Greater Seattle is a busy and bustling place. It’s one of the fastest growing regions in the country with thousands coming into the area for the promise of higher wages, a hip, fun and young city, and more laid-back vibe when compared to the East Coast and Midwest. Most of the people in this part of the country are active; they enjoy jogging, biking, paddling on the water and just being in motion. While the metropolitan area seems to go on endlessly, once you get outside the daily commuter traffic, you’re just a short drive from some of the most astounding outdoor playgrounds in West.
There is Mount Rainier to the south, the Okanogan-Wenatchee National Forest to the east, the North Cascades and, to the west, Olympic National Park. All of these areas are owned by the public, meaning everyone is free to explore these remarkable forests and the sights and sounds within. One of the best ways to do so is to lace up the hiking boots or air up the mountain bike tires. With thousands of miles of trails to explore, there is a nearly limitless amount of options. Keeping these trails safe, clear of debris and connecting one to another takes a ton of work, and what you might find surprising is nearly all of it is done by volunteers.
The Washington Trails Association (WTA) is headquartered in Seattle but its team and volunteers service the entire state. The organization actually began in 1966 as a magazine called Signpost for the Northwest Backpacker. The publication was a way for hiking and backpacking enthusiasts to share stories of backwoods adventures and recommend fun experiences they had across the state. Contributions grew quickly and under the leadership of the late Guidebook author Louise Marshall evolved into the Washington Trails Association.
As the organization continued to grow, leaders and members realized they wanted to do more than swap stories but have a lasting impact on the trails they love so dear. In the early ‘90s, money from the state and federal government started to slow down. Fewer new trails were scheduled to be cut and a list of thinning and maintenance projects began to grow longer and longer. The late Greg Ball was executive director at this time and had the idea to connect hikers and recreationalists with stewardship of the lands they so greatly enjoy. WTA worked with land managers and together set a plan in place to take over the bulk of the work in both maintaining current trails and carving new ones.
Today, hundreds of volunteers all across the state help dig, clear and reinforce all kinds of pathways through our public lands. According to WTA, in 1993, the first year of the program, about 250 volunteer hours were logged in our National Parks and Forests. 25 years later, volunteers are logging more than 160,000 hours and have created the largest such program of its kind in the nation.
Trail work parties are happening every week at locations all across the state. Parties are led by a WTA crew leader, and each trip is different. Volunteers meet up at a designated location, have a safety briefing, and outline the project they will be working on. Most of the time volunteers will be hiking and not on level ground, so a certain degree of physical fitness is expected; however, WTA encourages quality work over the quantity. This means that volunteers are free to go at their own pace and take as many breaks as they wish without any judgment. Projects might be as simple as clearing vegetation that’s covering an existing trail. This is done with simple tools like shears, handsaws and machetes. On these projects volunteers might cover a lot of ground whereas other projects like building a bridge over running water or a natural retaining wall around a steep corner will keep crews in one area.
WTA is also efficient at bringing trail systems together that were not previously connected. This involves cutting brand new trail through all kinds of terrain. Trail engineers work ahead and mark where the new trail will be cut, and crews work their way from start to finish. First brush and debris are cleared so the digging can begin. In order to create a proper trail that will last decades and not see weeds and trees pop up in the middle of it, builders need to dig all the way down to where the vegetation line ends. This is done with multiple tools such as shovels, hoes, Pulaskis and axes for chopping through stubborn and deep tree roots.
Volunteers must be 10 years and older, with a parent present for children 1 4 and younger. Meet-up is at 8:30am and the day ends at 3:30pm. Each crew is different, and you may encounter first-time volunteers or those who have been volunteering for 20 years. Those looking for an even greater challenge can look into the Back Country Response Team. These teams hike out to remote sites for up to eight-day long projects that are typically far from the trailhead. Volunteers should be experienced overnight backpackers and have all the supplies to survive camping out in the woods for multiple nights. An equally long but less intense version is the Volunteer Vacations. Here groups spend a week doing projects, often staying at an established campground, backwoods cabin or backwoods camping. All food and tools are provided for each camper, and there is ample time to relax and enjoy the surroundings while you work.
Finding a work party is quite easy. Visit WTA.org and click on the ‘Volunteer’ tab. Here you will find a list of statewide projects, or you can also view a map and see when a project is coming up in a specific forest.
Washington Trails Association looks to empower hikers and is a great resource for those new to the activity or looking to plan their first overnight adventure. The website offers guides to thousands of routes which can be broken down by region, distance and difficulty. WTA offers tips for hiking with young kids, a trail report section for hikers to share up-to-date information, and all the information on passes and permits that you need for entering the various lands across the state.
With thousands upon thousands of miles to maintain, WTA is always eager for new volunteers. If being outside on a summer day, enjoying a hike and having an impact on your fellow citizens’ enjoyment of the great outdoors is something that sounds appealing, consider joining up with a work party. Our public lands are worth protecting, and keeping well-established trails open will help keep more people enjoying them for decades to come.