© 2019 Public Lands Hate You

Official Trails vs. Social Trails

The number of people who defend their off-trail travels as not having an impact is astounding. The thing is, humans are inherently lazy. We tend to take the path of least resistance. So, if someone wants to travel to the other side of a field, and they see a slightly beaten path that may have been taken by one or two people before them, they take it. This is how new trails are formed.  The hiking community calls these “social trails”. They are unofficial trails that people take as the path of least resistance from Point A to Point B.  Think cutting a switchback 

.
The problem with social trails is that as they become more frequently used, they become permanent. First the vegetation is slightly disturbed.  The people that follow beat the vegetation fl
at. Continued use compacts soils to the point that they won’t support new growth. This breaks up what was previously homogenous habit into small fractured pieces. It's not good for vegetation. It’s not good for wildlife. And it certainly doesn’t make for good pictures.


The next photos are close up pictures of what these new trails look like, progressing from slightly disturbed vegetation, to fully flattened and dead vegetation, to fully compacted soils and new dirt "trails" that will require either human intervention or decades of natural forces to recover.  This is the progression that we want to avoid. Resist the temptation to use social trails. Stick to the official dirt paths. They are obvious. They are generally wide enough for two or more people to walk side by side and will generally be shown on official trail maps. They are a fully dirt surface with no vegetation present. 

The importance of staying on the main trail can not be understated, especially in areas the see heavy use.  It only takes a few people walking single file to beat native vegetation down to the point that other people will start following along.  They might mistake it for the official trail.  They might be curious why someone went that way and want to take a look too.  Bottom line, once a new social trail is started, the progression and damage rarely stops unless there is intervention from a ranger or land manager.  Often by the time they become aware of the problem, the damage is done.

As a further illustration, here is an overhead view of the Walker Canyon poppy fields.  The first picture is a Google Earth satellite image of the from a few years ago.  Other than the main trail, the vegetation is fairly uniform and unbroken.  The 2nd picture is from a drone taken in March 2019 after the infamous superbloom of 2019.  Notice the difference?  These are all social trails that started slowly and progressed to the point of no return.  Next time you're tempted to go off trail for a slightly better angle, think of this before and after picture and ask yourself if it's worth it.