Ice, Mud, and Spring Fever

Even though north-facing slopes are snow-packed, south slopes and ridgelines dry out quickly. Photo by Craig Martin

Column by Craig Martin

Craig Martin

April is the cruelest month, breeding lilacs out of the dead land, mixing memory and desire…” T. S. Eliot, The Wasteland.

For a Los Alamos resident who lives to be outside, March is the cruelest month. Once or twice a week, the weather hints of the end of winter and I get a touch of spring fever. I have to get on a trail as often as possible.

But on the higher terrain above town, the snow is alternately slush and rock-hard ice, not ski conditions I dream about on autumn nights. In town, the snow is hard-packed into icy ribbons on the trails, and when it melts, the trail turns to a goo that is slicker than the ice. I’m spoiled by the Los Alamos trail network and I really balk at walking on the sidewalk.

My profession of trail caretaker further complicates the simple act of taking a trip out the door. I know this muddy season has the potential to affect long-term trail conditions by trenching the trail a little deeper and by widening beautiful, skinny singletracks.

Potholes left by bootprints and ruts gouged by mountain bike tires when the soil is slick often linger until summer. Over time, they get worn down by trail traffic, but at the expense of the trail. The trail tread is worn to dust, which is carried away by wind or water. As a result, the trail becomes a trench that deepens just a little bit each season.

Widening trails occurs when users try to avoid muddy stretches by traveling next to the trail. Vegetation is most vulnerable to compaction when it is dormant, so repeated stepping or riding on trailside grasses and wildflowers is likely to kill them.

To avoid causing problems to a trail while meeting my need for blue sky above, I adjust my routine to trail conditions or I seek trails where my impact is minimal.

  • When I walk on a snow-packed or icy trail, I use traction devices on my boots. This permits me to stay on the ice and avoid walking along side the trail.
  • I take an early trip—at 6 a.m., the mud is frozen.
  • Trails on south-facing slopes and mesa tops dry out first.
  • Trails that have a lot of rock surface don’t have much mud.
  • My mountain bike stays in the garage.
  • White Rock, here I come.

There are plenty of good choices for a walk right now. Here are some current trail conditions:

Trails generally free of ice and mud include the Quemazon, Mitchell, Woodland, and the eastern part of the Perimeter.

Kwage Mesa is in good shape, but Deer Trap Mesa still has some muddy spots.

Bench trails on the north sides of canyons are good: the North Bayo Bench Trail, and the North Pueblo Bench Trail.

Trails in White Rock are in good shape, including the Blue and Red Dot trails, and the trails on Department of Energy lands south of White Rock.

There’s no excuse for watching another You Tube video, get out there and soak in those fleeting hints of spring.


Water Canyon Trail Work Continues in Wake of Las Conchas Fire

By Craig Martin, Open Space Specialist, Los Alamos County

As a community we’ve been here before, anxiously waiting for the spring thaw so that we can begin work on repairing miles of trails damaged by fire and post-fire runoff.

Fortunately, this time we are much better prepared. In the aftermath of the Cerro Grande Fire in 2000, the trail community wasn’t sure if the trails in the burned area would ever be usable again. Over the next six years, volunteers acquired a cache of tools, learned trail building skills, and eventually brought back nearly every mile we once thought of as lost forever.

The Las Conchas Fire impacted about 25 miles of trail between Los Alamos and the ridgeline of the Sierra de los Valles. In Bandelier National Monument, post-fire floods slammed another 20 or more miles. Repairing the trails is a monumental task, but work has already begun and there are plans in motion to accomplish it all.

Close to town, the Los Alamos County Trail Network was untouched by fire or floods. Portions of the Perimeter and Quemazon trails were used as fire lines, but dozens of volunteers accomplished much of the rehabilitation work last fall. That effort helped get the Quemazon, Mitchell and lower Guaje Ridge trails reopened in October.

Volunteers with the Southwest Nordic Ski Club tackled the trails leading to Cañada Bonita, and a Forest Service contractor cleared hazard trees out to the head of Guaje Canyon. Thanks to the tireless efforts of Recreation Specialist Lynn Bjorklund, the Española Ranger District reopened those five miles of trail in December. The same contractor removed about 30 hazard trees from the Nail Trail, which is also open for trail users.

That’s the good news. The flood damage to the canyons along the road to the back gate is staggering. In Pajarito Canyon, the trail is washed out in many places. Forest Service Burned Area Emergency Response (BAER) funds will be used to bring in a mini-dozer to re-cut the trail along the uppermost 1.5 miles as soon as the ground thaws. The remaining work is likely to be a volunteer project.

Cañon de Valle saw incredible flooding that far exceeded those that came in 2000. The lower mile of the trail is covered with boulders. The middle section has frequent washouts, but the upper mile is relatively untouched.

The Forest Service hopes to use the mini-dozer to clear the bottom stretch this spring. Above, the trail will likely be re-routed and constructed by either a Youth Conservation Corps crew or volunteers.

Much of the trail in Water Canyon is a deep, water-scoured trench. Trail repair there is expected to take several years.

Hazard trees along the upper two miles of the Guaje Ridge Trail are slated to be removed this spring. Some ground work by volunteers will be needed to bring back that stretch of trail. Damage assessments for trails in and north of Guaje Canyon are complete, but there is no timetable for their repair.

To stay informed about volunteer trail rehabilitation activities, check the Southwest Nordic Ski Club site at or join the Los Alamos Trails Facebook group.