May your trails be crooked, winding, lonesome, dangerous, leading to the most amazing view. May your mountains rise into and above the clouds. –Edward Abbey
Any regular user of Brundage Mountain Resort’s summer trails over the past three years has surely noticed the improvements to the area’s single-track trail system. Not only are the trails regularly groomed throughout the summer months, but new sections of trail or reroutes of portions of existing trails have been added. You have Brundage Trail Boss Joe Dondero to thank for all of that.
During the summer of 2016 while running the trails on Brundage I began occasionally bumping into a burley guy, forearms covered in tattoos and a fedora-style hat keeping the sun out of his eyes, working to groom and improve existing trails by removing downed trees or smoothing out ruts left by mountain bikes. My dogs would rush up to greet Dondero, then he and I would exchange pleasantries; he always made time to chat about trails, an excellent ambassador for the resort. Over time, I asked more detailed questions about what his work there entailed, especially as new sections of trail were being added or old sections re-routed to prevent erosion. It became clear that Dondero and I share a love of the area’s trails, beautiful terrain and vistas.
This summer during one of those chance encounters Dondero mentioned how he was working on a new section of trail that, together with some other new pieces connecting into existing trails would create a big, cross-country style loop around the mountain, rideable (and runnable) either direction. Dondero said that management is keen on increasing the summer trail use options, which makes him happy because he loves his job and hopes to never run out of new trail to build. “My love for Hidden Valley [on the resort’s north flank] is the reason I’m the Trail Boss here today,” says Dondero.
The Mountains Called
Dondero is 51 years old. After his father retired from the Air Force in 1977 the family moved to Idaho City. That’s where, at age ten, Joe’s initial interest in off-road bicycling began. “I was that weird kid in the ‘80s riding a BMX bike, before they were popular,” says Dondero, laughing. “I held yard sales of bike parts.” Eventually that love of BMX bikes led Dondero to open two bike shops in the Treasure Valley over a period of ten years, one in Nampa and the other in Caldwell, both catering to BMX riders and offering repairs. Even though the shops did well, Dondero realized he didn’t enjoy retail sales, so he closed one shop, then the other in 2017. “Working at Brundage is much better than owning my own shop,” Dondero says.
Dondero has a long history with Brundage as an employee and volunteer since 2007. He worked on the trail crew and in the bike shop as a mechanic when Brundage was just getting into lift-assisted mountain biking as a summer recreation option. In 2016 the Trail Boss position was created for Dondero. He now has a Trail Supervisor – Jake Harris – and trail crews working for him, keeping existing routes cleared and maintained, adding side features, and staying on top of grooming and erosion control. That leaves almost all of Dondero’s time free for his passion: scouting and cutting new trails with the mini-x track hoe.
Siting and Building New Trails. Over the past two summers, Dondero and his crew worked on the area’s Nature Trail, a new hiking-only trail at the base of the mountain that takes people through the trees and among some huckleberry shrubs, away from the parking areas. The one-mile trail is now complete except for adding some interpretive features.
This summer, Dondero and crew have been establishing new trail to the south of the entrance road that will become part of that future grand loop around the mountain. This new section of trail doesn’t have a name yet, but will connect with Black Bear. Higher up the mountain, the crew cut new section of trail on the upper end of Growler earlier this summer, decommissioning the old entrance to Growler which was deeply rutted and steep. The new entrance is off a service road leading off South Lodge Road to the Lakeview side of the mountain. Last summer, Dondero extended switchbacks on the upper portion of Growler so that the slope was no steeper than three-to-five percent, which in addition to improving the downhill riding aspect, helps prevents erosion and lessens ruts left by mountain bikes because riders aren’t going as fast or braking as much. The new upper entrance to Growler, along with the elongated switchbacks, makes for a nice steady grade that soil conditions can support along the entire trail.
Where to site a new trail, and how to build it, is Dondero’s specialty. For example, placement of corners and how they’re configured depends on trail dynamics, soil composition, and trail specifications. “Some corners are tight because of placement issues and soil conditions, while some corners are big because of trail speeds and slope,” says Dondero. “Over my years of mountain biking, corners have gone from switchbacks – a learned skill that could win or lose races – to the promotion of big sweeping corners with berms. The soils on Brundage limit those kinds of big corners, especially on the back side where soils are very loose and dry.”
During the earliest phase of new trail placement, Dondero and crew map their start and finish points, known as zero points. Then, with a clinometer (an instrument used for measuring angles of slope, elevation, or depression; also known as an inclinometer) they start flagging the corridor to slope. “The big loop trail system we’re creating will not climb or fall more than five percent,” says Dondero. Once the route is flagged and approved, the crew begins stage one of actual trail construction by making a very rough cut into the soil with the mini-x. The second stage – still using the excavator – addresses correcting the slope as necessary and providing for water outflow. The third stage is done by hand. Dondero will continue slope correction of the trail for in-slope and out-slope (i.e. uphill and downhill edges of the trail) drainage, with vegetation broadcast along the trail edges. “The trail is always flowing to keep standing water off the tread,” Dondero explains. “Overall trail width is no more than 48 inches after fully vegetated.”
