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Trail Work Ahead: Historic White Mountains Path Gets a Makeover

Annie Ropiek for NHPR

Crews in the White Mountains will spend the summer repairing the oldest hiking trail in continuous use in America. Crawford Path has carried countless hikers to the summit of Mount Washington for nearly 200 years, and endured a lot of wear and tear along the way.

Now it’s getting a badly needed facelift, to mark the White Mountain National Forest’s hundredth birthday

Listen to the broadcast version of this story

Before you can set out on Crawford Path, you have to climb some stairs – steep stairs made of big rocks, at the edge of an Appalachian Mountain Club parking lot.

“Probably about one third of the rock is showing,” says Andy Welsh, the assistant recreation and wilderness program leader for the U.S. Forest Service in the White Mountains.

“So what you see is just a small part of it, and these little rocks that look little are mostly very big, mostly. Like if I can carry, or one person can carry a rock, it’s usually not big enough. Even if I’m really strong!”

Andy Welsh is the assistant recreation and forest program leader for the U.S. Forest Service in the White Mountains
Credit Annie Ropeik for NHPR
Andy Welsh is the assistant recreation and forest program leader for the U.S. Forest Service in the White Mountains

Welsh says his work on keeping trails in tip-top shape is part of a long tradition.

“Part of the skillset, that tacit knowledge that’s hard to write down is the experience of how to set a rock correctly,” he says. “If it’s wiggling when you set it, it’s not set – it’s going to walk out eventually. All these rocks, we can jump on, we could probably hit with a car, some of them, and they’re not going anywhere.”

Behind him, district trails manager Cristin Bailey, who’s also leading the Crawford Path restoration, is staple-gunning a laminated sign to the post that marks the Crawford Path trailhead. It tells hikers that part of the trail is already closed for repairs, miles from here – up above the tree line, where delicate alpine habitat takes over.

“If they want the trail to be there, they need to work with us and respect our judgment and just skip that point-seven miles. It’ll be there when they come back and it’s open.” 

The mountain road that separates us from the trailhead is already busy with spring traffic. We hurry across, past the edge of the woods and onto Crawford Path.

Credit Annie Ropeik for NHPR


A rocky infrastructure

Right away, Andy Welsh points out a row of little boulders across the trail. It’s called a rock water bar.

“We’re moving water from the trail,” he says. “As it sheds water, we want to get it off.”

Cristin Bailey is staple-gunning again as Welsh digs a toe into the leaves and mud behind the rock bar.

“This has been cleaned pretty recently, but all this stuff here came down from up there,” he says. “The idea is it breaks up the trail-shed watershed, so rather than having a big gully washer ripping down the trail, these break up the force of that water and also trap material.”

In other words, this trail is a path of least resistance, for people and for water. The ground on the trail is packed tight from foot traffic, so runoff has nowhere to go but straight down. These bars slow that flow and funnel it off, onto ground that can absorb it. Trail workers have to clean out the bars a couple times a year.

Crawford Path itself is practically made of rocks, and this kind of rock engineering is all over it: border walls to keep hikers on the trail and protect foliage, stairs to stop a slope from eroding and getting too steep, and water bars every 50 or 100 feet.

We can also hear a waterfall, getting closer as we climb the rocky trail through the trees.

Credit Annie Ropeik for NHPR

Matt Smith is the acting executive director of the new White Mountain trail collective. He says it brings together big, historic groups, including the Appalachian Mountain Club and the Forest Service, with smaller local trail clubs to try a new approach to cooperative, long-term trail maintenance.

“We don’t look at trails as infrastructure. We do annual grants and we get a tiny amount of dollars to do work that has to be done in a three-month work window, when hospitals and schools are looking at their infrastructure with a 25-year master plan,” Smith says.

“That’s how we have to start looking at the National Forest, and we have to start getting the resources behind it to actually get the work done more effectively.”

Matt Smith is the acting executive director of the new White Mountain trail collective
Credit Annie Ropeik for NHPR
Matt Smith is the acting executive director of the new White Mountain trail collective

This summer, the trail collective will use a $150,000 grant from REI to undertake a restoration blitz on all eight-plus miles of Crawford Path.

Cristin Bailey says they can’t usually afford to do more than a few weeks of chipping away at mounting trail problems. In fact, she says, the last time Crawford had serious work done might have been 2011, after Hurricane Irene.

