Outdoor Adventures

A tale of trails: Edmonton’s river valley

// Jessica Kalmar
// Jessica Kalmar

Edmonton’s continuous network of trails, or “ribbon of green,” is the largest urban park in Canada. The river valley includes 30 km of the Trans-Canada Trail—the world’s longest network of multi-use recreational trails. But as you walk, run, or bike through the river valley, have you ever stopped to wonder who maintains the trails you’re enjoying?

You might be surprised to learn the City of Edmonton is not responsible for the entire network of trails. Juanita Spence, supervisor of River Valley Parks and Facilities, explains the city is responsible for planning, building and maintaining improved trails, meaning the wide asphalt and gravel trails that see the most traffic.

The city works in partnership with the River Valley Alliance (RVA), a non-profit group whose aim is to create a world-class metropolitan park system spanning from Devon to Fort Saskatchewan. The RVA has taken on some major projects, including the newly completed Terwillegar Park Footbridge.

“There are several exciting projects being completed this year,” says Spence. The Mechanized River Valley Access project next to Hotel MacDonald is slated for completion this fall, and will enhance accessibility to the river valley. Another project is to add 16 km of trails in the eastern part of the city to connect newer communities to the existing network.

The city doesn’t maintain the natural trails used by hikers, trail runners, and mountain bikers, which is where the Edmonton Mountain Bike Alliance (EMBA) comes in. Through a signed agreement with the city, EMBA organizes and completes basic trail maintenance through its Adopt-a-Trail program.

“EMBA organizes local mountain bike clubs and businesses to be stewards for these trails through trail maintenance days,” explains Tracy Watkin, an EMBA board member. “All river valley trail work must be organized by EMBA. Larger projects (moving dirt) must be approved by the city.”

EMBA’s most recent success is the new construction of a singletrack trail from Terwillegar Park to the Anthony Henday bridge.

“This is the first unofficial trail built with the help of the city,” says Watkin.

Last year, the city permitted EMBA to run a trail maintenance and building course for locals.

“This showed the city is willing to have future new construction of trails and to grow this amazing trail system,” she says.

According to Spence, one of the biggest challenges when it comes to improving trails is getting a project running.

“There is a complex regulatory framework surrounding work in the river valley that needs to be navigated in order for work to occur,” she explains. 

The other battle is against Mother Nature.

“Edmonton is very clay based in the river valley, and drainage is difficult to manage,” Watkin says, adding when it comes to dirt trails, “uneducated users who use the singletrack trails when they’re wet create lasting damage, destroying our maintenance efforts.”

Erosion is a big problem. Closures on the city’s improved trails can happen when an environmental assessment deems the area unstable. Often, these trails remain closed if the city determines the area will just erode again after repairs. It’s a balance of user safety, environmental preservation and funds management.

As Watkin puts it, “Access and usage of trails along a large river will always change and fluctuate.”

But one thing is for sure: the river valley is a gem, and we’re lucky to have organizations like RVA and EMBA working with the city to grow and maintain our trail system.

Jessica Kalmar

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