CASPER, Wyo. — Tanned, muscled arms stacked boulder after boulder along a dirt ledge on Casper Mountain Thursday morning. The ledge had been rounded off by erosion, time, the mountain’s runoff and meandering hikers.
The group of college-aged men and women wore dirt-smudged shirts and sturdy khaki pants. They are accustomed to days under the hot sun and nights under the stars. They don’t mind going 10 days without a shower.
They are the Wyoming Conservation Corps. And this week, eight of them are tackling restoration on virtually every inch of Casper Mountain’s Bridle Trail.
“A big part of why we’re here is erosion control,” crew leader and Thermopolis native Michael Vassar, 22, said while hiking up the trail Thursday morning. He stopped to point out a three-foot-long arc the crew cut into the ground earlier in the week. The arc is called a knick. It diverts rainfall and snowmelt off the trail and down a nearby slope.
Much of the erosion could have been prevented, Vassar said. But with little official maintenance on the trail over its 75-year life span, the Bridle Trail has at points eroded beyond recognition. Deer and wayward hikers have forged what have become at times confusing short cuts and dead-ends.
To clarify the trail’s route, the conservation crew is decommissioning many of these dizzying minitrails this week. They are stacking logs and downed trees along the well-trod footpaths to discourage use of certain short cuts.
Eventually, vegetation will regrow, Vassar said.
“But for it to grow back, we need people to not be walking on it,” he said.
Years of off-trail wandering and unnecessary erosion have been particularly hard on the trail’s natural surroundings, said crew leader and recent University of Wyoming graduate Alyssa Engdahl, 23.
“You’ve just got all this impact on the environment that doesn’t need to be there,” Engdahl said. Erosion creates new paths, which people start using, which creates more erosion, she said.
The crew is digging gullies into the ground during steep stretches of the trail to strategically direct water away and preserve the crew’s work for years to come.
Life on the trail
Each day, the crew hikes single file up the Bridle Trail, yellow hardhats strapped to their dusty backpacks. They pack in their lunches and the day’s water supply and take turns making dinner. Their 10-day stints in Wyoming’s rugged outdoors are bookended by four-day vacations.
It’s a rigorous lifestyle, but one crew members love.
Of all the trails he has worked on throughout his four years with conservation corps across the West, Vassar said Casper Mountain’s Bridle Trail is unique. The trail is unusually hard on the knees and is mostly unmanaged. Few signs offer guidance along the way. Cut-offs often lead to nowhere. For all intents and purposes, there’s no functioning map.
But for all of the above, Vassar said, it’s remarkably well used.
Hikers and their dogs passed the crew as they worked on their retaining wall Thursday morning.
“It’s fairly stable,” crew member and UW political science major Andrew Middelstadt said while balancing on top of a rock he had just inserted into the wall. “Surprisingly, for a couple of college students who aren’t engineering majors.”
By the time the crew is finished with their work, the Bridle Trail will be safer and easier to navigate than ever before.
“With the man- and woman-power they have up there, it’ll be noticeable improvements,” Natrona County Parks Director Dick O’Hearn said. O’Hearn said he and the crew leaders flagged about two dozen points along the trail for crew members to focus on. Each point needed an improvement — whether for safety, preservation, or navigability, he said.
“I gave them plenty of latitude,” O’Hearn said. “Go ahead and have some fun with some of these areas. And they’ve done just that.”
Though the Wyoming Conservation Corps crew will be finished with its work by Wednesday, Bridle Trail users can ensure the path stays safe and preserved.
Stay on the trail, Vassar said, and don’t kick away structures.
“Outside of that, have fun,” he said. “We’re doing this for the enjoyment of the trail.”