A look behind the scenes at building Park City’s beloved hiking and biking trails
How the Mountain Trails Foundation manages the town's vast network
It’s not easy maintaining a large, well-used trail system, but heavy machinery helps.
At the bottom of Matt’s Flatt, near the Round Valley Way Trailhead, Rick Fournier, Mountain Trails Foundation’s field manager, drove a mini skid steer. The steer, which is a tractor on cat tracks with a small angled plow blade at the front, pushed a hill of soft dirt in front of it as he plowed out a path for the latest and last trail the foundation would construct this season.
Racing against the weather to build the trail before winter sets in, Fournier said projects like this, which he and his team have worked on for perhaps three weeks, would have taken a whole season when he first joined the foundation 12 years ago. One of the fist projects he worked on was the Scott’s Bluff Bypass, which Fournier described as the new default access to the Wasatch Crest Trail.
“Before that you had to go up and over Scott’s Peak and that was a really rutted, gnarly descent to get to the bottom of puke hill, which was the main access to the crest,” he said. “That was a little over a mile of trail and we did that over two seasons, whereas with a machine we could probably do a mile of trail over the course of a month or so. Quite a contrast.”
Fournier and his crew of between five and seven builders work through the summer to create and maintain the estimated 150 miles of public trails around Park City. The first step is the idea for the trail, which once approved by the city, becomes a trail concept, and is taken out into the field to be marked out.
A couple people walk the proposed path with flags and a clinometer, which measures slope, which they use to ensure the trial is never so steep as to cause erosion problems. But other than a general layout of the trail, there is a lot of leeway in its construction.
Fournier said most trails established today start with an area, not a feature, and the features are added at the builder’s discretion.
“It’s a very creative process, and there’s not only a science to creating trails, but there’s definitely an art to it,” he said. “I’ve literally rerouted an initial alignment just because I saw a really great stand of maples and wanted to run it through the maples. You’ve got this kind of blank canvas and you’re incorporating as many of those natural features as you can and making it as interesting as possible along with the technical aspect of making it functional and accessible.”
A trail must drain well. So, According to Fournier, builders grade the trail so it slopes gently downhill off its sides, and push the excess dirt downhill, so it doesn’t wash back into the trail.
“Flow” is also critical. It’s the secret sauce for trails, especially in areas like Round Valley, where the canvas is a little more sparse than in other areas.
“We’ll do a lot of undulations, meanders, try and get it to go up and down as much as possible,” Fournier said. “The low spots act as a drain, so any water that’s coming off will flow down into the low spots. It’s just a really good way of implementing drainage from the beginning, and it also makes the trail a lot more fun to ride.”
Once the trail is marked, the skid steer is used for broader trails while the foundation uses a mini excavator to dig out narrower, tighter trails, which Fournier said gives them a more classic, hand-built feel.
“Most old school single-track was anywhere from 10 inches to two feet,” Fournier said. “There’s a trail called Two Fingers because it was about two fingers wide, and I think that’s the difference with the hand built.”
Fournier added that riding such trails is more technical.
“You have to be on your game, whereas with a slightly wider trail it gives you a little more flexibility,” he said.
You might think that a trail builder would enjoy riding the trails he or she builds, to relish them, but Fournier said riding the foundation’s trails can be stressful for him in the same way that comedians don’t like watching comedy.
“I usually ride in the areas that we maintain, so I’m always looking at stuff that needs attention,” he said. “I find that if I go ride somewhere that we don’t maintain it’s a little more fun at times, but it’s all part of staying on top of it.”
Of the trails that he has helped build, he said the ones that stand out in his mind are mostly the hand-built trails, the one’s like Scott’s Bluff Bypass that took a lot of elbow grease.
But his pride and joy is Round Valley. Fournier and the foundation have transformed the area starting with Rambler and Ramble, and have brought a host of new additions, including Porcu-Climb and the 1.5-mile, direction downhill Down Dog (set to be revealed Thursday, weather permitting).
He said, going forward, the foundation will probably focus on directional trails, which will help alleviate traffic and erosion, and create a network that flows together better. Down Dog is representative of that vision. It’s a directional beginner trail accessible to adaptive athletes and wide enough for winter use, and as Fournier put the finishing touches on what likely would be the last trail built this season, he was also laying the blueprint for next year.
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