Marking the route of the thru-hike

4/24 update

After talking for Forest Service personnel, the plan for marking the route of the thru-hike has changed, at least for the part of the route that goes through National Forests and, especially, the Pecos Wilderness.

I am no longer advocating for marking the trail (through forests and wilderness areas) every 300 or 500 feet, or even every mile. The Forest Service’s current practice of marking only trailheads and trail intersections is time-tested and sensible. Maintaining trail markers every 300 to 500 feet, or even every mile, would be a very long-term, labor-intensive commitment. Forest Service resources are already stretched incredibly thin.

It is possible that at some point (this year…? next year…?) the route could be marked where it passes certain trailhead and trail intersections or junction points. I am in communication with Trail Coordinators for Santa Fe National Forest, Carson National Forest, and the Espanola District. There is interest in the thru-hike. People have been helpful. But this will take time.

In the case of the Pecos Wilderness, there are fairly strict rules about marking trails through federally designated wildernesses. Marking a trail so frequently (every 300 feet or even every mile) takes away from the fundamental experience of wilderness. That said, there are still junction and trailhead signs for wilderness areas.

Rock cairns are also sometimes used to mark trails. Some of these cairns, like the ones on the Trailrider’s Wall, are big: five feet high. I am somewhat cool on creating stone cairns, but it is possible that in a few spots, where the trail is faint, having a few strategically-placed, modestly-sized stone cairns might be helpful.

I do still think it would be nice to mark the route of the thru-hike that goes through Santa Fe and Taos city limits. That requires permission of different agencies. I am slowly building contacts at those agencies, but, again, it will take time. A lot of people need to be onboard before markers go up.

In the meantime, there are other ways to orient oneself without physical trail markers. There are all of the digital apps (AllTrails, Strava, Gaia). There are printed maps. And there are guidebooks.

Just to document the old plan, I’m keeping it on this page. But please disregard everything below this.

The route of the Santa Fe to Taos Thru-Hike exists, but it is not yet marked. Getting the route marked requires:

  1. Obtaining permits and/or permission to mark the trail.
  2. Obtaining the markers.
  3. Getting the markers posted.

Marking the trail is one of the primary goals of 2024 for the thru-hike. Having the trail marked moves it several steps closer to being recognized, used, safe, and funded. 

Here’s what’s involved in each of those steps:

1. Obtaining permits and/or permission to mark the trail.

I will need permission from:

  • The city of Santa Fe
  • The county of Santa Fe
  • The Santa Fe National Forest (including the Pecos Wilderness)
  • Carson National Forest
  • The Santa Fe Dale Ball Trails (association?)
  • Taos county
  • The city of Taos
  • The property owners along the 0.75 miles of the “Santa Fe River corridor” section of the trail 
  • Possibly the Bureau of Land Management

This is no small task. Permitting applications do exist for both Santa Fe National Forest and Carson National Forest. What I want falls under the category of a “special use recreational permit”. I have reached out to both Santa Fe and Carson National Forests, but given the scale of the project, building a consensus of support – much less getting written permission to mark the route – will take time. That’s okay. Everyone I have spoken to so far has been helpful. There is definitely interest in establishing a thru-hike like this.

Contacts at the cities of Taos and Santa Fe have been receptive to the idea of marking the trail – specifically marking the trail within the city limits of Santa Fe and Taos. But again, getting written approval will require developing more relationships and trust with many people in both cities. The idea of the thru-hike is new to almost everyone. It is a big enough project that just introducing it usually takes up the first conversation.

It may take a year or more to get all the permits. I will continue to call appropriate people as I identify them. I will keep sending out information packets about the thru-hike, then making follow-up calls and trying to schedule meetings to gain support for the trail. 

2. Obtaining the markers.

I would like the markers to be turquoise, as that’s a classic New Mexican color. If turquoise isn’t available, blue would do. I would also like the trail markers to be equilateral triangles about four inches high. 

How many trail markers will I need? 2,000 if I mark the trail every 500 feet. 2,300 if I mark it every 300 feet. With my self-funded $1,500 budget for trail markers, I can afford to pay about 75 cents per marker. 

There are several ways to mark hiking trails:

  • Spray paint.
    There are several environmentally-friendly spray paints. Aervoe Lead Free Tree Marking Paint appears to be the most-used. It comes in six colors, including blue. Mtn Water also has an environmentally-friendly turquoise spray paint. To apply this paint I would use a cut out template of a triangle, about four inches on each side, hopefully so the triangle shape comes out as crisp as possible.
    The problem with spray paint is it can’t be moved easily, and I suspect a few parts of the route may change. Or at least I want to be open and flexible about changing part of the route. Applying the paint, too, means I’ll be carrying several cans of spray paint with me at a time.
    I don’t know how many marks I’d be able to get per can. However – say I can get 75 marks per can. With $7 per can, that’s 9.3 cents per mark. Even if my guestimate is off, and each mark is 18 cents or even 27 cents, that’s still well within budget.

  • Weatherproof vinyl markers.
    I found a company out of New Zealand that can make these as triangles for about 40 cents each. Problem is, they can’t do turquoise. And they will charge $200 shipping for 500 vinyl trail markers. If I could find turquoise, weatherproof vinyl sheeting, I might be able to make my own vinyl trail markers with the paper cutter I have. But that has me making 2,000 triangles.

  • Metal or plastic trail markers.
    These are the really nice trail markers you see on some private trails or well-funded public trails. I’ve gotten three quotes that range from $5 to $7 per marker. I cannot afford that.
  • Biodegradable trail tape.
    I have used this. It is $3 per roll. I would need at least two rolls per mile, so say 300 rolls; $900. That is within budget. Problem is, it will not last more than a couple of years. That might be a plus for the permit-granters. It would get the trail marked at least temporarily. It would not do any damage to trees or telephone poles. One problem, though: Anyone could just yank it off.

3. Getting the markers posted.

As almost all of the thru-hike can be done in day hikes or one-night overnights, I can break this work into chunks. I will need to get it done before the leaves fall; there’s a rule to only mark while the foliage is up. Otherwise you risk putting marks up that will just get covered up by leaves. Of course, over time, many of the marks will get covered up. Some will get taken down. Some will fade. Keeping the trail marked will require checking the marks every year.