The Dirtbags crew flags the course

Chris and Mary Strohm migrated from Lake Tahoe, California, to Patagonia several years ago. Chris is a master trailbuilder, and some years ago he led a ragged band of mostly guys, self-named “Dirtbags,” who rerouted and generally upgraded trails at the Sonoita Creek State Natural Area downstream from the Patagonia Lake dam.

Recently, in cooperation with Tucson Audubon’s Paton Center for Hummingbirds and the Nature Conservancy’s (TNC), Patagonia-Sonoita Creek Preserve, the Dirtbags have completed a trail that links the two sites. The new connector is on the right side of Blue Haven Road, away from the creek as you drive from Patons to TNC. It branches off Blue Haven just beyond Patons and joins the upgraded G. Platt trail about a mile before the TNC entrance. The trail is about one mile long and is designed to be birdwatcher friendly.

So, how does one build a brand new trail? I’ve been an apprentice Dirtbag for several seasons and have learned some lessons. First, you cannot do it alone. Camaraderie is vital! Second, it’s not as simple as you might imagine. Third, it pays to use specialized tools. Fourth, you need a leader who knows both trailbuilding and psychology.

A birdwatcher-friendly trail is not the same as a mountain-climbing trail. It should have a maximum grade of 9 degrees, with an average of less than 5 degrees. In our terrain, this means that the trail needs to wander up and back down around washes. The walking tread needs to be at least 24 inches wide, with a downhill pitch of between 2 and 5 degrees. This makes rainwater “sheet” downhill over the tread rather than cutting through it.

The first stage requires “flagging” the course to achieve the grade objective. The next is removing obstructions—mostly tree branches and catclaw, a plant also known as “staya-while” or “come-along.” Cuttings are used to cover discarded trail segments and tempting shortcuts.

Using specialized tools made by Pickmattock, McCleod, and Pulaski, the digging begins. Pruning saws cut intrusive roots. Within hours, a 15-person, vigorous crew can create an amazing amount of beautiful trail! The trail is new and quite tender. Walkers help stabilize the tread. Mountain bikes, dirt bikes, and horses are strictly prohibited.

Thanks to great turnout for the past few weeks, the Dirtbags were able to create a pleasant surprise feature near the middle of the trail. Take a walk and enjoy Patagonia’s newest trail.