A Volksmarch is meant to highlight the best scenery, like this image in Thermopolis, or experience an area has to offer in an accessible way. (Photo courtesy Lois Petersen —click to enlarge)

Explore new trails with volksmarch

by Kelsey Dayton
September 24, 2013

I need the volksmarch box.

Kelsey Dayton

I felt a little like I was part of a secret club, when I said the words to the woman at the General Store at the South Pass City historic site.

A week ago I hadn’t even heard the term volksmarch. It was mentioned in passing by someone talking about hiking.

It turns out a volksmarch is a hike or walk, usually 6 or 3 miles long. Volksmarching is referred to as a “non-competitive sport,” where people record the distances they hike. They can earn patches and pins for accomplishing certain goals, like hiking in every state. It originated in Europe to encourage outdoor activity, Bob Townsend of Atlantic City told me. Townsend has done volksmarches in several countries and in the United States.

The trails vary in difficulty, but with the average participant in their mid-50s or older, they are usually fairly mellow and are meant to showcase the area in which they are located.

It sounded like the perfect fall outing for me. Fall, with its cooler weather and changing colors, is my favorite time to hike.  I wouldn’t need to plan — they’d supply a map and directions. I wouldn’t need to prepare for an accidental epic adventure. I’d be doing a six mile walk, and I’d get a chance to see a piece of Wyoming I hadn’t really explored.

Townsend used to run two volksmarches from his bed and breakfast in Atlantic City, but after a year when no one came, he didn’t renew their classification. To qualify as a sanctioned trail a member must apply to the national organization.

At sanctioned trails you sign-in, receive a map and information on the trail and what you will see — all for a $3 fee. When you finish you can get your volksmarch book — similar to a passport — stamped to show you officially completed the trail. If you aren’t interested in the stamp, and like me just wanted to try the walk, it’s free.

Gary and Arlene Williams took their dog Boone on a volksmarch in Hot Springs State Park. (Photo courtesy Lois Petersen — click to enlarge)

There are more than a dozen volksmarch trails in Wyoming. Some are managed by the two clubs in Buffalo and Cheyenne, others are managed by out-of-state clubs.

Volksmarch isn’t a growing sport, in fact it’s likely on the decline, Townsend said. According to the American Volkssport Association www.ava.org in 2010-2011 almost 400,000 people participated in some sort of Volksmarch event in the United States. But in Wyoming there are years that there are no signatures at some of the volksmarch trails.

Mine was only the third signature at South Pass in the log for the season. Perhaps the dwindling popularity of the sport is at fault for what happened next. They were out of maps.

Well, I’m sure the trail is clearly marked, right? I asked.

In some places. But in some places by the creek it’s easy to lose. And there are some intersecting trails, the lady said.

Do you know which way I’m supposed to go, or which trail I should follow?

The woman was apologetic as she said she didn’t know where the volksmarch was supposed to go, or even if it was a loop or out-and-back. She did know where it started, and warned me to be careful of the electric fence.

I decided, despite my poor preparation — I could have at least looked up what the website said about the trail — and lack of map, or destination, to set out on the trail anyway. Some volksmarch trails are open year round, while others, like the one at South Pass City which closes Sept. 30, have a limited season because there has to be a person to sign you in and stamp your book.

Many people track their mileage and work to earn a patch or a pin, if they hit milestones like walking a trail in every state. Some of the 300 clubs in the United States organize specific events, like an annual volksmarch in June at Crazy Horse Monument in South Dakota that brings in thousands of people.

Townsend and his wife, Barbara, learned about volksmarching in Germany while in the Air Force. Since then Barbara Townsend has completed a volksmarch in nine countries and Bob Townsend has finished trails in three countries. The Townsends know they could hike on their own, but there is something fun about registering and tracking their outings, and also a sense of camaraderie — even if they are alone, they are sharing the trails in some ways with the other volksmarchers around the world.

According to the American volkssport Association, volksmarching came to the United States officially in 1976 when the first volksmarch happened in Texas as part of the bicentennial celebration of the United States.

Whenever Lois Petersen of Buffalo travels she takes along a book that lists all the volksmarches in the country. It comes with the one-time $5 membership fee she paid to join the American volkssport Association.

A trail is selected to be designated for a volksmarch based on its beauty or historical and interpretive values, according to Petersen. “They’re more than just a walk,” she said. “They are usually the best of whatever community you visit.”

Petersen, who is president of the Buffalo volksmarch club, and her husband Frank Pratt discovered volksmarching when they attended a trail event in Alaska where they lived at the time. It was motivating to get out and explore new areas, knowing they were volksmarch trails.

One volksmarch trail in Buffalo travels through an old cemetery. Interpretive signs along the way tell the history of the railroad and the outlaws of the area.

“You can kind of live that story,” Petersen said.

Petersen doesn’t often walk the trails in her area.

“I want to go to other places and see their walks,” she said.

That’s why she carries the spiral notebook listing volksmarches in all 50 states in the car. Whenever it’s time to stretch her legs, she checks for the nearest volksmarch.

I am not sure if I completed the volksmarch at South Pass. I am not sure if I was even on the correct trail. (Good thing its a non-competitive sport.)

When I reached the top of a hill I found several collapsed buildings, and I could see for miles across the prairie. Other than a distant faded two-track and the skeleton of the buildings near me, there was no sign of human life. Jagged rocks seemed to grow from the landscape as though they were trying to create protection from the pounding wind.

It was unlike any hike I’ve done and certainly different than if I’d stuck to the trails I already know. And I guess that’s the point. Even if I didn’t officially complete a volksmarch, the idea got me outside exploring somewhere new.

— “Peaks to Plains” is a blog focusing on Wyoming’s outdoors and communities. Kelsey Dayton is a freelance writer based in Lander. She has been a journalist in Wyoming for seven years, reporting for the Jackson Hole News & Guide, Casper Star-Tribune and the Gillette News-Record. Contact Kelsey at kelsey.dayton@gmail.com. Follower her on twitter @Kelsey_Dayton

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Kelsey Dayton

Kelsey Dayton is a freelancer and the editor of Outdoors Unlimited, the magazine of the Outdoor Writers Association of America. She has worked as a reporter for the Gillette News-Record, Jackson Hole News&Guide...

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  1. I love that hike, or volksmarch, you described. Up the hill, through the aspens, past the old Shields Mine site to the high windy plain with views that go on forever.
    I tried to do it last month (August 2019), and found the bridge out about 0.1 miles from South Pass City, and couldn’t find a way across the creek. The townsite was promoting an alternate hike that goes up near the Carissa Mine, but it isn’t nearly as scenic.
    Is any effort underway by any organization to create a new crossing? I know the Continental Divide Trail also uses that exact route. I’d personally volunteer to purchase and lug some 12-foot 4-by-4’s out there and make a bridge crossing, but wonder if the agency would allow a private effort.
    Any thoughts? Any others concerned about this? Any contacts you could suggest?