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Backcountry Adopts Two Trails in Utah

Lake Blanche & Red Pine Lake Get 800+ Hours of Love

Sir Lop-a-Lot. Lop to it! Lop ‘til you drop. When you lop overgrown branches on the trail all day, you get pretty creative when it comes to describing this labor of lop—er, love.

On a hot Friday in July this past summer, I set out with a Backcountry crew for a day of trail work at Lake Blanche in Big Cottonwood Canyon. This was just one of many days this summer when teams of Backcountry employees took to the trails right in their backyards with loppers, Pulaskis (an axe-adze combo), McLeods (rake-hoes), and other tools of the trail maintenance trade.

At 7:30am, I arrived at the Mill B South Trailhead parking lot and met other volunteers from Backcountry, most of whom I’d never met before. I was joined by buyers from merchandising, a group of folks who fulfill orders at the warehouse, Gearheads aplenty, the Park City office facilities coordinator, and a brand manager. But today, all of us had one job: help maintain a locally loved trail. 

We’ve all been on a trail that needs work. We’ve brushed shoulders with overgrown branches. Spied invasive weeds strangling native species. And encountered muddy, narrow singletrack that could have been prevented with a well-place irrigation ditch.

These were the problems we were here to solve. But we weren’t going it alone. To adopt the trails, Backcountry turned to the Cottonwood Canyons Foundation (CCF), a nonprofit that protects Big and Little Cottonwood Canyons through education and stewardship, and launched a pilot Adopt-a-Trail program this year. CCF provided us guidance, training, and tools to take two trails under our wing: Red Pine Lake Trail in Little Cottonwood Canyon, and Lake Blanche in Big Cottonwood Canyon, both close to our offices in Salt Lake City, Utah. 

Backcountry might have never become involved with the CCF if it weren’t for one passionate employee. A Utah local, Berlin Jespersen has been hiking the trails in the Cottonwood Canyons since she was a little girl. Today, she manages the Backcountry Gear Closet, where employees go to try out gear so they can describe it accurately to customers. Nobody asked Berlin to set up this initiative—she figured that as outdoor enthusiasts, Backcountry’s community ought to protect the outdoors. 

Berlin explains, “As outdoor recreationalists and leaders in the industry, it’s our responsibility to serve as stewards of the environment and the places in which we recreate to ensure our access to the outdoors for future generations.” 

I couldn’t agree more, which is why I signed up for a day of trail work with Berlin. Plus, in all my years of riding and running trails, I’m ashamed to admit that I’ve never done a single day of trail work in my life. I’ve thought about signing up before, but something always seemed to come up or the idea of doing a big ride felt far more alluring than a day of branch-chopping. But presented with the opportunity, I felt it was high time I put in some hours for the trails I love.

After all, volunteers are key to high-quality trails. While Forest Service Ranger Districts maintain some trails, they depend upon local organizations like the CCF that rally volunteers to get the job done. In Utah, several other organizations aso help organize volunteer days, like Save Our Canyons and Trails Utah. In 2018, in the Salt Lake Ranger District alone, CCF Trails Director Patrick Morrison reports that 2,486 volunteers committed over 15,000 hours to working on local trails.

On the day I showed up, several employees from the CCF met us at the trailhead to guide our efforts, including Patrick. He kicked off the morning with icebreakers and the plan for the day. From there, all the volunteers grabbed a pair of work gloves and a tool of choice: a Pulaski, a McLeod, or a lopper. Outdoor brands La Sportiva and Sunski were also onsite to support the crew, allowing us to demo trail runners and sunglasses, plus providing post-work snacks.

I chose the Pulaski and from there, we hit the dirt, stopping early on for onsite training. Patrick and his team provided a quick intro to maintaining irrigation ditches. Basically, you break up hard dirt and rocks with the Pulaski. Then you use the McLeod to scrap away the debris, deepening the ditch and allowing water to run off the trail, rather than down it. 

As we walked from ditch to ditch, I learned that the mustachioed Patrick—whose energy fueled the crew just as much as a hearty PB&J—was a former political consultant in New York City, who returned to Utah so he could work in the field, rather than in a suit in the city.

When we discovered that the ditches on the trail were in fairly good shape, I switched tools to a lopper and was privy to a brief Lopping 101: cut a branch, then toss it into the brush. But the key is to go in deep. Brush grows quickly, which means if you only cut the branches hanging over the trail, you’ll be back pretty soon for another trim job, and a hiker, runner, or biker is bound to get scraped up.

In teams, we worked our way up the three-and-a-half mile trail, up steep dirt, over tangled tree roots into the Twin Peaks Wilderness area, and across steep rock gardens until the brush we’d been battling began to open up. A scree field later, we were at the top, overlooking our destination: Lake Blanche. Slick tawny rock sloped into the lake banks, and twin-horned Sundial Peak towered opposite us, flanked by ridges rising out of snow still lingering from last winter.

The end of the trail delivered this sublime panorama, but also some perspective. When you’re in the weeds, trudging up a hot trail with a glorified giant pair of scissors, it can be hard to see the bigger picture of your efforts. But some 2,600 feet higher and four hours later, I was reminded of the importance of trail work. Making a trail more accessible enables more people to connect with nature in this beautiful place. And that’s a cause worth sweating profusely for. 

With the summer behind us, we have the hard facts about the bigger picture of Backcountry’s trail adoption efforts. Between the trails of Lake Blanche and Red Pine Lake, over 100 Backcountry employees volunteered, from the VP of Gearhead operations and a senior training manager to warehouse workers and Gearheads. This adds up to 810 volunteer hours, and a labor value of $19,998. All that work resulted in 8.5 miles of trail cleared of weeds and overgrowth, plus 234 irrigation drains cleaned on our adopted trails. 

“Backcountry’s commitment to the program was unrivaled,” Patrick says. “All the employees who came out were positive, motivated, and completely up to the physical toll that a day on the trails can take.” 

This is just the beginning of Backcountry’s efforts to sustain its backyard. Recently, Berlin also led a trip to the Ashley National Forest to help restore illegal campsites and social trails back to designated Wilderness standards in partnership with the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance.

And next summer, Berlin hopes to expand our trail adoption efforts into Backcountry’s new “Day of Service” program to encourage even more Backcountry employees to hit the trails. As for the CCF, Patrick plans to use Backcountry’s approach to trail adoption as the “model and benchmark for what is possible” as he expands the program in the future. 

Want to help support the trails you use? If you’re in the northern Utah area, sign up to volunteer with the Cottonwood Canyons Foundation. If you live elsewhere, search for your local trail organization or inquire with your local U.S. Forest Service ranger office. The nonprofit American Trails also keeps an index of trail organizations across the country. 

About the Author

Maya Silver is the head of copy at Backcountry and a writer covering food, travel, the environment, and more. Read her ramblings at mayasilverwrites.com or @silverismaya