Ribbons of dirt are etched across the mountainsides in every direction. Hundreds of miles of trails ranging from rough vestiges of mining history to immaculately-manicured, purpose-built singletrack stretch as far as the eye can see. The interconnected web is the heart of Park City’s identity, as integral to the town’s culture as the famed powder coating the ski runs each winter. But, as outdoor recreation booms, the town’s iconic trail system is in danger of being loved to death. Protection requires resources and energy, and perhaps no organization has taken on a larger share of the responsibility than Mountain Trails Foundation.
“We see about 500,000 user days each year just in Round Valley,” says Charlie Sturgis, who served as the executive director of Mountain Trails for 11 years before stepping down earlier this summer. “That’s a pretty scary number to think about in the context of sustainability.” Round Valley trails compose only a fraction of the more than 200 miles of trails managed and maintained by Mountain Trails. The nonprofit does so with a full-time staff of just six, which ramps up to 11 over the summer. To say Mountain Trails does a lot with a little is an understatement, especially as pressure on available resources is only becoming more acute.
Meet the New Boss
New Mountain Trails Foundation executive director Lora Smith is no stranger to Park City trails. An 18-year resident of Summit County, Smith has served as the Mountain Trails Foundation’s Development and Resource Director since 2012 and is a passionate trail runner, mountain biker and cross-country skier. She was chosen from a pool of more than 30 applicants to help Mountain Trails Foundation build a sustainable future for Park City trails from the organization’s expansive new facility on Highland Drive.
Census figures released in April detailed population growth in Utah of 18.4% over the past decade, the highest in the nation. When coupled with rebounding travel figures amid the fading pandemic and throngs of newly minted outdoor enthusiasts of all types—hikers, dog walkers, trail runners and mountain bikers—it’s easy to see how crucial a sustainable, holistic trails plan is to protect the future. Issues including overcrowded parking, enhanced trail erosion and increased user conflict are all on the rise as more people frequent the trail system, and Mountain Trails is working tirelessly to address them.
It starts with management by design, or put another way, the idea that not all trails should be created equally. Various strategies come into play, including building trails that are particularly suited to one activity over another. A hiking trail, for example, can utilize steeper, tighter switchbacks in an area with great views—a momentum-sapping design ill-suited for mountain biking. Bike trails, on the other hand, benefit from broader sweeping turns and longer sightlines. “We always try to maximize our resources,” Sturgis says. “A multi-use, multi-directional trail that’s uphill only for bikes accommodates a lot of different users, while downhill-only bike trails work really well to reduce user conflict.”
Expect to see these strategies employed in new development this summer. The Big Easy Trail is part of a multi-year plan to complete a singletrack circumnavigation of Round Valley linked by directional trails to better manage crowds. A new trail on Treasure Hill connecting Lowell Ave. to Mid Mountain will be a multi-use trail that’s directional uphill for bikes, alleviating pressure on popular routes like Jenny’s, Armstrong and Spiro.
Design alone isn’t a panacea, however, so Mountain Trails is making a push to educate users. “We’re being more vocal about basic etiquette of the trail, whether that’s not riding or hiking in the mud or being aware of your speed and in control on multi-directional trails. And we’re trying to get the industry, including manufacturers, to help communicate with new users who buy their products,” Sturgis says.
Sturgis is stepping down after more than four decades in the outdoor industry. “My next birthday, I’ll be 70. Maybe it’s time to throw in the towel so I can go biking, skiing and climbing without much interference,” he says. Still, he’s confident the future of trails in Park City is in good hands. “Mountain Trails works closely with Basin Rec, Park City Municipal and the resorts, and everyone’s in it for the right reasons. Plus, individual donors are still the biggest source of funding. The community is incredible.”