Trail Design Workshop

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Determining the slope angle.

Shenandoah National Park, December 2 – 3, 2020 —  We gathered for our sustainable trails design, construction and rehabilitation field training in the Compton Gap parking lot where we engaged in initial introductions, orientation and safety talk. 

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We were leaders from the park staff and PATC who are involved with backcountry trails and the park’s historic legacy.

As each of us spoke in turn, the sharp wind assaulted our clothing like a rusty razor shaving a drunken sailor’s belly.  It attacked the tiny gaps, exploited thin layers, nipped exposed skin, and stung our nerve endings with the efficiency of a serial killer wielding an ice pick. 

Still, we focused on the subject at hand, sustainable design, restoration and maintenance of Shenandoah’s hiking trails. 

Did I mention that the wind chill was cold?

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After the preliminaries we crossed Skyline Dr. and began marching on the AT up the north side of Compton Peak.  The trek leads to a nice viewpoint to the west and to the east the best example of basalt columnar jointing in the park.  Needless to say this section of the trail is popular and receives a lot of traffic.

The route was originally built by the CCC and some of their stonework still stands although, after 80 years, is breaking down.  Our mission was to learn how to identify it and sustainably restore it for another generation to use.

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Brinnon Carter, Cultural Resource Program Manager, discussed CCC trail design.  Those who have hiked on the north side of Compton know the trail passes two very large boulders.  That, it turns out, didn’t happen by accident.

Along the way we discussed water/erosion management, design criteria including selecting ascending and descending grades and other design criteria such as the amount of traffic and two-way traffic considerations.  Most of this is not new, but the review fit the context of the primary purpose of the workshop which was to identify and preserve the CCC’s work.

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In the afternoon we walked to the north boundary kiosk discussing the merits of keeping the trail on the old roadbed and ways of aligning it for a more esthetic hiker experience.  Some Myron Avery’s old maps were informative. 

While Benton MacKaye envisioned the Appalachian Trail, it was Myron Avery who scouted the route and got it built.  He also was the founder of the Potomac Appalachian Trail Club and the Appalachian Trail Conservancy.  For more, click here.

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The stillness of the second day’s dawn at Thornton Gap was remarkable in contrast to day one.  While the ambient air temperatures were similar, the wind was elsewhere afflicting other people, and thankfully not us. 

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Stephanie passed out excellent homemade cookies to help fuel our climb to 3,300 foot high Mary’s Rock.  Info on Mary’s Rock here.

Our purpose on the climb was to examine the CCC’s crib walls and learn how people and nature have caused changes over the previous 80 years.  The question was how to catalogue, grade and monitor them for maintenance and restoration.  Climbing while masked didn’t prove to be a hardship.

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We stopped several places to look at examples of the CCC’s work and learned how to identify it and assess the condition.  Along the way we found two of these painted sticks abandoned at different places along the trail.  I brought one home to burn in my backyard fire pit.  Please, Leave No Trace!

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Lunch was pleasant absent the wind.  The program featured a well-known local comic.

After lunch we moved southward to the White Oak Canyon parking lot.  From there we examined the Skyland horse, Limber Lost and a bit of the White Oak Canyon trails.  The last is one of the busiest in the park.

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You can discuss the placement, effectiveness, merits and demerits of a waterbar ad infinitum. 

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Limberlost Trail is the only ADA handicapped accessible trail in the park.  We divided into groups and walked along entertaining discussion questions, the answers to which were debriefed to other groups.

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Once back in the parking lot we filled out a matrix informed by our group discussions.

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The workshop finished with each of us briefing back to the group what we had learned and its future application. Meanwhile there is a ton of CCC work to find, identify and catalogue.

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