Some of us use National Forest trails to get our best peek at wildlife in their natural habitat, while others are simply looking for some peace and quiet. Generally, I fall into the last category. Walking helps me reflect, wind down, and immerse myself in the present moment. Here in the Sawtooth National Forest, one can still find these spaces of solitude and tranquility - although pulling into the Greenhorn Trailhead parking lot at 9:00 AM on a Saturday in July might lead you to disagree! I went mountain biking on the Saturday of Labor Day weekend at 3:00 PM - on the highly-accessible Fox Creek trail - and didn’t see a single person. So what’s the scoop with trail use here in the Wood River Valley?

This past summer, the Wood River Trails Coalition (WRTC) embarked on a collaborative, comprehensive trail survey project that aimed to answer this question. We wanted to better understand how many trail users we had, how folks were using the Ketchum Ranger District trail system (biker vs. hiker vs. horseback rider, etc.), and user preferences for things like trail location, parking availability, and overall trail design and experience. A trail survey of this kind has not been conducted since 2012, and we know from both objective reporting and casual conversation that our community here has grown and evolved. Having up-to-date information on trail use helps inform National Forest management plans, and it allows for us at the WRTC to engage in more robust reporting and strategic planning. As a non-profit, these actions are catalysts for securing grants and building the best programming possible for sustainable trail management. Perhaps most important of all, our 2021 trail survey project signals to our community that we, as trail stewards/managers, are listening. By seeking public input, we build trust with our users and open lines of communication and education for things like trail etiquette, mitigating conflict, and supporting sustainable natural resource use.

With support from the National Forest Foundation, we were able to purchase six infrared trail-counting devices, which helped us acquire daily (even hourly) counts of the hikers, bikers, horseback riders using National Forest trails here in the Wood River Valley. When it comes to raw numbers of trail users, monthly totals across all trails easily surpasses 10,000 users. Imagine that! Some days this summer saw over 300 trail users in a single 5 hour period. Interestingly, a fair portion of our busiest trails are relatively far from Ketchum, and based on data from 2012, these trails used to be a sort of “hidden gem”. Perhaps with the rise of social media and online map accessibility, these spots have become more discovered.

To complement this quantitative data, we developed an anonymous survey that was given to users at trailheads across the Ketchum Ranger District. We asked questions like:

“Are you full-time, part-time, or visiting in the Wood River Valley?”

“How often do you use the trails?”

“Where do you go for information on trail conditions, rules and regulations, etc.?”

“How important is avoiding burned areas when choosing a trail to visit?”

“Did you move to the Wood River Valley in the past 3 years, and how important was access to outdoor recreation in the decision to move?

Surveying wrapped up just after Labor Day, and while we’ve just begun to dig deeper into the data, some neat trends stuck out right away:

  • Ketchum and the Sawtooth National Forest are tightly associated with tourism and summer travel, but around two-thirds of our survey respondents considered themselves full-time (6+ months/year) residents. While our trails attract recreationalists from all over the country and even the world, the trails receive heavy, sustained use from Wood River Valley locals.

  • Respondents also noted that whether they live here part or full-time, or are visiting for an extended period, they use the Ketchum Ranger District trails 3-5 times per week. Boots, tires, and hooves are hitting the trails here in a big way!

  • Responses for a question regarding “trail information sources” highlights the importance of collaboration for effective trail management here in the Wood River Valley. Most respondents get their trail information from Blaine County Recreation District’s Summer TraiLink website/mapping application. The BCRD has been a longstanding partner of the Wood River Trails Coalition, and they frequently work across agencies and land jurisdictions to keep all of our trails in top-notch condition. Take a look at their TraiLink website, and you’ll see why so many folks head here for their info!

  • Contrary to many passing conversations I’ve had or overheard this past year, our survey respondents aren’t actually encountering throngs of other users out on the trails (usually just 5-10 people), nor do they perceive the current number of people using the trails as crowded.

  • Only one-fifth of survey respondents moved to the Wood River Valley in the past 3 years, but for those who did, the question of access to outdoor recreation was overwhelmingly answered as “very important”.

So, where are we headed from here? Sharing our findings with the public has been a priority since day one of the project, and we plan to do that through a community discussion at the public library in October. Both survey and trail counter data sets will be used by the U.S. Forest Service as they create their year-end reports and advocate for trail maintenance funding over the winter. The data will be highly valuable for the WRTC as we update our strategic plans and share the story of who we are and what we do as an organization. The data will be stored in an “open source” format as well, meaning that any agency or organization can access our project findings for their own specific purposes. We aim to continue a survey program annually, asking some questions year after year while also adapting our information collection based on the shifting contexts of our trail community. Trail counters will continue to be deployed for the foreseeable future, all thanks to fantastic support of the National Forest Foundation!

The survey project has kept me busy this summer, but it certainly hasn’t been all work and no play. Our National Forest trails give us endless opportunities in the Wood River Valley - I love getting out to bike the Oregon-Fox loop (when it’s not too hot), and the Baker-Apollo loop is also a favorite of mine for a hike. Truthfully, though, there have been many days working for the Wood River Trails Coalition where my job is to simply listen to the public, share stories, and educate our trail community. The best part of these conversations is that for me, they hardly feel like work. I am eager to share the WRTC’s programs, our mission, our visions for the future of trails in the valley, because I deeply believe in the power of both our community and of our trails. They are woven together, the people and the resource, in a way that guides so much of life, work, and play here. What’s clear to see is that we have both residents and visitors alike who value our trails and wish to see them thrive in a sustainable way. I’m excited to keep trying to harness these values and put them to work, for both the WRTC and for the positive growth of the larger Wood River Valley community. Thank you NFF for helping make this project a success - and stay tuned for the survey project of 2022!

Cover photo by Misty Day.


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