten phrase “off the beaten path” and Robert Frost’s poem The Road Not Taken), but established paths are typically there for a reason. They might represent the easiest or only way from point to point. Or they might have been designed to limit the footprint of human traffic.

In our National Parks, travel in high use areas is typically limited to official, established trails. Each park contains a network of trails designed to allow access to its popular attractions. The trails that receive the highest amount of traffic are often turned into boardwalks, covered in rock or wood chips, or are paved in order to resist erosion. To ensure that visitors stay on these paths, they are often lined with handrails and signs. The vast majority of park visitors do not travel far from park roads, but policies and customs keep visitors on the trail far into the backcountry. On ascents and descents, hikers are discouraged from short cutting between switchbacks. Similarly, rock climbing is often limited with in parks to established areas and camping to pre-existing sites.

These policies are effective towards some important ends. Foremost, they promote the safety of park visitors. Visitors on the beaten/ marked path are less likely to enter dangerous areas, get lost, or hurt themselves- also, should something happen, help is not far. Another important reason visitors are encouraged to remain on the beaten path is that their impact is then limited to a smaller section of the terrain than if they roamed freely. Whether this situation- all visitor impact in an area limited to one trail or site- or the alternative- impact spread evenly over the entire area- is preferable in the long term is the question I would like to address in this paper.

In areas of the parks experiencing the highest level of foot traffic (e.g. around Old Faithful at Yellowstone NP and The Avenue of the Giant at Redwood NP), official paths are entirely necessary. If the high volume of visitors these areas experience was spread evenly over the sites, they would become barren or criss-crossed with deeply eroded footpaths. The ground bordering the paths is often barren of vegetation, indicating the cumulative impact of a few wayward footsteps. Official paths in high traffic areas are also designed to lead guests past the most popular park attractions. Further into the park interiors, established trails are important in areas where a single visitor could destroy a rare wildflower or lichen. The Leave No Trace organization encourages backcountry travelers to “camp and travel on durable surfaces”, using only established trails and campsites.

An objection to this policy of a single trail is that the resulting trail becomes a permanent aspect of the landscape. With years of use, trails become, essentially, ditches. The soil becomes impacted or eroded down to the bedrock. Secession back to wild conditions becomes impossible as no vegetation is able to gain purchase. The trails often become rain gutters during storms and spring melts, or bog down entirely. The methods of combating both erosion and bogs (paving, installing steps, or filling in the compressed patches with stone or wood) can fully domesticate a trail.

The arguments against such permanent trails are numerous. As stated before, the trails often become bogs or temporary streams during wet conditions. This can make a trail impassable or, at least, unpleasant. Such trails ensure access to permanent attractions but do not respond shifting phenomena within the environment (that tree will be there next year but that herd of elk probably won’t). Trails crowd visitors together and make it more difficult to “escape humanity”. They also can lead to “cookie cutter” park vacations and identical photo albums (from visitor to visitor and from year to year).

An ideal situation would involve the concentrated footprint of official trails without their inflexibility and permanence. In high use areas, elevated walkways (like boardwalks) could be used because they can be removed completely if points of interests change. In the backcountry, trails could be shifted from year to year and the compressed soil could be aerated to speed re-vegetation. Trails could be eliminated entirely in some open backcountry areas if all visitors were instructed in low impact travel or if areas were closed during the most ecology sensitive periods. If backcountry travelers sought out the most durable surfaces- such as slickrock, scree, or sand-, park visitors would be able enjoy unobstructed travel without either negative impact on the environment or being stuck on the beaten path. However, more trust would have to be put in the hands of the individual traveler not to destroy vegetation, interfere with wildlife, or simply get lost.

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last updated 1/25/06