Straying from the Beaten Path

Straying from the Beaten Path

Improvised trails off Billy Goat Trail threaten Bear Island Ecology

In November members of the C&O Canal Volunteer Bike Patrol noticed a series of spray-paint orange blazes on Bear Island near Section A of the Billy Goat Trail. In addition to 20 such unauthorized markings along the trail, park officials and volunteers discovered 28 additional orange markings on trees and rocks in the interior of Bear Island.

Bear Island is federal land, part of Chesapeake and Ohio Canal National Historical Park. The Nature Conservancy has 50 percent undivided property interest in the island.

While park officials don’t know who marked the trees, the blazes are marked and double-marked as though made by somebody who understands trailblazing conventions. “It was done by someone who knows how trails are blazed,” Travaglini said. “We’re pretty sure it was probably someone that runs, bikes, [or] does walks … we just don’t know who or what it was for.”

Within a few weeks after the blazes were discovered, Mary Travaglini, Potomac Gorge habitat restoration manager with The Nature Conservancy, went to Bear Island with a National Park Service official and covered the blazes with camouflage paint.

“Beyond the illegality of it, it has a real impact,” said Stephanie Flack, project coordinator of The Nature Conservancy’s Potomac Gorge habitat restoration project. “They degrade the habitat.”

The orange blazes are an extreme example of a common problem — “social trails,” “recreational trails” or “informal trails” are but a few terms for what happens when visitors wander off marked paths.

Hikers straying from marked paths have potential to wreak havoc on Bear Island, an ecologically sensitive area that was visited by 50,000 people each year.

Vandalism on federal parkland is a criminal offense. But staying on the marked path is a matter of complying with Leave No Trace ethics. It’s up to the conscience of each Billy Goat Trail hiker to comply, and the stakes are higher than may seem apparent.

GEORGEANN SMALE of Bethesda is accustomed to seeing informal trails meandering off the Billy Goat Trail, where Smale leads a group of volunteer trail stewards. “Occasionally we’ll see flour. People will put their own temporary markings out there with flour. [Other times] hikers will put sticks or stones in arrows.”

No matter what they mean, they’re undesirable, Smale said.

Informal trails often begin because they seem innocent and intuitive to a hiker. The blue-blazed trail may meander in an arc, as the hiker walks the straight-line shortcut.

“When you start to make [shortcuts] on all the trail networks … you’re doing something you can’t even see,” Smale said.

“When you lay out a formal trail, you have persons who know how to lay out the trail,” Jeff Marion, a federal ecologist who studies the environmental impact of informal trails for the U.S. Geological Survey. “[Informal trails] are designed by visitors who know nothing. … They may be inadvertently walking though an endangered plant community.”

Along the Billy Goat Trail, there’s a pretty good chance they are. “Bear Island is one of the most sensitive resources that exists in the D.C. area,” Travaglini said.

College graduates may recall informal trails on their campus, where walkways may not have been the quickest way for students in a hurry to get to class or a dorm. Eventually, if there’s an obvious shortcut from Point A to Point B, the shoes of hundreds of students taking a shortcut wear down a path across the college quad. Smale calls it the “edge effect.”

When rare or endangered plant species are involved, as they are on Bear Island, some short-term affects of “bootleg” hiking are obvious.

“In some cases, they directly trample the rare plants we’re trying to protect,” said Marion.

More indirectly, plant and even some animal species sometimes find it difficult to cross a path. Marion said it’s not uncommon for him to see a plant species flourishing on one side of a path, but nonexistent on the other side. “They can’t seem to migrate past the trail,” Marion said.

The opposite problem can also wreak havoc with the local ecology — non-native plant species can be spread by hikers if seeds get stuck in their clothing or boot treads.

FROM THEIR END, Park Service officials and volunteers along the canal and Billy Goat Trail try to minimize visitor impact on the area.

“I’m fairly pragmatic about it,” Marion said. With 50,000 annual Billy Goat Trail visitors, it’s unrealistic to expect that every last one of them will stay on blazed path. The key to minimizing impact is to design good trails that won’t erode, and educate visitors about Leave No Trace.

Marion will begin a study next year on the existing trail networks in the Potomac Gorge and determine the adequacy of existing trails, and inadequate ones should be regraded or reset.

Smale and Park Service officials are working on procedures for closing the Billy Goat Trail during wet seasons. When the Potomac River level hits 5.4 on the Little Falls gauge (still below flood level), parts of the Billy Goat Trail get submerged.

During wet seasons, hikers may leave a marked trail to avoid swampy-looking stretches of a marked trail.

“That’s why it’s closed down during floods,” Smale said. “If the blue-blazed trail is underwater … then we don’t want you on the trail at all.”


Georgeann Smale, head of the Billy Goat Trail, attempts to educate many of the trail’s 50,000 annual visitors about Leave No Trace principles.

“It’s an ethic, not a law,” said Smale, who stresses the importance of adhering to Leave No Trace principles on the Billy Goat Trail, which passes through the fragile ecosystem of Bear Island, home to many rare and endangered plant and animal species.