Set in Stone: Drystone Masonry on the Sierra Crest

Welcome to Taboose Pass, a rugged, rocky trail that starts at 5,500′ in the desert and rapidly climbs 6000′ of elevation to reach the alpine ecosystems of the Sierra Crest. Though the route is steep and difficult, it is used by many wilderness visitors each year, including backpackers, PCT and JMT thruhikers, climbers, and pack stock, which makes maintaining this trail extremely important. Each year, trail staff from the Inyo National Forest fix or maintain this trail- cutting back overgrown brush, clearing rockslides and other debris flow, mitigating erosion, and building supportive structures. 


For the past couple of weeks, I have been working collaboratively with the Inyo National Forest and the Eastern Sierra Conservation Corps to fix sections of trail like the one shown to the left. These spots have been a challenge for hikers and impassible to pack stock. Rainfall and springtime snowmelt have eroded the soil here, causing sedimentation of the adjacent creek, removing precious soil that the willows and other alpine plants need to survive, and exposing large boulders that impede safe passage on this trail.

To solve this problem, we have designed and are building structures that will stabilize a walkable trail surface and prevent further soil erosion. We are using a combination of check steps (steps that are designed to act as small dams to retain soil and slow the movement of water) and retaining walls to create a staircase in place of the current worsening mess. 

Importing building materials is not an option in such a remote area, so work in this area is done using drystone masonry- a rock working technique that uses principles of physics to hold structures together instead of mortar. When build properly, these structures are rock solid (pun intended) and can last for many decades. 


See ESCC trail crew members Jasmin (top left), Ernesto (bottom left), Gabby, and Zoe (bottom left, top and bottom right) using steel rock bars and cleverly wielded leverage to maneuver rocks into their place on our structures. In federally designated Wilderness, the use of mechanized tools is prohibited, so crew members use tools such as these rock bars, sledge hammers, and shovels to carry out this work

After 8 days of working hard, we have been able to transform these sections into much more sustainable trail. There is still a long way to go, but the work is solid and will last for years to come. We head back up in a few days to finish out this project. I am so excited to see the final result and am hoping that this greatly improves the sustainability of this trail and the accessibility for its many users. Stay tuned!


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