Local outdoor enthusiast creates complete map of hiking trails in California
Back when Jason Mandly and his wife, Alison, lived in Southern California, they put a map of the San Bernardino National Forest up on a wall in their home and used puffy paint to trace the trails they’d hiked.
“We moved up here and wanted to do something similar, so I got maps for the Tahoe National Forest and the Plumas National Forest,” said Mandly. “But it was just so much. We covered our whole wall. So, I wanted to find a hiking map for the whole state of California. I looked and looked, but it hadn’t been done yet.
“And now I know why,” he added, and laughed. “California is frickin’ huge.”
Mandly, who works for the Butte County Air Quality Management District, has a kind demeanor and laughs a lot. He brought along a 40-by-60-inch poster detailing every established hiking trail in the state, from world-famous routes in Yosemite National Park to uncelebrated urban walking paths in cities like Modesto.
The California Hiking Map took about two years to complete. On days off work, he chipped away for an hour or two at a time. It was tedious and, toward the end, the pursuit became his “white whale,” he said.
The first order of business was tracking down the trails. Some entities, such as the U.S. Forest Service, have open-source geographic information systems anyone can access. Others, like California State Parks, proved more difficult. “I couldn’t get anything from them; I don’t know if I was emailing the wrong person,” Mandly said. “So I had to go park-to-park, overlay the map on satellite imagery and just click-click-click.”
That was a time-consuming process, but it turned out the hardest part was labeling. Some trails are so closely grouped that a label for one would cover up another, so he took great pains to make sure they were pointing to the right trails in congested areas. At first, to conserve space, he used a tiny font, which Alison said was unreadable.
She volunteered to go through each trail—by that point, there were thousands—replace the font with something more legible and make sure the labels didn’t overlap. “That was a saving grace, for sure,” he said.
Having recently printed the first copies, Mandly hopes that the map will encourage people to get outside and get active. “It’ll help you archive what you’ve done and also find new places,” he said.
Mandly was born in Florida, but as a “Navy brat,” his family bounced all over the East Coast. In 2005, he graduated from Florida Institute of Technology with a degree in meteorology. After college, he moved to Southern California and taught outdoor science at a summer camp.
“That’s how I really fell in love with the outdoors and hiking,” he said, “because I got to hike around with fifth- and sixth-graders at a week-long science camp.”
The camp didn’t provide lodging for instructors on weekends, so they’d go camping and backpacking together and be back in class on Monday, furthering his connection with nature.
Mandly then got into conducting air-quality monitoring, and had some health concerns with Southern California’s smog. “I saw what I was breathing and moved up here,” he said. “I wanted a small town, too. Chico’s an awesome place.”
Mandly considers Chico itself a trail head, given its proximity to Lake Tahoe, Shasta Lake, Plumas National Forest and Lassen Volcanic National Park—not to mention Bidwell Park. Here, his outdoor recreation has gotten more organized. He’s part of Chico-Oroville Outdoor Adventurers, a group of 500 or so locals who set up hiking, biking, kayaking, snowshoeing and backpacking excursions via email.
“There are folks with all sorts of backgrounds,” Mandly said. “You have college and even some high school kids all the way up to these 80-year-olds who just kick my ass every time.”
That group includes Michael Jones, the founder and mapper for the Chico Hiking Association. He considers Mandly’s work on the California Hiking Map a “heroic effort for the whole state.”
“It’s amazing,” he said. “I’ve hiked a lot in Southern California, so I kind of spot-checked his [map], and it’s pretty impressive.”
Jones recently published his own local map that’s been about 15 years in the making. It details every sustainably built and maintained trail he considers noteworthy within 2 hours and 10 minutes of driving time from Chico. He chose that cutoff in order to include loops in the Yolla Bolly Wilderness and Snow Mountain. It’s viewable on the Chico Hiking Association’s website.
He hopes locals will use his map to explore new places and reduce the wear and tear on overused trails in Upper Bidwell Park and Table Mountain.
“We’re hoping people spread out,” he said. “There are a lot of nice hikes around here where you can hike all day and not see anybody.”
With the help of a Kickstarter campaign that raised more than $11,000, Mandly’s printed about 2,000 copies of his posters (he has a waiting list of about 1,000 people). He hasn’t sold any yet, but once his website is fully functional, they’ll go for about $20, he said. He’d be satisfied if the project breaks even.
Mandly acknowledges that the map itself isn’t perfect. Locals know trails the best, so he anticipates receiving feedback in the coming months that he’ll incorporate into a second edition. Alison is also pushing him to move on to other states, as well.
“If I do another one, I’ll probably start with Rhode Island,” he said, and laughed again. “That’ll take me about a half-hour.”