When on the Trail, Don’t Go Rogue

News // September 02, 2021

By Pauline Berkowitz, FOW Capital Projects Coordinator

Staying on trail is always recommended when you’re in the great outdoors, but in Wissahickon Valley Park it’s a must. The reason is simple: the need to avoid rogue trails!

What is a rogue trail, and what’s so bad about them? Whether intentionally or inadvertently, park visitors seeking a shortcut often create rogue, or “social,” trails in the park on the most direct route down hillsides or around obstacles like downed trees or puddles. Unfortunately, rogue trails are both extremely vulnerable to accelerated erosion and can contribute to user conflict and habitat loss.

The Wissahickon is a delicate ecosystem that already faces the burden of high use along its existing official trails. Increasing the density of trails can mean the destruction of habitat for both flora and fauna in an area already under tremendous pressure of contiguous habitat loss. Rogue trails also can be a source of user conflict between the three primary categories of park users: hikers, bikers, and equestrians. Because they are unlabeled, rogue trails can cause confusion and lead to right of way issues when users merge onto a trail. This can be dangerous with horses or speedy bikers, so when in doubt, always yield and follow trail courtesy guidelines on passing. 

Wherever people go on rogue trails, water follows too. When stormwater runs down a rogue trail, it channelizes it, wearing soil away from the surface and contributing to high sedimentation and runoff in the Wissahickon Creek. (Many rogue trails are also typically made along fall lines to cut straight down the hillside, which further spurs erosion.) The sediment washed down into the creek can compromise the water quality of this important drinking water source as well as the habitat of wildlife who depend on the stream for water and food. In contrast, thanks to the projects of FOW’s more than 15-year Sustainable Trails Initiative, official trails in the park are designed along the the terrain’s contour lines to mitigate stormwater impacts, promote sheetflow of water, and have a properly compacted surface that is less vulnerable to erosion. 

With increased visitation to the park in recent years, rogue trails have become a more frequent issue – and much of the trail work that FOW does is closing or re-routing them. When a rogue trail is identified, volunteers initially place logs and branches as an obstacle to close access to the trail. During the spring and fall planting seasons, we then plant the former rogue trail with native plants to restore the disturbed habitat and allow the forest to restitch back together.

You can help limit the damage of rogue trails by following Leave No Trace principles such as staying on designated trails and avoiding stepping on plantings, reporting rogue trails if you find them by texting WISS to FOW at (267) 966-2207, and volunteering with FOW to help restore habitat. And joining FOW’s annual All Trails Challenge, which encourages people to hike, bike, run or horseback ride all 50 miles of the park’s trails for conservation is a great way to support sustainable trails too!