It’s always surprising when I’m hiking along a trail and step into what I thought was a shallow mud puddle, only to suddenly let out a whoop of shock as mucky water swamps up above my ankles and goes into my boots. To some, the feeling of wet, mucky boots is horrifying. I, however, revel in it. It means I was hiking responsibly during mud season, and I take pride in that. Why? Mud season is when a lot of damage can be inflicted on hiking trails. This is especially true in the High Peaks region of the Adirondacks, whose sensitive ecosystems and erosion-prone soils are easily degraded.
Between mid-April and early June in the Adirondacks, warming temperatures, rain and snowmelt create adverse conditions during mud season. It’s a crazy time of year when surface soil is thawing, mixing with rain and melted snow, all while the soil further underground is still frozen, making it impossible for water to drain through the soil. Mud is natural, but the damage caused by improper hiking is not. When hikers pass through wet sections of trail, it can make the area muddier. Damage to the trail and surrounding area happens when hikers step to the side of the mud pit to avoid getting dirty, which widens the trail. Eventually, the mud pit will become so wide and long that hikers will leave the trail and make their own way around the mud entirely, causing alternate trails known as herd paths or social trails. Herd paths encourage others to go around muddy sections, which compacts the soil alongside trails and damages vegetation. Ultimately, the herd paths themselves become muddy areas that hikers try to avoid. Suddenly, there are multiple muddy ways around the original mud puddle. This perpetuates a damaging cycle for the trail.
Fortunately, hikers can prevent this. First, they can avoid mud entirely by choosing to explore regions that don’t experience heavy mud seasons, such as the Catskills, and wait until after Memorial Day (or when New York State Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) recommends that hiking in those sensitive areas is OK again) to hike in sensitive areas like the High Peaks region. Hikers determined to start exploring in the Adirondacks during mud season can choose trails that are low in elevation and choose to wear proper gear like sturdy waterproof boots and gaiters that can get dirty. When you encounter mud and puddles, hike through the middle of the trail and do not take herd paths. To avoid harming delicate alpine vegetation on High Peaks summits, the DEC recommends that hikers stay below 3000 feet of elevation and find alternative hikes until mud season is over. Lastly, when hiking, keep in mind how your actions are affecting the Adirondacks and its trails. Will you walk through the middle of the mud to create as little impact as possible? Or sacrifice the trails and summits to keep your feet dry?
Article by Charlotte Staats
Photo by Timothy Behuniak