Bragg Creek Trails, formerly called West Bragg Creek Trails, have gained an immense amount of popularity in recent months and had a record-breaking year in terms of visitors, according to the association that maintains it.
"It seems like the secret is out about the great outdoors," said Bragg Creek Trails Association president Conrad Schiebel.
His association manages sustainable trail development for the area and in other spots in southern Alberta. Schiebel says they are averaging about 1,000 visitors to the area per day, weather permitting.
Trail count data is not available as that data collection was paused due to COVID-19, he says, but they have been doing a traffic count.
He says the main parking lot, which can hold 180 vehicles, is typically packed, and by 10 a.m. most days the lot is full.
Some visitors even opt to visit the area after sunset, using head lamps to guide their way, in order to avoid the crowds.
Nearby and free
The 167 kilometres of the multi-use trail system are located about 10 kilometres west of the hamlet of Bragg Creek, and about 45 minutes from Calgary's downtown core.
Maintained by about 40 regular volunteers and 150 part-time volunteers, the trails are used for activities such as hiking, snowshoeing, cross-country skiing and fat biking.
Winter equestrian trails have been added recently, says Schiebal.
"The attractiveness of West Bragg Creek is that it's so close to the city and … still free," he said.
He says trail use first began to pick up in earnest after the 2013 Alberta floods did not damage the site though other areas were compromised.
"Things have really started to pick up here since the flood," said Schiebel. "We're breaking a record every year out here."
Vipin Kumar from Calgary visits the area often. He enjoys the variety of trails and uses them in winter to cross-country ski.
"I think people are considerate about the fact we are still in a pandemic. … We need the time to get out, unwind from the pandemic and just go outside and just vent it out for bit," he said.
Trouble with crowds
Sarah Kuindersma, who lives in Okotoks, visits the area up to three times a weeks to walk her dogs, hike or mountain bike.
She says she's switched her work schedule around to avoid the busier weekend days.
"Weekends are just insane, so there's just too many people and you kind of feel a little claustrophobic, and I come out here to relax and get away from people," she said.
"I purposefully try to pick less busy times."
With increasing crowds in the winter months on the trailheads, some problems have arisen. Schiebal says they started a trail host program and are talking to people about trails a safety and etiquette.
"A lot of the the work that we do on the operations side is dealing with conflict or the results of people not knowing how to use the trails properly," he said.
They are planning on updating their signs, which states which direction the trail should take, as many people are not following the rules.
People can have their dog off-leash in the area, and as a result some are choosing to leave their dog waste in bags on the side of the trails.
"That is not a very pleasant part of the job," he said.
But they are working on education people, through their website, signs and by talking to visitors directly through their trail host program.
He says with the numbers as they are, they will likely need more parking space.
"Everybody is heading away from the city and into a place where they can just forget that COVID is going on," he said.
"There's a real resurgence in interest in nature, which I think is a great thing."
With files from Dave Gilson.