A small group of dedicated individuals who work year-round to make the outdoors more enjoyable for recreation. Hiking trails may seem like they are built and maintained by an unseen force, but the Flagstaff Trail Faeries are real people who work to improve the city’s trail system every week for nine to 10 months out of the year.
Flagstaff Trail Faeries work to build new trails, as well as improve existing trails. Crew leader Brian Marshall said there is no shortage of trail work that needs to be done in the city.
“In Flagstaff, we’re almost two decades behind in trail maintenance, design and implementation,” Marshall said. “There’s a lot to be done, a lot of trails that need our love.”
As the population continues to grow, the trails have not been updated to accommodate the increasing use they are experiencing. Marshall said the situation is comparable to a city that has an increasing population, but nothing is done to the roads or infrastructure to meet the demands of the growing community.
Joe Hazel is an avid mountain biker, as well as a Trail Faerie and the trail coordinator for the Flagstaff Biking Organization (FBO). Hazel said he noticed the same problem as Marshall and decided to work toward making a difference.
“Over the years I noticed that as Flagstaff grew, the trails and trail infrastructure in town didn’t match the population growth,” Hazel said. “I finally decided to get involved instead of complaining as a form of community outreach.”
Before Trail Faeries existed, Hazel said he got involved with trail maintenance by putting on volunteer events through FBO. These public events allow people who want to give back to their local trail system the chance to donate their time and physical labor to make improvements.
A few significant projects that were done entirely through volunteer labor were realigning the Heart and Little Elden Trails, according to FBO’s website. The volunteers built four miles of trail in under two years.
“It’s helping allow access to the outdoors,” Hazel said. “I think if you can help put humans on a controlled and predictable path, or in other words, give them a trail they like and want to use, then you can also meet the desired recreational experience people are looking for while also minimizing impact to the environment and wildlife.”
Hazel said the organization looks forward to providing more volunteer opportunities in 2021 because they were unable to in 2020 due to COVID-19. Trail Faeries stemmed from the FBO volunteer events, Hazel explained. He and a group of other dedicated trail builders decided to create this group so they could continue the work outside of the volunteer events and outside of United States Forest Service supervision.
However, Trail Faeries were not allowed to work independently until they built a relationship with the U.S. Forest Service and could prove they had the skills and knowledge to take on projects that could have significant impacts on the landscape, Marshall said. Now, each member has their own volunteer agreement with the forest service.
Marshall said the Trail Faeries are focused on using advanced trail building techniques to make trails sustainable and enjoyable for the public’s use. People might think the hardest part of trail building is the physical aspect, but Marshall said planning is actually the most complicated step.
“You have to get it right,” Marshall said. “You’re altering the landscape and that has long-lasting effects. That long-lasting effect could be people recreating in the woods for decades after you’re not even around anymore.”
Hazel said it can be argued that any trail is a resource impact because it is a disturbance to the planet. A sustainable trail, he explained, is a trail that is designed to have the lowest possible impact on the environment and wildlife in the area. Sustainable trails are designed so frequent maintenance is not necessary. Some issues the group has to keep in mind when planning is how the trail will shed water, the grade of the trail and how to make the trail work for a variety of people.
On top of making trails sustainable and functional, another focus of Trail Faeries is making trails interesting and visually appealing for users. Marshall said when they remove organic elements from the trail, they try to incorporate them back into the path in a way that adds to the overall ambiance of the trail.
“[We] try to be artistic with what we do,” Marshall said. “That’s important in how you design trails so you’re providing a really nice experience, and it’s not just a means to move bodies from one point to another. Each trail offers a unique experience.”
The Trail Faeries’ latest project of realigning a section of the Arizona Trail at Schultz Pass was finished recently. Now that winter is coming, the group is done with all physical labor for the season. Marshall said they will decide on what projects to work on next season within the next month or two.
“There’s always something to do,” Marshall said. “Even if we don’t get a big, new trail construction project for next season then we’ll apply the same level of dedication to maintaining existing trails, and there’s plenty of that to be done.”
Marshall explained members of Trail Faeries are passionate about the work they do. Two Trail Faeries now work as professional trail builders — one works for American Conservation Experience and the other owns Flagline Trails. Some members have even attended seminars and training events to improve their trail building abilities.
Community service is a concept that is valued by the Trail Faeries. Marshall said he encourages people to get involved locally, even if it is not related to trail building.
“Figure out what makes you happy in community service and get after it,” Marshall said. “More people should get involved with what they’re passionate about. I think they’ll find it’s a pretty enjoyable thing.”
There are many aspects of trail building that appeal to Marshall and Hazel that make them want to continue their work.
Marshall said trail building checked many boxes for him. He said he enjoys the physical labor and creativity the job requires, and it is mentally and physically rewarding. He also said the Trail Faeries are an extremely fun group to work with, which makes the work that much more enjoyable.
“The work’s rewarding,” Hazel said. “It’s hard, but you get to see a product, and the end product is worth it because [the trail is] fun to use and ride and is also always an improvement on what was there originally. One of the biggest satisfactions I get is building something that will last for generations and is still fun to use and recreate on.”