User-Made Trails

Throughout the Central Wasatch, we are fortunate to be able to host many well-renowned, expertly designed trail networks. Our trail systems came as a result of comprehensive research, in which elements such as hydrology, erosion potential, expected user types, trail user volumes, migratory fauna patterns, and geographic constraints were evaluated. This holistic planning process is needed to ensure the longevity of our trails, and to provide Utah’s many recreationalists with easy mountain access. 

Unfortunately, though, tri-canyon area trails often fall victim to the addition of user-made, or social trails. You’ve likely noticed these trails, or have been confused or misled on your adventures because of them. These trails are not intentionally designed, and usually occur because of the curious or confused recreationalist. The lack of vegetation in an area, an intercepting game trail, or hillside drainages can mimic the appearance of a trail, leading people astray. These user-made trails are more likely to become eroded, and are often rocky, and too steep, because they weren’t designed to shed water or to withstand high visitation. 

These types of trails can degrade hillsides, impact sensitive vegetation, and disrupt the untouched wilderness qualities that we value about our mountainscapes. User-made trails can also potentially pose safety-risks for recreationalists. Patrick Morrison, the Trails Director for Cottonwood Canyons Foundation noted that, “with enough social trails going through areas, the chances for the spread of invasive weeds get higher, which in turn impacts habitat and species.” 

User-made trails are common throughout the Central Wasatch, for instance, if you find yourself hiking up Neff’s Canyon, the original trail alignment can be nearly unidentifiable. The Mount Olympus Wilderness Area, as well as the immediate surrounding Red Pine Lake, are two other areas that are degraded through user-made trails. 

So, what can we do to reduce further damage?

Dr. Kelly Bricker, the CWC Stakeholders Council Vice Chair, and the Chair of the Parks, Recreation, and Tourism Department at the University of Utah, noted that education for visitors can be the best way to help users understand why they should stick to the trails that have been made and are managed by the Forest Service, and reduce the number of social-trails that crop up in the tri-canyon area. She also mentioned that natural barriers and in worse case scenarios, trail closures may be necessary to allow areas to rehabilitate. 


  • Condition Reporting

    Crowd sourced information helps to inform many different recreational groups. User-friendly applications such as TrailForks, MTBProject, AllTrails, and Utah Avalanche Center’s Observation Reporting play a crucial role in providing recreationalists with pertinent and timely indicators as to what conditions exist along their planned trip. While these are excellent platform to support recreation, could this type of crowd sourced reporting be used to help maintain trails by reducing the damage from user-made trails? Currently, to submit a trail report within the Central Wasatch to the Forest Service, people often call the Salt Lake Ranger District to do so. Others bring their concerns or comments to the many organizations that work to protect the health of the Wasatch and promote responsible recreation.


  • Trail Way-Finding Design

    Way-finding signage and informational kiosks, such as those that you see at notable trailheads, helps recreationalists navigate their surroundings while understanding proper trail etiquette and behavior. These kiosks, and directional signage, or even rock cairns, can help to demystify which direction the intended trail goes. Some areas within the Central Wasatch already have excellent trail signage, such as the Park City area, thanks to the work of the Mountain Trails Foundation. The comprehensive signage around Park City lets users know of trail directionality, proper user etiquette, while providing users with an understanding of how the trail relates the larger trail network as a whole. These simple signage enhancements can reduce user-made trails by confirming that each fork in the trail is intentional. When way-finding components are regularly used throughout a trail system, people begin to recognize when they are breaking trail and can be encouraged to turn around to continue on marked trails. With a growing number of 3.7 million visitors to the Central Wasatch area annually, it is critical to direct trail users towards their desired route to avoid creating numerous user made trails throughout our mountains. 


Photo from Visit Park City


  • Education

    Trail design and education can operate in tandem to create a user-experience that protects environmental health and its wilderness qualities, while helping ease the navigational challenges that people may face when recreating. On-site education through signage can help visitors understand the do’s and don’ts of trail behavior. An effective example of an on-site educational effort is the Mountain Trail Foundation’s creative signage implementation that deters recreationalists from using their trails when they are muddy, and encourages dog owners to clean up after their dogs. The images below showcase these catchy and impactful signs: 

Photo from Mountain Trails Foundation.


Photo from Mountain Trails Foundation.

There are many organizations, such as Trails Utah, the Cottonwood Canyons Foundation, the Alta Environmental Center, and others that help steward the trails throughout the Central Wasatch by helping to educate the surrounding community through volunteer efforts and educational outreach. By educating the trail users themselves, damage can be greatly reduced, ensuring the longevity of the trails that we love.


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