Have you ever wondered where trails come from? Millions of people walk on them every year, but few stop to think about the path they’re walking. A lot of features you may not notice, like a rock step, a smooth grade or even wooden bridges are built and maintained by trail crews.
It wasn’t always this way. When mountaineering first started, there weren’t “trails.” You just picked your route and went up. Decades of this chaotic approach created dangerous hiking conditions and widespread environmental damage. Something had to change, so trail building was born.
Trail building creates a sustainable path that does three things; it slows down erosion, keeps hikers safer, and preserves the alpine.
Why I Became A Trail Builder
To feel the restorative effects of nature, you need to protect it, and I think the alpine is one of the greatest ecosystems on the planet.
So, fresh out of college and filled with the words of Henry David Thoreau, Aldo Leopold, and John Muir, I set off to do just that. For three grueling years, I helped build and fix trails in the alpine.
To date, no job has been as physically demanding, emotionally draining and ultimately rewarding as trail building.
Here’s a snapshot of what a day looks like when you work above the treeline.
The Morning Routines
Groggy eyes greet a fuzzy surrounding. The mental game begins.
Come on, Timo, my brain says. You’ve done this before. Get up and get out of your sleeping bag!
…But it's so warm in there, I argue back. We debate for a while.
Finally, at the unrelenting behest of my brain, I rise. I know I only have an hour to get ready.
Quickly pulling back the sleeping bag cover, I sit up, and confusion settles around me.
…what comes next? Pants! Of course!
Putting on clothes in a tent at 3 AM is a frustrating experience. After the ordeal ends, I grab the backpack at my side and pull boots around my feet. Propelled by a sigh, I exit the tent.
The stars are amazing, billions of lights layered thick into the cosmic canvas above. It feels like, with the slightest breeze, I could lose my grip on the ground and drift into outer space.
After a muted moment of admiration, I stumble to the wall tent. It’s a 14x17 foot behemoth where our crew cooks their meals and hangs out.
Ah, the crew; a group of diverse people brought together by a love of the outdoors.
A lot of us started because we weren’t sure what the rest of our lives would look like. The opportunity to live and work in the mountains was too good to pass up. Others came for the hard work. Manual labor is tough, but building things is central to what it means to be human. People build their careers, education, families, etc.; it’s ingrained in all of us.
If we do our job right, the trails we build will last for decades. It’s immensely satisfying to know that.
Not everyone knows what they’re getting into; people quit often. Last year, three crew members left halfway through the season. It was demoralizing to see them walk away from a project half finished. But when the feeling of abandonment left, another replaced it; pride. The ragged crew that remained could do it, and I was a part of it.
Distilled, alpine trail work is manual labor at high elevations. Some people can’t acclimatize, and others don’t have much experience working labor-intensive jobs. The people that succeed enjoy the challenge. They know the rigors of spending days in the wild and don’t mind getting dirty.
Breakfast is usually ramen or oatmeal, whatever’s the easiest to grab. When everyone’s in the tent, we slip into ‘morning speak,’ a form of Neanderthal communication, where we just grunt at each other. No one’s awake enough to command words.
We eat, prep lunches, and drink coffee or matté like it’s the last time we’ll ever have it. If you have a few minutes, you hit the groovers (our backcountry bathrooms), but you have to go fast. We have a job to do.
After we clean our dishes and wait for the coffee to kick in, someone looks at their watch. 3:55; close enough. Time to roll out.
There is no starting bell or whistle, just an expectation to be at the site when work begins. No one forced us to take this job. We all wanted it.
Headlamp ablaze, I begin my march. Two stream crossings block my way. Needle Creek is the tricky one. Last month, the water level was so high that we had to ford the creek. Thankfully, we’ve had a few drier weeks since then. So, I rock-hop across with only my boots and headlamp to trust. Most of us make it across; sometimes, we fall in. It just depends on the day.
With the first obstacles passed, we link up with the basin trail and hike to higher ground. It’s a well-worn and easy-to-follow path, even under the cover of darkness. My breath fans out in front of me, wisps of vapor rising lazily into the cold air. Even July gets its fair share of cold mornings, a holdover from harsher months.
Today, the stars outline my path. On less fortunate days, the concussive flashes of lightning illuminate the enormous spires of rock that wall our reality. The latest weather forecast warned us about snow tomorrow. Snow: in the middle of summer.
What a wild place.