“And everything just stops, and we can’t even do the Band-Aid approach – we have to go into triage mode and close trails and just inspect stuff,” she says. “That’s really when this whole thing kind of got started. That was the first time all the partners got together and were like, ‘Wow, maybe we need to start looking at things differently.’”

Living history

The federal government bought the first land for the White Mountain National Forest 100 years ago this week. Crawford Path is nearly twice that old. It was first cleared in 1819 by North Country entrepreneur Abel Crawford and his son Ethan Allen to take people and, later, horses up Mount Washington. Abel was the first guy to summit the mountain on horseback, at age 75.

And through all this history, through the start of the Appalachian Mountain Club and the National Forest, through the Great Depression, through two World Wars, all that time, trail work was mostly about clearing vegetation and blazing trees. Andy says it wasn’t until the 1970s that things started to change.

Maintenance is more sophisticated now… but there’s less money for it, and the trail is taking a greater beating, from more destructive storms and more users than ever, all year round, now with their trekking poles and bikes and dogs.

Credit Annie Ropeik for NHPR

“All those sort of factors coalesce into what’s happening here,” Welsh says, “which is a trail that’s highly erosive, requires a lot of maintenance, and is going to continue to be unstable until either someone fixes it or it gets to bedrock.”

“And it’s going to require ongoing maintenance forevermore,” says Cristin Bailey.

About half a mile up Crawford Path, we come to a worn wooden bridge over that wide waterfall tumbling down the length of the trail. Bailey crouches down to check it out.

“I was just looking at the construction, trying to figure out,” she says. “It looks like they drilled into the rock. I’m sure they picked this spot because of the good-sized rocks on either side, natural abutments, they didn’t have to install anything.”

District trails manager Cristin Bailey inspects a bridge on Crawford Path
Credit Annie Ropeik for NHPR
District trails manager Cristin Bailey inspects a bridge on Crawford Path

This bridge needs repairs the forest service can’t afford to make on its own. That’s where the trail collective comes in. They can drum up volunteers, donations, and just understanding – of how, Bailey says, hiking is about more than the selfie at the summit. It’s also about stewardship.   

“I think people just don’t know – it’s not that their intentions are bad, I take selfies, it’s just a lack of knowledge and awareness, and I think that’s the big goal,” she says. “And skills – sharing skills, and making sure we keep these primitive skills that we still need out here alive and well.”

The next generation

They hope that message will come from the trail crews who’ll spread out on Crawford Path this summer, hoisting rocks on pulleys, clearing brush and digging new stairs and gutters.

“When a thousand people-plus a day, sometimes a thousand people probably an hour coming on this trail walk across fifty people doing work, if they don’t get the message that this takes work, and carry that forward, then we’ve done something wrong,” says Andy Welsh.

“Yeah, make ‘em trip over the trail workers, that’ll show ‘em,” says Bailey.

“Yeah, if you have to walk around a bunch of sweaty, smelly trail workers…” Welsh laughs.

As we head back down the path, Bailey keeps bolting off the trail as her colleagues point out rocks they might want to remember for use this summer. They’re also scouting for volunteers.

Credit Annie Ropeik for NHPR

Back near the trailhead, we come upon a big group of hikers just setting out for an Appalachian Mountain Club hut up near the tree line.

Kate Gavrity of Keene is among them. She’s psyched when Matt Smith tells her the history of Crawford Path.

“That’s so cool!” she says. “Guys, we are a part of history.”

Gavrity says she and her friends hike in to spend the night in the forest a couple times a year. She says she loves being out here with no phone, no computer, just the woods and a mountain.

“I feel like I can just be free and do whatever I want,” she says. “It’s so peaceful – you don’t have to worry about anything. I love it.”

Her group takes some volunteering info from Matt and Andy as we part ways. It’s one small step toward making sure this trail will be here, cared for, in the next century.

Copyright 2021 New Hampshire Public Radio. To see more, visit New Hampshire Public Radio.

Annie Ropeik joined NHPR’s reporting team in 2017, following stints with public radio stations and collaborations across the country. She has reported everywhere from fishing boats, island villages and cargo terminals in Alaska, to cornfields, factories and Superfund sites in the Midwest.
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