Home » Never Leave A Trail Worse Than You Find It, Or Else You May Lose It

Never Leave A Trail Worse Than You Find It, Or Else You May Lose It


One of the sadder parts of off-roading is watching scenic areas get destroyed by trash, full sends, or illegal activity. Going wheeling is great fun, but if you’re not mindful, you can cause harm to ecosystems and to people. And if you screw up bad enough, maybe you might even be one of the catalysts for the closure of an off-roading area. That appears to be what happened to Nemo Tunnel, a popular off-roading spot in Tennessee.

Since 2018 I’ve been traveling around the country and taking part in the Gambler 500. I’ve written a lot about these events before and when you dig below the surface of off-roading in $500 junkers (more like $1,500 adjusted for inflation), there’s a lot of good. When we go out on the trails, we don’t just see if a little 2008 Smart Fortwo can hang with 4x4s. Instead, our trail groups stop, hop out of our vehicles, and actively clean up the area.

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One of the first things I was taught when I got into off-roading was that I should always try to “leave no trace.” Basically, the trail should look the same when you leave as you went in. The Gambler 500 pushes that a little further and encourages you to leave a trail better than you found it.

In my group’s travels, we’ve recovered everything from cans abandoned in forests decades ago to entire furniture sets and destroyed boats.

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Other Gambler groups have recovered trashed RVs and burned-out cars, removing them from the beautiful places they were abandoned. It’s amazing what people abandon, and just how long they’ll sit rotting away until finally removed. Sadly, a recent report by UTV Driver shows what else can happen when things go off of the rails.

Located just outside of the Catoosa Wildlife Management Area in Wartburg, Tennessee is a piece of railroad history. Officially known as Tunnel #24, the Nemo Tunnel was constructed in 1878 during the construction of the Cincinnati Southern Railway. Construction of the tunnel involved boring through clay, limestone, sandstone, shale, and slate. It features limestone portals and a limestone and brick masonry ceiling. The tunnel helped provide a path through the mountains and to a depot at the tunnel’s south end. It was reportedly decommissioned in 1949 after a flood. Trains still roll through the area through an adjacent tunnel.

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As UTV Driver explains, the tunnel is on private land and for decades it was more or less a local secret. It rose in popularity as an off-roading destination in recent years. Despite that, the landowner reportedly allowed off-roaders to take a trek through the tunnel and local trails, provided that they followed simple rules. The landowner didn’t want people littering all over their property and they asked for people to keep the access roads intact. Also, since the property was right next to an active rail line, off-roaders should keep their activity on the property.

Those seem like simple enough restrictions. And if you follow the idea of “leave no trace” it should be easy. Yet, when my group arrived at the tunnel in 2020, we found things in a rough state. There was trash everywhere, evidence of people digging up the access roads from doing donuts, and locals told us that some people had gone into the tunnel and dug trenches by spinning their tires.

We picked up all of the trash that we could carry in our vehicles, then our group went in. Going through Nemo was an adventure.

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I was in a lowered Smart Fortwo and my friends were in vehicles like a lifted Mazda Miata, a lifted high-roof Ford Econoline Power Stroke, and a former Ford Crown Victoria Police Interceptor now handling off-road duty. The locals were right and about half of the tunnel was nearly impassible by regular vehicles. If I had to guess, someone was just letting it rip in there, digging deep ruts. I got through in the lowered Smart by riding with two wheels in a rut and two wheels on the high center. Somehow, I didn’t get stuck and the tunnel’s high water didn’t get in, but the Crown Vic got high-sided in there.

If you get the chance to legally explore a train tunnel, I highly recommend it. The atmosphere in there can get eerie and it’s awesome to take a flashlight and see what you can find. There were other groups there in Jeeps and side-by-sides, and our group of weird misfits always got their attention. After we cleaned everything up the best we can, we took this photo of our wacky rides and their drivers:

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Since then, I hadn’t been back to the tunnel. In 2021, I took a 2006 Dodge Grand Caravan off-roading in Tennessee. On that trip, I found another piece of Tennessee rail history, the 1951 Alco RS-3 and two cars that made up the short-lived New River Scenic Railway. It sat on the Oneida line, a 41-mile spur of Norfolk Southern’s Cincinnati-Southern line weaving through some of the best scenery in Tennessee. The excursion train ran for just a single year between 2008 and 2009, then the Oneida line fell into the ownership of the R.J. Corman Railroad Group, which wasn’t interested in sharing the rails with New River.

