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Get Down with Dirty

A brief primer on how to navigate muddy trails — or not
Get Down with Dirty
The stretch of trail linking Sonoma Valley Regional Park with open space in the SDC illustrates the damage done by users when the treadway is saturated after rain. The ribbon of mud to the right is a use trail created by users too wimpy to stay the course and get a little dirty.Photo by Tracy Salcedo

By Tracy Salcedo

Mud season is upon us and it’s going to be messy on the trails for a while. Practicing the principles of Leave No Trace during the rainy months ensures trekkers don’t create damaging — and sometimes unsafe — conditions for other users, including wildlife, now and into spring and summer.

Choose wisely

Rule #1 is to avoid dirt paths, singletrack or double, during and immediately after rainstorms. Give trail surfaces time to drain and become more solid before venturing out on foot, on a bike, or especially on a horse.

Trail treadways in local parks and open spaces are primarily composed of adobe (clay) soils, which are sticky and slippery when wet and drain slowly, but they harden up enough to support most users after a dry day or two. Until they do, boot-sucking mud is real, speaking from personal experience. Cyclists may not lose their shoes but when the adobe gloms on, knobby tires become heavy slicks, impossible to ride and even harder to push. Equestrians won’t lose their shoes either, but horse hooves leave divots that harden into ankle-twisting nightmares.

Paved routes offer great options on rainy days. Excellent choices include the Valley of the Moon Trail through Sonoma Valley Regional Park, the Wolf House Service Road in Jack London State Historic Park, and the trail around Spring Lake. Maintained dirt service roads in local parks are also good options, such as the Lake Trail and service road leading to London Lake in Jack London park and the Planet Walk to Uranus (Adobe Canyon Road and the Meadow Trails) in Sugarloaf Ridge State Park.

Stay the course

As most trail users know, puddles and soggy sections endure along most routes throughout the rainy season, especially in low-lying areas and along streams. Rule #2 is to channel your inner child (or slob) and walk straight through the water and muck. Skirting wet spots widens existing trails and creates braided use paths, especially in meadowlands and riparian zones. Leaving established trails to avoid a wet patch not only damages fragile habitats, it also usually doesn’t work. Especially in grasslands, you’ll still get wet.

Walking in rubber boots is the best way to keep your feet dry. If you need the support and lug soles of a hiking boot, either opt for a waterproof pair or wear wool socks to keep your feet warm when wet. Use a little water and a cloth or soft brush to clean your footwear after your hike or ride.

Take care

Trails in informal open space, like that of the Sonoma Developmental Center (SDC), deserve special care. Creating braided trails and damaging habitats in the SDC, regardless of the season, negatively impacts flora and fauna in the Sonoma Valley Wildlife Corridor. It’s important to remember that no one maintains trails in the SDC, so damage created by careless users won’t be mitigated until the land is transferred to a park agency. In the interim, stick to the most-used routes in the backcountry year-round, and stick to the pavement, such as Orchard Road or the streets on the campus, when it’s soggy.

To learn more about navigating mud without leaving a trace, visit To learn more about how you can help maintain the trails you use, contact your favorite park to volunteer on a trail maintenance crew.