I take a left towards Twin Lakes and begin to climb. My heart pumps faster as my body adjusts to the task. My pace is strong, and I take a substantial lead over my crewmates. The real climb begins after another creek crossing.
Through giant switchbacks and staircases, I gain a few hundred feet. Running along the top of the switchbacks, I turn my eyes down the valley and see them all. Seven headlamps in the darkness, bobbing around like little fireflies. Seeing them gives me comfort.
Our crew relies on each other constantly. You have to; not only to get the work done but to keep up with physical and mental health. You have to bond and bond quickly. Asthma and altitude-induced seizures, bear attacks, and broken bones are easier to deal with when you trust each other.
The climb continues up a long diagonal route between two streams of significance, one from Twin Lakes and one from a lake even farther up. This part’s a marathon, not a sprint. I’m breathing heavily, but my pace is set, and I continue up.
When I reach Twin Lakes, I am alone and savor the solitude. I’ve entered the land of marmots and pikas: the alpine. As I wait for my friends, I sit on a rock and stare at my surroundings, the craggy bulk of Mt. Eolus visible to my left. The second half of the hike will take me there…
As I wait for my crew, I begin to stretch. The legs are always tight, but every muscle needs attention. A few minutes later, the headlamps catch up to me.
The chatter is low; we’ve been doing this for two months already. The silence is comfortable.
To the southeast, the slow creep of dull morning light rumbles toward us. Once the stretch routines are over, we begin moving again.
As the light creeps into the valley, the views open up. Craggy slopes dotted by alpine flora rim the basin, while patches of snow hold onto sun-starved pockets of the mountains.
When the trail reaches the base of our gully, the imposing face of Eolus looms above. This section is very eroded, which is why we’re here.
We approach the worksite slowly. For this project, we’re rerouting a badly damaged summit trail. Once again, I’m first to our section.
With heavy breaths I let my pack fall from my shoulders and roll my neck to get the kinks out. A big gulp of water and a small handful of trail mix find my mouth before I take one last look around.
I’m 13,200 feet above sea level. The air is crystal clear. Above me, a snowfield lies wedged between the imposing, rocky summit of one of Colorado’s 14,000-foot mountains. Below me, the talus bleeds into alpine meadows. Twin Lakes lie below the meadows, and Chicago Basin below the lakes. All across the horizon are mountains, unbroken by roads, undimmed by city lights, protected in perpetuity inside this wilderness.
Boy, we really are out there.
We build in the talus (huge fields of boulders ranging in size from pebbles to mini-vans). The talus is much sturdier than the crumbly trail that existed before.
The first few minutes of each workday are the same. I analyze my project site and look for the best ways to keep building. Above me, the first rays of sun catch the bulk of Mt. Eolus, turning the ridges above us a deep shade of red. It is a mesmerizing hue.
We work in small teams. For this section, I am with Everette. We begin our day where we left off last and continue building our talus staircase. Setting steps, placing pinners, and gathering crush are all part of the process.
The sun works its way into the sky, illuminating everything above us, and we work until it frees us from shadow. Then we pause, only for a few moments but like the marmots, we revel in the warmth of the sun and let it flow through us. Recharge complete; we get back to it.
Every rock has a unique profile. We look for flat faces to make steps, but that says nothing about how the bottom will sit on the slope. Using rubber mallets, we often create beds of crushed rock underneath the step rock so its uneven bottom and sides can settle into position.
Then, we use metal rock bars, leverage, and gravity to row the step rocks into place. When the step is set, we lean pinner rocks against each side. The combined pressure holds the step rock in place.
Every pinner rock is hemmed in by rocks, both above and below, so the entire section is locked together. Each step is also placed partially on top of the one below it, adding another level of gravity-assisted security. When we’re done, it should be bulletproof.
Lift with your legs, not your back!
Be patient with each other and the rocks you’re moving!
Remember to drink water and put sunscreen on!
Don’t be afraid to ask for help!
It’s a tiring job.
Every muscle is called into action, and they all must perform. Pikas, mountain goats, and marmots watch us. I can’t tell if they’re curious or annoyed that we’re setting up shop in their home. We set a few steps and help another crew member move a massive rock to their section. The hours churn by quickly.
Lunchtime is at 9:30 AM. On a good day, we’ve set at least three steps by now and framed the trail around them. For the following 45 minutes, I bask in the glory of the sun.
