Trail Science in the White Mountains

Author: Gregory DiSanto, M.S. Candidate, Environmental Science & Policy

While this might be the first time you have heard of “trail science,” it is not a novel idea. Scientists and trail builders have been studying erosion on hiking trails for a long time, and a lot of thought goes into designing, constructing, and maintaining trails. With over 1200 miles of hiking trails, the White Mountain National Forest is a great laboratory for studying erosion.

The trails in the White Mountains – many of them built in the early 20th century – transport thousands of hikers per year from roadside parking areas to the summits of our ancient mountains, often taking the most direct route possible. Anybody who has hiked a few four-thousand-footers in New Hampshire is familiar with the impacts of erosion and the methods which are often used to limit erosion. The impacts that are most readily apparent are exposed rocks, roots, and soil. Besides being aesthetically unappealing, these impacts can create a trail surface that is loose or slippery. Once erosion on a trail becomes excessive, there are a few possible solutions – stop the flow of water by installing a water bar or other drainage feature, re-routing a section of trail, or armoring the surface of the trail with rock.

Familiar sights to hikers in the White Mountains: erosion on the Old Bridle Path hiking trail (left) and a rock water bar installed on the Dicey’s Mill trail to divert flowing water off of the trail.

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