Like the tunnel, the train sat for years in good condition, waiting for the day that it could ride the rails again. Then, people who couldn’t leave things alone found the train and started tearing it apart.


The Alco and its cars were far too gone by the time I found them, and three pieces of railroad history were unnecessarily destroyed. This year, I was excited by the prospect of taking my Volkswagen Touareg VR6 into Nemo Tunnel. Sadly, nobody will be able to see the tunnel again, and it was because of a weird accident that happened in 2022.

As UTV Driver reports, on March 6th, 2022, a group of Jeeps, side-by-sides, and a 1967 GMC pickup took a trip to Nemo Tunnel. The group reportedly left the trails of the property to drive along the active train tracks to make their way to the underside of a bridge to eat lunch. The GMC had apparently fallen behind, made a wrong turn, and the truck found itself with its bumper over the track. In a cruel twist, the truck then stalled just seconds before Norfolk Southern Manifest Freight Train 123 appeared into view down the track.

This was caught by rail enthusiast YouTube channel Delay In Block Productions, and a video of the incident can be seen here:

The driver of the truck apparently said that there was an issue with the vehicle’s battery cables and asked for help, but the YouTubers declined, staying at a safe distance. The truck was also on a hill and the Delay In Block team felt that the driver could have backed the truck away from the tracks. Unfortunately, the truck wasn’t moved and the driver couldn’t fix the problem in time. The Norfolk Southern train plowed into the truck, sending it into the forest.

Nobody was hurt, but the damage was done. Within months of the accident, the landowner put up no trespassing signs and Nemo Tunnel officially closed to the public. UTV Driver reports that people are still going there despite the signage.

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Delay In Block Productions

I firmly believe that off-roading is an activity that everyone should enjoy in their lives at least once. However, we should be mindful when taking our vehicles off of the beaten path. Littering is never cool and even if you don’t see it, there can be ecological damage. For example, you’d think that the desert is an expansive playground where you can’t hurt anything, but even those landscapes are teeming with life. Here’s just a snippet of what the National Park Service says about what can happen:

Driving on the desert landscape creates long lasting scars. The soil that has taken many years to settle, erode, react to water, and create the ecosystem that you see today, becomes impacted by the disturbance. In wetter environments, tire tracks and soil disturbance can fade away more quickly. But the arid nature of the desert means that those tracks will be present for a long time. Think about the wagon travelers of the mid-1800’s- the tracks can still be found in the desert southwest over 150 years later!

Plants with shallow root systems are especially vulnerable when driven over but even deep-rooted plants will die off after multiple passes. Plants are often not able to reestablish in these crushed areas due to soil compaction. Read more about that below.

Driving off designated roads further threatens already sensitive endangered and endemic plant species that live in the park. Vehicle tires and undercarriages can also carry invasive and non-native species that can push out native species.

Driving over wildlife or their habitat is not the only concern with driving off designated roads. Vehicle use increases stress in animals which can lead to displacement, premature death, and/or reproductive failure. The noise can affect the specialized hearing of small mammals and reptiles that use their hearing to protect themselves from predators or to find prey themselves. Studies have shown that for Kangaroo Rats, noise from vehicles can cause frantic behavior, ear bleeding, and temporary loss of hearing.

This is all to say that the next time you hop behind the wheel to go on an off-road trip, consider where you’re headed. I’m not saying that you have to hop out of your Jeep and pick up trash, but maybe carry a trash bag with you and hold on to your own trash until you can properly dispose of it. It also helps to make sure that you aren’t going down illegal trails or that your fullest sends may not accidentally lead to harm to the ecosystem or others.

All of that seems obvious. Of course, you don’t want to do anything that will create someone else trouble or perhaps cause a popular off-roading spot to close, but it appears that not everyone gets that message. Just remember to leave no trace, or at the very least, as little of a trace as you can.

(Correction: An earlier version of this story noted that the truck’s driver declined help from the YouTubers, it was the other way around with the YouTubers declining to help, instead keeping to a safe distance. Thank you, kind reader!)

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34 Responses

  1. It really comes down to respect and common courtesy in how you live your life. Sadly while there has never been an excess of these things in our world, the supply is further dwindling.

  2. The driver of the truck apparently said that there was an issue with the vehicle’s battery cables and declined the YouTuber’s help.

