The trail unfurls in front of me, a twisting ribbon of dirt through sagebrush and Gambel oak. My mind is quiet, as it can be in only this setting. The trail’s called Backslide, an old standard in Round Valley with sweeping turns and flowing grade reversals that suits my particular tastes. If your preferences differ from mine, there’s likely another stretch among the 400-plus miles of trails in Park City where you can find bliss. But apparently not everyone feels the same sentiment.
I’m convinced the pandemic scrambled our brains and broke our discourse. It’s the only explanation for how discussion of such a vast, meticulously managed trail network raises hackles. Obviously, the influx of people to Park City, both moving and visiting, has made our trails unsustainably crowded. But here’s the thing, the trails aren’t actually more crowded, and, when they are, it’s the locals doing the crowding!
Snyderville Basin Recreation, Summit county’s trail management organization, conducted an extensive study of trail use with trail counters and aggregated anonymous cell phone data. Their main takeaways were that locals who live within 10 miles of trail heads were not only the largest group of trail users, at more than 40%, but were also responsible for the most substantial increase in use during the pandemic years. What’s more, outside of a very brief 2020 spike during the first phase of the pandemic, overall trail use has been below historic levels ever since.
So, our trail use issues are largely imagined. Lora Smith, Executive Director of Mountain Trails Foundation (MTF), is, owing to her position, subjected to the brunt of the community’s trail-related ire. She encourages a healthy dose of perspective. “People gripe about crowded trails. This seems to be a perception born of an abundance of privilege and shortage of imagination. I know that sounds harsh, but I want people to remember this is a public trail system.”
Even so, Smith, who worked at MTF for eight years prior to taking over the helm in 2021, has the organization laser-focused on proactively managing trail traffic and improving the user experience. “Regardless of where and for whom we build trails, the strategy is leaning hard into directional and segregated trail uses. For example, a trail may be up-only for bikes but either way for hikers. Or a trail may be hike or bike only. This helps with trail longevity, increases safety and lends to a high-quality trail experience,” says Smith.
The TL;DR: take a deep breath, Park City. Our trails are in good hands, and we’re all just playing outside anyway. Act accordingly.
Want to get people really fired up? Say “E-bike” near a trail, and don’t forget to duck. Love ’em or hate ’em, they’re coming to the trails in some form or another. MTF is trying to plan ahead while also acknowledging the preferences of non-electric-assist users. “We are building E-MTB appropriate trails and advocating for others to follow. That said, we see great value in protecting the old-school trails and the traditions that have made Park City’s trail system what it is.”