Locals living in mountain communities and the hollows below refer to it as the fifth season.  Wives tales stretch back to the horse and buggy days.  You can hear all the locals collectively breathe a sigh of relief, as this month long period offers them respite from seasonal workers and tourists.   Bar stools are reclaimed by old-timers, and you can drive the speed limit in the downtown areas without worrying about mad-darting jaywalkers.   Mud season also marks the start of the woodsman’s hallowed procession:  Buckets are carried into the sugar bush; maples are tapped, sapped, and boiled down.  The whole nation revels in the Northeastern resolve to do things the old and proper way.   Either that or they say:  “50 dollars?! For a jug of syrup?! These guys must think we’re suckers“.

Alpine Goldenrod in bloom

Alpine Goldenrod by Brendan Wiltse

Mud season is typically from Mid April to Memorial Day; its cause is simple.  The ground thaws from the surface down. Rainwater and snow melt cannot percolate through the frozen subsurface.  When hikers and vehicles churn up the thawed surface the result is mud.   For most people this makes for difficult hiking conditions.  For conservationists and trail workers it is the bane of the Adirondack Park as this is when almost all of the trail damage occurs.  In wet areas, hikers will start to trough out sections of trail creating mud pits.  Hikers will then start skirting around the pit.  When this happens, soils gets compacted and the vegetation destroyed, resulting in permanent muddy sections on the trail.  These wet areas are especially concerning when hiking in higher elevations.  The soils contain a higher content of organic material resulting in a slower drying time.  The higher elevations are also home to fragile alpine vegetation.  Alpine plants put an entire growing season’s worth of energy into the first weeks of spring.  Tender leaves and shoots appear as temperatures fluctuate above and below freezing. At this stage in their development, plants are so fragile that a single step will destroy an entire season’s worth of growth—two years of energy gone in a moment.  On the trails, the fluctuating temperatures mean that hikers have to contend with mud and ice, a dual combination making it all the more tempting to put a hand or foot on the plants. Unfortunately, this is precisely when they can bear it the least. Freeze-thaw action further destabilizes soil as well, meaning that shallow alpine soils are all the more prone to erosion. During mud season, the best way to protect these areas is to enjoy lower elevation hikes.

Diapensia in bloom

Diapensia by Brendan Wiltse

Other States in the Northeast have dealt with mud season by closing trails.  Mount Mansfield and Camel’s Hump in Vermont for example.  In New York we haven’t closed trails; instead we try to inform hikers of the potential damage and how to mitigate it.   The first recommendation I like to give is to hike the Catskill region.  The soils have a sandy composition, and as a result tend to thaw and drain earlier in the spring.   I also see the Catskills as underrated; it offers awesome hiking experiences at low elevations.  Hike the Dry Brook Ridge.  It encompasses big cherry stands, old stone walls (once used to designate property boundaries), and hilltop meadows.  Best of all you won’t see hundreds of people on the trail; you can enjoy it all in peace and solitude.   If you wish to hike in the Adirondacks wait until after Memorial Day to bag a peak.  Mud season hiking should be relegated to low elevations.  If heading out in the spring be prepared; wear sturdy waterproof boots, invest in gaiters, and use trekking poles.   And do not skirt around muddy sections, if this is something that you can’t do, then turn around and call it a day.   When you get to a muddy stretch do not throw stones or sticks to aid in crossing.  It may seem like you’re being helpful today, but could be the cause of injury in the future. Those do-it-yourself trail structures are called ankle breakers for a reason.  If I could inject a little phrase into the mind of everyone who hikes the Adirondacks it would be this:  Think about how your ethics affect the Adirondack Park for years to come.   Your concern shouldn’t be keeping your feet dry; it should be assuring that these trails remain beautiful and sustainable for generations.