As Phoenix hiking trails become busier, more users are taking unsanctioned paths

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Heavy traffic on the streets of Phoenix is common. With more than 4.7 million people now calling the area home, it is no surprise people want to get away from it all.

Now, however, gridlock is even stalling adventure-seekers trying to find refuge on the more than 200 miles of trails that wind through 41,000 acres of desert and mountain parks and reserves within the city of Phoenix.

The increase in trail traffic can cause tension among users, and even encourage hikers, bikers and horseback riders to venture off the beaten, and official, paths into areas where they are not supposed to be.

Counters placed at 41 trailheads by Phoenix Parks and Recreation tallied more than 3.45 million users in 2017. Gregg Bach, public information officer for Phoenix Parks and Recreation, believes the number of users is much higher because of other, unofficial access points.

“We like to say that our trails are loved to death,” Bach said.

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According to the most recent U.S. Census Bureau report, the Phoenix area has experienced a nearly 13 percent increase in population since the last census in 2010. And the area is also is a popular vacation destination.

“So, it’s an increase in visitors, and also that increase of population, that I think all plays a part in that (overcrowding),” Bach said. “We have a lot of people that visit here during the winter or spring. Maybe they are trying to escape the cold back east or coming out here for spring break or spring training.”

To help trail traffic flow, a priority system is in place on the area’s trails. Horseback riders get first priority and are not required to yield to mountain bikers or hikers because horses can be unpredictable. Hikers are second, yielding to horses. Mountain bikers are required to yield to all other users.

“Many of our trails are multiuse trails, so biking, hiking, equestrian,” Bach said. “It’s just a situation where you ask people to be respectful, same as if you were driving on the street.”

Increased tensions

Even with the yielding system in place, increased traffic has led to increased tension between trail users.

Hiker Roy White has been exploring Arizona trails for 11 years. He believes a lot of mountain bikers play by their own rules.

“With bikers, not all but pretty close to the majority of them have one thing on their mind and that is to get their ride in as fast as they can, challenging themselves all the way,” White said. “That is not a good combination for hikers.”

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Many bikers use cycling apps that use GPS to record distance and speed to track their routes. Many of the applications are paired with a social media platform so users can post their rides for others to see. It creates competition to post the fastest time up a climb or over a route.

Despite the need for speed, avid Arizona mountain biker Carlos Martinez said he’s had a good experience with all types of trail users and that tensions are resolved with positivity.

“Everything is about attitude,” Martinez said. “Horses get scared, so knowing that, if I see somebody on horse I stop and let them go by. If I don’t see them, and I kind of come in hot, I stop and I apologize and have a conversation, whether it is a hiker or an equestrian. If you have a good attitude, everyone stays positive and you are good to go.”

Mountain biker Ken Bennett has been riding the mountains of Arizona since he moved from Louisiana in 1994. He is part of the Gravity Riders Organization of Arizona, a group committed to trail advocacy.

GRO-AZ helps build positive relationships for mountain bikers with both land managers and other trail users. Members also volunteer to build trails and maintain existing ones.

However, Bennett feels that there is a stigma attached to mountain bikers because of  the nature of the sport.

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“You have a little bit of a negative aspect from a lot of people,” he said. “They see you with a full-face helmet, body armor and a big bike and it looks scary. So it helps to be an ambassador to land managers and to the other groups to show we are just more trail users.”

The group’s volunteers help make the Valley’s trail system sustainable. With the increased population and use along with natural erosion from the weather, Phoenix trails take a beating and need regular maintenance.

Dan Gronseth, manager at South Mountain Park and Preserve in Phoenix, spent 28 years as a City of Phoenix park ranger before taking his current job in 2016. He stressed the importance of volunteer work.

“Volunteer work is huge, huge for us,” Gronseth said. “I don’t have the numbers, but there are a lot of volunteer hours that we get every year and we could not operate without that.”

Although some trails are roughed up, others are changed to accommodate all of the new users migrating to the area.

Features on some popular trails have been unnecessarily altered by beginning mountain bikers, said Alan Shelton, trails advocacy director of the Mountain Biking Association of Arizona.

“You get this whole big flux of new riders or what we call ‘dirt roadies,’ people who are transitioning from road bikes to mountain bikes, and they have trouble with that,” Shelton said. “So they will kind of dumb down the feature to where they can ride it rather than advancing their own skills … so to me that’s a big problem.”

Spider trails

Maintaining trails is one issue. Keeping people on them is another.

As congestion clogs Phoenix trails, more users are heading off sanctioned paths and constructing their own “social trails.” The process is a safety concern and damages the environment.

Marked trails on Phoenix preserves are tagged with Quick Response (QR) barcodes placed on posts that help locate lost or injured trail users. Unmarked trails make it difficult for rescue teams to find a person in distress. And the farther a user ventures off a marked trail, the harder it often becomes to find a cell signal to phone for help.

In addition to being unsafe, wandering off marked trails impacts the fragile desert landscape.

“There is a growing number of people who are using off trails for whatever they are doing,” Gronseth said. “But there is a growing number of people that just don’t care. They don’t care about the results from what they do.”

Bennett said trail volunteers often spend more time repairing off-trail damage than maintaining designated trails.

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Trail mitigation

Along with signage, park rangers may place fencing or move boulders across a social trail to prevent users from leaving designated paths. But that can also alert users that there is a social trail there, and they will go explore it.

Ranger Taylor Riske has been researching the most effective way to keep people on sanctioned trails. As part of his study, he perched in a lookout over Kiwanis Trail at South Mountain Park to observe hiking patterns.

“The trail forks in two different directions, and people would just stand there with their hands up and be like, ‘OK, which way do I go now,’ because the social trail looks like a regular trail,” Riske said.

Riske believes trail mitigation is the best way to fight rogue trail users. Trail mitigation involves moving rocks and sand to disguise the unsanctioned trail so that it looks like the surrounding desert.

Riske disguised the social trail and observed the fork again. Not one of the 200 users he watched took the social trail he had hidden.

“The problem is, I come back a week later and someone tried to come in and remove the mitigation,” Riske said. “That’s because I’m sure we have a person who’s been hiking the trail for 10 years and says, ‘Screw you, this is my trail.'”

South Mountain Park is in the midst of a $23 million renovation process expected to be completed in 2021. It is the first renovation project at the park since 1989.

The improvements will include upgrades to park facilities and a new master trail plan.

According to the official plan report, 38 miles of current unsanctioned trails will be added to the official South Mountain trail system. More than 80 miles of unsanctioned trails will be cut off and restored to their natural landscape.

Park rangers know people are going to try to explore off-trail areas. However, repeat rogue users can receive a citation and fine if they are found off marked paths.

Education remains the best way to fight unsanctioned trails.

“People do have a mindset, and they will do what they are going to do,” Gronseth said.

“But if you explain it, and then they choose to do it, then it really puts it more on them.”

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