Heroes of the Trails: The Behind-the-Scenes Work of the Carolina Mountain Club

Eastern Michigan spring break crew at Joyce Kilmer National Forest
Eastern Michigan spring break crew at Joyce Kilmer National Forest
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Winter takes its toll on trails. Erosion from heavy rainfall and snow, trees and branches felled by wind storms—it doesn’t take long for a trail to become impassable and with over 3,000 miles of public trails in Western North Carolina, there’s just not enough staff at the area’s parks to stay on top of maintenance. But behind the scenes, volunteers from a number of organizations continue working through the winter to make sure that trails are ready for hikers, climbers and riders when spring arrives. They’re the unsung heroes of the trails, whose work is enjoyed by many but rarely acknowledged.

Carolina Mountain Club offers three to five guides hikes in the mountains each week, but trail work is an equally important part of their mission. Kayah Gaydish heads the DRAFT (Dirty Rogues Ales For Trails) Crew, a trail maintenance team of the Carolina Mountain Club that maintains existing trails, builds steps from stones, clears “blow downs” (fallen trees) with chainsaws and crosscut saws and more.  DRAFT crew maintains the Bat Cave Preserve Trail which leads to the largest known fissure cave in North America. Right now the trail is only open for guided hikes through the Nature Conservancy.

The Joyce Kilmer National Forest is just one of the places where the Carolina Mountain Club goes to work
The Joyce Kilmer National Forest is just one of the places where the Carolina Mountain Club goes to work Nicholas A. Tonelli

A few times a year and the cave is closed because of White Nose Syndrome, a disease that’s been killing bats in caves on the East Coast. DRAFT Crew also maintains the Hawksbill Trail in Linville Gorge, one of the most scenic wilderness trails in Western North Carolina, popular with rock climbers, hikers and backcountry campers. The crew also maintains a six-mile section of the Appalachian Trail near Hot Springs and portions of the Mountains to Sea Trail.

DRAFT crew on top of 100 tons of gravel
DRAFT crew on top of 100 tons of gravel

Anyone can volunteer on a trail crew and the training takes place before the work, so there’s really no special skill required. But trail maintenence isn’t always a picnic. It’s hard work with its share of mild annoyances and actual dangers including poison ivy, yellow jackets, snakes, misdirected hammers or saws. Crew members often carry heavy equipment on their backs, from rock bars to hazel hoes, cross-cut saws, swing blades and chain saws. If there is rock work to be done, they might be carrying “rock baskets” (piles of rocks encircled by mesh). But despite these challenging conditions, injuries on her crew are few and usually self inflicted. Wildlife encounters are not as common as one my expect, either, although there are often signs of an animals previous presence. Elk are particularly destructive, Gaydish says. They can often undo a whole day’s work with their hooves, especially during migrations season.

Hard working crew celebrates accomplishment.
Hard working crew celebrates accomplishment.

It’s important not overlook this one key element of trail work, though: it’s fun. The crew will often hop in a nearby swimming hole, go climbing or camp out, says Gaydish, and she brings her two children along to help out. “We wouldn’t be doing it if we couldn’t find some joy in it. It’s fun and it’s important. If every body who uses the trails in Western North Carolina gave just one hour of their time to maintain them, they’d be in such great shape,” says Gaydish.

Trail Opportunities through Carolina Mountain Club can be found here.

The Appalachian Trail Conservancy offers trail work projects that last anywhere from a few days to a few weeks. More info here.

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