After lunch, we launch into it again. Wary eyes watch the sky. Alpine thunderstorms can form with little warning and we are far from cover. Occasionally my vision veers to the hikers above us. We can all see the summit from here and shake our heads at the questionable route choices people make. We’ve seen many of them turn around.
By the early afternoon, we’re all pretty exhausted.
Finally, we hear the call, “Tool up!” Time to stow our tools under a tarp and hide it amongst the talus. Tomorrow, we get to do it all again, but for now, another hike is on tap.
The Way Down
The hike down to camp is different from the morning hike because the wildflowers are on full display. The names are as colorful as the flowers themselves, purple fringe, columbine, alpine aven, and Indian Paintbrush, to name a few.
From our worksite all the way down to Twin Lakes, they dot the mountainside. Fields of green broken by yellow, red, blue, purple & orange: it’s a feast for the eyes. Their stalwart beauty, living in an environment only ever a few months away from winter, is astounding. I remind myself again how surreal this place is.
Birds chirp loudly, and baby goats prance around their mountain sanctuary as we descend. No one is in a rush, but gravity gives no respite, and we cruise past the lakes in an automatic fashion.
There are usually more hikers around, all there to see a place that jumped the pages of National Geographic. Sometimes I talk to them; sometimes, a short nod is all I can muster. By the time we get to camp, the sun has reached its apex in the sky, and it's hot.
I drop my pack by the wall tent and head to the creek. There is a part that’s chest deep, enough to get in. The shock of the water wakes me up and forgives the pain in my feet. I don’t stay in long, just enough to feel alive. It’s a quick renewal of the senses and a great cap to the work day. The sun dries my skin, and my muscles relax.
Dinner comes early. We eat voraciously and hide in the wall tent to escape the mosquitos. It’s amazing how much the body needs to work efficiently at high altitudes. I eat a lot, nearly 6,000 calories a day.
There are only four cooking stoves, so we take turns. People pull out their lawn chairs and read when they have a minute; or write, as I do. It’s a nice way to get out of the work mindset.
Bedtime is just around the corner but that corner lasts a couple of hours. It’s too hot to crawl into my tent right away, so I eat and write, summarizing the events of the day while gearing up for another. Thunder rumbles in the distance.
When the pitter-patter of tired feet begins to fade, headed off to personal tents, the last ones close down the camp. Everyone’s asleep by the time the sun sets.
Tomorrow, we get to do it all again. I wonder how much it’ll snow…
A Brief History of Trail Work In The U.S.
By the end of the 1800s, the mountainous western regions of North America were being plundered for their resources, including timber. Entire mountains were stripped bare of trees to fuel a growing country’s needs. However, with nothing to anchor the slopes, devastating mudslides, avalanches, floods, and natural disasters served as a wake-up call to many.
The rise of the environmental movement in the late 1800s contributed to a realignment of thought. No longer was nature something you had to conquer; you could cherish it as well. By the 1930s, that ideology helped the government create the Civilian Conservation Corps.
The CCC is the grandfather of trailwork in America. In the nine years the program was active, the CCC planted a billion trees and built or fixed trails in over 800 parks across the nation. Their legacy is what led to the creation of many conservation corps across today.
Why The Alpine Needs Trailbuilders Now
Did you know that it takes almost 50 years for one inch of topsoil to form in the alpine? Without a sustainable trail, every errant step knocks several inches down. The more eroded a trail gets, the easier it is to injure yourself. Trail builders are called upon to fix this issue.
Outdoor recreation, as an industry, has also been growing steadily for the past few decades. More people tromping through sensitive ecosystems furthers the need for trail work. Maintaining trails helps guarantee safer access to climate-sensitive environments, like the alpine, for future generations to enjoy.
Alpine trail building is not for everyone. Some people can manage one season; some do it for decades. If you read this and think it might be an interesting experience, there are some resources you can check out.
First, check out one of the various conservation corps in the U.S. The corps operates as a part of AmeriCorps, which is the domestic version of the Peace Corps. If you want to work for a professional trail crew, I had a phenomenal experience with the Colorado Fourteeners Initiative.
Trail crews always need people, but you should be clear-headed about what’s required of you. The work is tough and relentless. You’ll need your own personal gear and a medical certification like a Wilderness First Responder. But the pride and opportunity to live in the wild, for me, outweighed all the challenges. In several ways, it was the best job I ever had.
*The information on this site is based on research and first-hand experience but should not be treated as medical advice. Before beginning any new activity, we recommend consulting with a physician, nutritionist or other relevant professional healthcare provider.