When I moved here, the road was 4 wheel drive only most of the winter. It was an old roadbed that was poorly maintained, rutted, with various slippery and mushy spots. The road was built at some point, maintained a few times, but I would say that it had never been designed.
The previous owner suggested that we look into fish friendly roads; Basically designing roads to reduce sediment load in streams and rivers where it clogs the clean gravel beds that Salmon and Steelhead lay eggs in. If the gravel beds become too sedimented, it smothers the eggs and they die.
Danny Hagans of Pacific Watershed Associates, made a study of this problem and where the sediment was coming from and found that rural ranch and logging roads were a huge contributor. Over time, he put together a philiosophy and a set of design tools and practices to keep the sediment on the road and prevent other related erosion. Well, it just so happens that keeping dirt and gravel from washing off your road surface or out of gullies is pretty much what all of us land owners want too. We have a good example on the property of what happens when poorly designed dirt roads are abandoned. Due to the old road bed, a huge amount of water used to flow down the road to near my garden where it dumped off the side. It carved a huge gully that is probably 15 feet deep and 30 feet wide at the largest point. I don’t think there was even any waterway there before at all! At most, maybe a low spot. This was no doubt prime planting ground and would now be orchard and garden. It also drains ground water out of the adjacent landscape. It’s a huge pain the butt just to get through or around it. That soil never comes back and replacing it is impractical. It’s good to build these things not just for you, but to not fail when you are gone.
For the first couple of years, I learned about roads and made important observations. We went on a tour with Danny Hagans of roads they had re designed and installed, roads in the process of reworking and some examples of poorly designed failing roads. I got the book Handbook for Forest, Ranch and Rural Roads which you can download for free at that link, and read that thoroughly. Another very important thing I did was to observe roads as I drove them and see how they worked and didn’t work. Recognizing clear patterns on other roads and redesigning them in my head gave me a lot of confidence to redesign mine and to contradict what the road builders preferred to do.
Then came clearing preparations, mapping and designing the road. Trees were trimmed and removed, the map was filled in with design features and slopes and the road was flagged at critical design points like pitch changes, profile changes, culverts and rolling dips.
We hired a guy that we knew could build good roads and installed the road in a couple of weeks. It was a bit daunting to stand up to the operators who had their own standard ideas of what to do. They were good builders, but along more traditional lines. I was able to hold my ground though, because I had done so much observation on my road and on other roads. Whereas they would want to put ditches in everywhere, I only put them where I thought they were needed. As a result, I have a wider road with way less ditch to maintain. The problem with ditches is that they collect water. Once water is concentrated, it has the potential to do damage. It also has to be dumped somewhere in quantity. so you usually need a culvert, which is expensive to buy and install. All of that can be avoided where ditches are unnecessary, by sloping the road from one side to the other to drain off one side only. This road profile is called outsloping and it works some places and not others. Where it does work, there are numerous advantages as stated above, including no ditch to clean out. They actually cut a full ditch along a long section and I had them fill it back in. I agonized over that decision, but in the end I knew it was right and time has proven that I was right and I have been very happy with the results.
so, eleven winters later I’m super happy with my road. It is in amazing condition except for a few short problem areas. The only serious problems have been caused by work done by the neighbors which messed up what we installed, and a section that was not made how I wanted it due to other reasons. I’m happy with all of my decisions in the context that they were made and I don’t expect to have any maintenance work done on the road for at least another 10 years. If anything gets done, it will be to rework and ditch a section of road that was lightly graded and graveled the first time around because the neighbor didn’t want the road disturbed too much near her house.
Aside from watching my video, here are some suggestions for those maintaining, driving and designing dirt access roads:
LEARN: about road design and progressive road design principals. Download the book and read it. If you happen to live in NorCal, you might be able to attend a workshop by Pacific Watershed Associates. If they still do them, it’s worthwhile.
OBSERVE: Soil, slope and water behavior. Especially observe the site during and right after heavy rains or snow melt. Equally important is to observe every dirt road you drive on to look at how it fails and how it could be improved to get water off fast while keeping the road surface in place.
MAP: Even if your road is already built, map it out and redesign it. That way if you ever have work done, you can fix problem areas or rework the road to be more stable and lower maintenance. This practice will really get you looking closely at your road and how it works or doesn’t.
FIND ROCK: Find local rock if you can, so you can use enough to matter. Shape is first priority, rock won’t fix everything, but it sure helps to have enough and the right kind. You can always add more later. A source of 6” & down quarry run rock is especially useful. We were fortunate to get rock from our awesome neighbors, which made a big difference in certain areas.
FIND A GOOD OPERATOR: get a good operator with all the tools they need. They’ll do a better job and do it faster. When machines are costing you over 120.00 an hour to operate (probably a lot more now), you want people that know what they are doing. Selecting someone randomly out of the phone book and cutting them loose on your property to build a road is a worst case scenario. Many guys that will build roads know almost nothing about road design and are just capable of running the machines. I’ve seen terrible installations and “maintenance” that made roads much worse. If possible get personal references and even look at roads they’ve built or worked on. Tell them what you want to do and make sure they are willing to do it the way you want it. Ideally, find someone that understands these modern road building principals. That is not possible most places, but it is in others. Finally, make sure you take advantage of the knowledge and wisdom that your operator does have, especially if cutting an entirely new road. They know things you don’t and they know how to actually move the dirt.
DRIVE BETTER: There are multiple reasons that my road is in great shape, but as important as anything is the way I drive it. I drive the entire road surface to keep it flat. You can maintain your road with your car instead of damaging and deforming it. That is something of a revelation. It helps if the road is wide enough to traverse completely, so your tires can reach all the way to the center of the road. If I didn’t drive my whole road surface, we’d have had a grader in here a while ago and the road would be in much worse shape. Best road hack ever. Get in the habit!
I have notes for a lecture to complement this video and also outlines for a full series that is more planned, complete and concise, but this will have to do for now. It may not be perfect, but it could be very useful to anyone driving, designing or maintaining a dirt road. https://youtu.be/DLG566dod4I