Don't be a trail troll: Open space officials, volunteers discuss outdoor etiquette amid increasing use

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When a bicyclist encounters a horseback rider on the trail, do they know what to do? When hikers walk their dogs through local open spaces, do they know the dos and don’ts of taking pets along for the adventure?

Denver metro area open space officials and volunteers who spoke to Colorado Community Media said the majority of people are considerate and follow trails rules. But they’ve also seen an influx of people hitting the trails as the Front Range’s population booms. That heightens the need for trail etiquette education, they said.

“You’ve got experienced people who don’t think twice about (etiquette) and your inexperienced people who just aren’t used to it yet,” said Open Space Specialist Hans Reichgelt with the City of Westminster.

In general, trail etiquette stipulates that cyclists yield to hikers and horseback riders, while hikers yield to horses. Yielding means moving off the trail until a user with the right-of-way has passed.

People should also stay to the right and keep pets on the right as well. Pass others on the left. People should announce themselves before passing. Clean up after pets.

Douglas County recently produced informational materials concerning trail etiquette in light of the county’s population growth and increase in trail use, said Assistant Director of Open Space Scott McEldowney.

“We anticipate roughly 600,000 users on open space this year,” McEldowney said. “I believe this year we will be about 5% over last year. The previous few years, we have seen a 15% to 20% increase.”

That’s a lot of people to fit in a relatively confined area, McEldowney said.

Total, the county manages 90 miles of open space trails and another 63 miles in Douglas County parks. That’s not counting municipalities, state parks or federal forest land in the area.

In the north metro, Westminster offers 150 miles of trail surface, most of which is multimodal, Reichgelt said. People can walk, run, bike or ride horses. In 2017, Westminster saw just shy of 550,000 trail users and nearly 554,000 in 2018.

Reichgelt said the city expects to surpass last year’s count “very soon for 2019.” He cautioned the city does not have counters on all trails, so the true numbers could be higher.

Open space officials aren’t the only ones advocating for responsible trail use and etiquette.

Throughout Jefferson County, the nonprofit Golden Giddyup Trail Team partners with Jefferson County Open Space to maintain trails. The organization began in 2013 after floods devastated the local trail system.

This summer, members surpassed 10,000 hours of volunteer work. Those hours have included pop-up events where they encourage people to follow open space rules and regulations.

MORE: Annual Golden Giddyup race and expo in photos

“Working with open space and staff, we’ve specifically targeted mountain bikers at some of the most heavily used parks,” said Executive Director Jeff Watrobka.

The group is mostly comprised of mountain bikers. Watrobka himself averages 40 to 50 miles a week. He believes an important part of trail etiquette is understanding a trail’s difficulty level before setting out.

Then, he said, check the weather. It’s important for trail users to pay attention to recent weather events. Different trails are comprised of different soil types, he said.

Some lend themselves well to biking or horseback riding when wet, but others do not. Those with heavy clay content can be damaged if used too soon after rain or snow, he said.

If he could grade Douglas County trail users, McEldowney said he’d give them a B-plus. There’s a low frequency of accidents, which can partially be attributed to how the system was planned, he said, but also to educated users.

When it comes to areas of improvement, Reichgelt, McEldowney and Watrobka all urged trails user to remain aware of their surroundings.

Ditch the headphones. Be on the lookout for wildlife, and other trail users. Lastly, leash the family dog, and keep it close.

When people make complaints, it’s frequently about unleashed dogs, McEldowney said. Similarly, Reichgelt said allowing dogs to extend their leash across the trail is a common mistake people make.

“That’s just a clothesline for anyone coming through on a bike,” he said.

Mostly, the men encouraged people to follow the golden rule and take care of the trail as though it were their home.

“Just be nice,” Reichgelt said. “Everyone is trying to do the same thing — just get out there and enjoy the outdoors.”

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