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Thinking About Hitting The Trail? Think Again

A muddy trail with trees in the background
Abagael Giles
It's mud season in Vermont. While the outdoors beckons, Vermont's Green Mountain Club asks that you don't go for a hike just yet, but wait in order to avoid damaging trails.

The last few weeks have really started to feel like spring in much of Vermont. So, how about going for a hike? Well, the group that helps maintain Vermont’s Long Trail system wants you to hold off for a bit, to avoid damaging trails during mud season.

VPR’s Henry Epp spoke with Mike DeBonis, executive director of the Green Mountain Club. They began their conversation addressing why some trails should be avoided right now. Their interview is below and has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Mike DeBonis: We're asking folks to maybe look at some different springtime activities for the next five, six weeks during mud season, and really let the trails dry out so they're good and firm and ready for what I expect to be a pretty busy hiking season.

Henry Epp: And what kind of damage can be done to trails if they're hiked on while it's still muddy and early in the season?

I think of Vermont's trails, they're kind of like a big sponge, right? The soil is kind of like a sponge. It absorbs water, but it can only absorb so much, and this time of year, with all the snow melting and some early rains, there's a lot of water on the trail.

And so, the soils are saturated. And when we walk on them, we kind of squish it down like a sponge, but it doesn't bounce back like a sponge, and it stays squished, which really inhibits its ability to absorb more water.

More From Vermont Edition: It's Mud Season. Here's How You Can Protect Vermont's Hiking Trails

So, you just find these big pools of water on the trails. And then once they do dry out, they're compacted, and they're just more susceptible to erosion from rain and storm events. It just ends up making the trail wider and deeper, and we lose a lot of that soil that we all kind of like to hike on. 

Are there particular areas that are especially at risk at this time of year or further into the season when it can still be muddy?

Mud season is a progression, right? So, it changes throughout a multi-week period. So right now — on top of Mount Mansfield in the summer you have fragile alpine vegetation that you only find there — now it's covered in snow. But in the next few weeks, it'll start to open up. So, we really want to protect those areas that there's fragile alpine vegetation.

So, I would say the high peak areas is a particular area that we want to be careful. But even lower down on the trails, you know, as they start to open up, they're susceptible to damage, and we just want to try to avoid making the problems worse in those areas.

When is it, in your opinion, safe to head out on the trails? I mean, I can remember being on some muddy trails well into the season, like in August. So, is there the potential for some trail damage even later in the season?

Yeah, really interesting question. I sort of lie awake at night puzzling this sometimes: Like with climate change, how does that affect mud season? And, you know, who really knows? It probably varies tremendously. But we are seeing mud season conditions all year. As it warms up, you're gonna see more thaws, and you're gonna see mud season conditions.

"[T]raditionally in Vermont, Memorial Day weekend is kind of the official opening of hiking season." — Mike DeBonis, Green Mountain Club

But traditionally in Vermont, Memorial Day weekend is kind of the official opening of hiking season. So, any time before that, you're likely to experience the most mud season conditions.

So, if hiking is sort of off limits right now, what are some of the alternatives that you'd suggest?

There's lots of other stuff that we can do, and there's also a little bit of hiking you can do. The Green Mountain Club has some suggested hikes on the website, and there’s other trails out there, and [we’re] really encouraging folks to look for low elevation trails. Things maybe with a southerly or a western exposure are probably going to get more sun, and those will dry out quicker.

And then just kind of use your best judgment, and try to gather the best information you can. Maybe find a hike that's a traditionally good mud season hike and give it a go. If you find really wet, muddy conditions, you may want to turn around and find another spot, but if not, go for it.

And finally, Mike, I know there were some changes in terms of what the Green Mountain Club had open last year along the Long Trail, in terms of its shelters and parking lots. Is that going to change this year as we're further along in the pandemic and things are opening up?

Yeah, such a learning experience last year. Things were changing so rapidly.

More From Brave Little State: What's It Like To Hike The Long Trail?

This year we're anticipating that everything will be fully open. Right now, you may find some trails that are closed. Once hiking season opens up around Memorial Day, we expect everything to be open.

That being said, we are asking folks to use good judgment. We're still in a pandemic. There's still risk there. So, asking folks to wear a mask, practice social distancing, all of those things to be able to interact well with others on the trail, is really important.

Have questions, comments or tips?Send us a message or get in touch with reporter Henry Epp@TheHenryEpp.

We've closed our comments. Read about ways toget in touch here.

Henry worked for Vermont Public as a reporter from 2017 to 2023.
Brittany Patterson joined Vermont Public in December 2020. Previously, she was an energy and environment reporter for West Virginia Public Broadcasting and the Ohio Valley ReSource. Prior to that, she covered public lands, the Interior Department and forests for E&E News' ClimateWire, based in Washington, D.C. Brittany also teaches audio storytelling and has taught classes at West Virginia University, Saint Michael's College and the University of Vermont. She holds degrees in journalism from San Jose State University and U.C. Berkeley's Graduate School of Journalism. A native of California, Brittany has fallen in love with Vermont. She enjoys hiking, skiing, baking and cuddling with her rescues, a 95-pound American Bulldog mix named Cooper, and Mila, the most beautiful calico cat you'll ever meet.
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