How to recreate during Summit County’s springtime mud season

Summit County local Mike Tuinstra gets ready to splitboard up Mount Baldy with his dog, Porter, on Friday, April 1, in Breckenridge. Individuals have about a month left to continue winter recreation as the county moves into its spring season, also known as mud season.
Ashley Low/For the Summit Daily News

There’s a reason that people call Summit County’s spring season “mud season.” During the months of April and May, when temperatures are warming up and spring skiing is coming to a close, the snowpack begins to melt. As it does, trails become soft and sloppy, making it difficult to immediately ditch snowboards and skis for hiking boots and trekking poles.

Local experts warn that there’s more at stake than just a pair of muddy boots. Recreating on soft and malleable trails means there’s a greater risk for causing damage like erosion and the widening of paths.

Why spring is a fragile season

“The term ‘mud season’ — that kind of hits it right there. There’s a chance of going out there and encountering trails that are kind of in transition between winter and summer, so when you encounter trails that have a whole lot of mud in them, tracking through them is going to make the trails worse,” said Justin Ibarra, operations manager at Colorado Adventure Guides.

Ibarra said that when individuals plan to set off for an excursion, they should plan to encounter varying conditions on a single trail. For example, a trail might appear dry and stable for the first couple of miles, but if there’s a long stretch of mud, it might be best to turn back.

Dillon Ranger District Recreation Manager Cory Richardson said hiking through or even around the mud can cause more harm, mentioning it might not be worth it to continue forward.

“Hiking on those trails when there’s mud, it can kind of exacerbate erosion,” Richardson said. “You don’t think about it as much when hiking, but as you’re squishing into the mud, it can damage that trail prism or the actual footprint of the trail. When hiking, one of the issues is the trail is kind of muddy, and a lot of times it gets deep when people hike in the mud, and water starts to run down those sections.”

The same kind of damage can happen when people veer off the trail and go around the mud. This flattens and kills the surrounding vegetation, widening the trail, which can lead to the trail washing away more quickly over time. It’s not just foot traffic that causes this kind of damage. Richardson said mountain biking and motor vehicle use are just as likely to cause harm.

Where to recreate during these months

While this season is a delicate one in terms of trail use, Richardson said it’s not that individuals should stay clear of outdoor recreation entirely. He pointed out that the Dillon Ranger District doesn’t close trails during this season — like other districts on the Front Range might — partly because the Dillon Ranger District has such a large network and partly because it doesn’t want to limit public access to federal land.

Richardson said those who wish to recreate during this time of year should plan to do so in the morning when the ground is still firm. As for where to recreate, Richardson said the areas that usually dry quickest are Tenderfoot Mountain Ptarmigan Mountain and Soda Creek, which receive more sun.

Ibarra noted that Colorado Adventure Guides still hosts guided hikes during these months but that they take extra note of changing weather patterns when planning trips. Typically, the organization is booking snowshoe excursions through April and are only taking clients to areas they know are still snow covered. Come May, they switch gears and take clients on hikes they have already scoped out and have deemed safe to use.

As hikers and mountain bikers set off to find a trail that’s in good condition, they might find there are varying conditions around the county. This is to be expected since it might take longer for trails to dry out in some areas depending on how much tree coverage they have and whether they face the sun.

“Today, you can find some trails that are muddy and south facing. Then as soon as you go around to the northern aspect, you’re going to be in 2 feet of snow,” Richardson said.

Exploring other areas

For those who want to avoid Summit County’s mud season altogether, Ibarra and Richardson said this time of year is a good time to explore other areas of the state. Both pointed out that trails near the Front Range typically dry out faster than Summit County’s trails, and they said these areas make for good day trips.

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