Stitching it All Together: A Loop Trail Around Brundage Mountain
“The plan, as already approved by the Forest Service and part of the Brundage master plan, is to create a new trail that extends from the upper end of Growler around the Lakeview side of the mountain, running just below the summit on the east and eventually connecting in to Grouse Trail on the north side to complete the loop,” says Dondero. He’s recently been flagging the new route, and once that’s been approved by the Forest Service, plans to start cutting the new trail, hoping to get it done before the summer season ends in October. If weather or other obstacles interfere with completion, then they’ll finish up next spring.
“We want this entire loop to be a three-to-five percent grade, so it can be ridden either direction,” says Dondero. “That also helps address erosion issues, which extends trail life. Spinning tires cause erosion, so less steep trails see less erosion. Also, we’re going across winter ski runs, so preventing erosion as the snow melts is critical. We want to be good stewards of the land. The Forest Service wants it to look as if it just happened on its own, and that’s our goal as well.”
Another goal of Dondero’s is to “save” Zorro trail. “It has been an erosion nightmare,” Dondero says. Saving it would require solving the erosion issue with switchbacks to reduce the steepness of the route. And, both Dondero and Ken Rider, Brundage’s Director of Marketing and Sales/Assistant General Manager, want to provide more options for recreationists in the summer. To that end, they have plans to add some single-track connector trails across the face of the mountain midway up, between Elk and Growler.
“All trails that loop the mountain will be two-way and open to the public,” says Dondero, meaning that mountain bikers, runners and hikers can go either direction on trails built for visibility so riders can’t go too fast and no one’s suddenly surprised by another user coming around a blind corner. Lift service will still be available, of course, and Rider points out a newly-created six-tenths of a mile hiking trail off the top of Bluebird Express called Hidden Valley Overlook that offers the amazing views one expects from the 7,640-foot summit. Also planned is Lookout Loop Trail off to the south of the summit, another roughly half-mile path that will allow hikers to stay off South Lodge Road while accessing the views. “We want to offer them a wilderness experience, help them get in touch with nature with outstanding views,” says Rider.
Rider says that Brundage wants to provide trails for all sorts of cyclists – cross-country, enduro and downhill. This year they brought back the Knobby Tire Series. “It’s a cross-country bike race,” says Rider. “They ride up Elk, then down South Lodge Road and Growler back to the start/finish. Each lap is 11.5 miles long. We had one, two and three lap distances, with a total of about 50 racers.” Rider says they’re looking for opportunities to host other races, including running events. “We can’t just build trails and walk away,” Rider says. “We need to maintain them. It’s a cultural change here. We also need more cross-country options. We’ve got some great pieces, now we need to connect all the trails here internally.” Rider also hopes to see a connector route to McCall someday. He’s been talking with Dave Bingaman and the Payette River Trail group, seeing if there’s a way to use Forest Service roads 452 and 451 to connect from the backside of Brundage summit to the Payette River Trail and McCall. (See the Brundage summer trails map here.)
A Common Purpose
Dondero says he has always lived a rural lifestyle. His time in Caldwell, running his bike shops, left him yearning for the mountains. Being Trail Boss at Brundage is his dream job, and he and his wife Kim – who also works at Brundage – recently bought a house in Council, cementing their ties to this area. Losing their beloved Rottweiler Kojack to cancer in 2017 – an incredibly friendly, mellow, 120-pound dog Dondero occasionally brought to work with him – Dondero’s wife convinced him they were ready for another dog and earlier this year they adopted Deuce, a Border collie-lab rescue who helps Dondero scout new trail. “Any day working on the mountain is good day,” says Dondero, especially when Deuce can accompany him. In winter, Dondero plows the access road to Brundage, yet another way he helps recreationists access all Brundage has to offer, year-round.
Rider is also invested in this area. He started his current position at Brundage in November 2017, after a stint at Grand Targhee, but he lived in McCall earlier, working at Tamarack Resort. “Both of my daughters were born here,” Rider says. “We love this area and are happy to be back.” Besides, Rider’s a mountain biker from way back, having bought his first mountain bike in 1992. His work at Brundage, including promoting its trails, is a good fit.
Both men are devoted to creating and maintaining summer trails on Brundage for non-motorized recreationists to use and enjoy. Kudos to them and others at the resort for creating a culture of good stewardship of the land while making access to trails easy for all, regardless of ability. There’s a single-track trail experience awaiting everyone at Brundage.
Happy trails to you, until we meet again. –Dale Evans
(Cover photo: Upper entrance to Hidden Valley Trail with Granite Mountain in the distance, by Rebecca Wallick. Photos of trail work stages courtesy of Joe Dondero.)