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Making Timeless Trails, Building Community Along the Way


By: Christine La + Save to a List

Thanks to an Instagram post, I found an opportunity to photograph a Dig Day, as Santa Cruz Mountain Trails Stewardship calls their volunteer events to help build and maintain recreational trails for activities such as mountain biking and hiking. I was excited about offering a hand in capturing the event but had little idea of what to expect except a productive time out in nature.

For a few years now, I have been an avid hiker and have appreciated the open natural spaces we are so lucky to have access to. I have long been curious about how trails are built, and if you have that same curiosity, Dig Days are for you! The images and stories I share throughout this read are from two different Dig Days. The first at Santa Teresa County Park in San Jose, CA, and the second from Cotoni-Coast Dairies which is a unit of the California Coastal National Monument in Santa Cruz, CA, during the Fall/Winter of 2021/2022.

Upon arriving at Santa Teresa County Park on this foggy November morning and seeing the hefty tools and the hard hats, I know some serious work is about to go down. My volunteer experience in outdoor spaces mainly comes from participating in creek cleanups or helping to create zero waste programs, so this is new territory and my eyes and ears are open to the whole experience. As more locals from around the Bay Area and Santa Cruz communities start to arrive, the excitement is fueled by free breakfast, coffee, and friendly chatter.

Volunteers have their choice of what section of trail to build on a group signup for the day and each section is led by one designated Trail Crew Leader who is trained in trail evaluation, building, maintenance, volunteer management, wilderness first aid and more by SCMTS.

Anyone can take the courses needed to become a Trail Crew Leader. Tim Miller, who has been volunteering at least 10 years and is currently a Trail Crew Leader, provides some history on how the organization started and Emma McCrary Trail. The idea stemmed from a group of mountain bikers who wanted to expand local outdoor access, and the organization has grown and evolved to become a professional trail stewardship with nearly 20 full-time employees.

After a group gathering for orientation and guidelines for the day, volunteers can expect a “beautiful day on trails, and they’ll explain everything.” says volunteer Kat Dale. Trail leaders host a group of around 8-10 volunteers and use tools such as a rogue hoe, tamper, pulaski, rock bar, mcleod, to dig, shovel, cut small branches, hammer rocks, etc…

Volunteer Tristan Sayre discovered the Dig Day events from a sign while biking in Soquel and has found that it’s, “Fulfilling to be outside with people who all share a common interest” and that new volunteers should “not be afraid, go give it a shot,” and that it’s a “welcoming group of people.”

Those who attend can see the “sheer amount of work that goes into trails… people don’t fully realize the amount of work that goes into building and maintaining them,” says Katy Poniatowski, SCMTS’ Marketing and Communications Manager. Trail Laborers work year-round under the funding of SCMTS to provide consistent work on the trails. Dig Day volunteer events are focused mainly in the cooler and rainier months between November and April.

Valerie Niles says her first time volunteering was “Great!” and that she has done, “a lot of learning and a lot of sweating through the digging.” She found the opportunity through her professor at West Valley Community College where she’s pursuing an AA degree in Park Management and her favorite part of the day is, “getting hands on, starting to build, and having Drew Perkins talk about the concepts of trail construction. Her advice to others is to “come ready to work and expect to get tired faster than you’d think” and “take advantage to learn from people out here building. She’s also “really excited about the free pizza and beer.”

If you’re still looking for a reason to come out to volunteer, Dan Chen, a volunteer since the 90’s simply states, “I use the trails, so I volunteer.”

We want to acknowledge and thank the past, present, and future generations of all Native Nations and Indigenous Peoples whose ancestral lands we travel, explore, and play on. Always practice Leave No Trace ethics on your adventures and follow local regulations. Please explore responsibly!

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