    Mercedes, one correction needed there – the driver of the stranded truck asked for help, but the YouTubers declined out of self-preservation:

    https://youtu.be/8YMB7s3n3dQ?t=282 (clip should start at 4:42)

    1. Correction to your correction. The Youtubers initially volunteered to help, but the driver declined, believing he knew what the problem was. This was before they heard the sounds of the approaching train. After those sounds, the driver asks for help to push the truck back but the Youtubers decline in the name of self-preservation.

  3. Excellent article and well said. I live part of the time in Arizona and often off-road in the desert. :Luckily, most people respect the fragility of the environment. You deserve credit for doing the garbage pickup.

    As for trains, this is another matter. I used to be a senior person in a large railroad, and every week we would see the accidents. There is an optical illusion with trains..they are going quicker that you think. and in a snowstorm are almost silent.

    People often cross after the train has passed and the lights are still flashing. They then get hit by a train in the opposite direction.

    The train always wins.

    1. I grew up in a small town, and I remember drivers ed being insistent and repetitive on the whole be insanely careful at railroad crossings thing.

      It always seemed so self-explanatory, but then again, so did the whole “don’t back up on the freeway if you miss your exit” rule. Which I now see people violate on a regular basis. So I guess I’m glad I still get an anxious feeling in my stomach crossing even old, out of service tracks.

  4. People need to take note of the many things humanity has already Found Out before deciding to Fuck Around.

    Nobody is hiding such big secrets as “vehicle on train tracks = bad” or “litter not good.”

  5. Trail users can be the most entitled assholes in the world. We had a guy send our local bike/hike/ski trail organization a nastygram because he was upset that the walking trails were rutted and icy while the ski trails were smoothly groomed. As a result, he chose to walk the ski trails, of course wrecking those too. The same thing happens regularly to our groomed winter bike trails, even though we also groom a walking loop so hikers have a designated place to go. Apparently nobody understands that the reason the bike and ski trails are so smooth is that nobody has walked on them. It only takes one jackass to leave what amounts to a string of potholes in the trail that make it miserable for everyone.

    1. On the flip side, I have broken trails in snowshoes only to have x-country skiers use my path. After they commandeer my trail they then act as though I am out of line using the trail I made. They expect me to break a new second trail because they are too lazy to make one.

      1. Oh yes, bikers and skiers can be assholes too. That’s why I said “trail users”. 😉

        A perfect example was an incident a couple of years ago where a biker rutted up a dedicated ski trail. Totally not cool. Also not cool was the message the bike group got as a result though. We don’t even maintain bike trails at that park in the winter so we don’t encourage bikers to go there at all. As a result of this one incident a skier sent a nastygram to us threatening to ban all biking on winter trails (which was likely an idle threat, but still). Nobody involved in that incident should feel good about their behavior.

  6. That video confuses me. Could he not have simply popped it into neutral and rolled back a few feet out of harm’s way? Or, perhaps, not have taken a vehicle he wasn’t 100% certain of mechanically so far off the beaten path? Or not have followed his dumbass friends onto active railroad tracks?

    So many bad decisions had to lead to that precise set of circumstances that it almost feels contrived or staged. And a camera crew just happened to be there, eh?

    As for the littering, when I first heard of the Gambler 500, I was worried about trail damage and mess, but when I started talking to the folks involved, and heard that cleaning up along the way was part of the event, I was so impressed that I made decals for free for a couple of entrants at my old job. (Wasn’t authorized to do so, but I don’t work there any more, so fuck’em.) I will never understand littering. It’s such a simple thing to not do.

    1. His friends didn’t go onto active tracks and apparently he was overcome with hubris, as he wanted to fix the problem with it overhanging the tracks rather than roll back a few feet.

      (Mercedes has errantly updated the story to say the Youtuber refused to help. The driver earlier refused their assistance at the 4:10 mark of the video.)

      The camera crew is unrelated, coincidences happen. From going to the poster’s page, they’re producing obscure train footage. And wisely using a pro narrator for most of it.

  7. The part about ecosystem damage, which I was glad to see you finally got to, is the most important part. Picking up trash is good as far as it goes, but when you subject a landscape to enough vehicle traffic, it’s the traffic itself that does the most lasting damage. Not only is this why areas get closed to vehicular use, it’s why vehicular use is restricted in the first place. I grew up mountain biking at a unit of the Chattahoochee River National Recreational Area in Atlanta; when I was a kid, all the trails were open to bikes. Some time when I was at Georgia Tech, many of them were closed to bikes. The changes in the remaining trails in the decades since are as clear an example of any of what years of use will do to an environment. All of this is why, as off-roading gets more popular, it is more important to manage it. All that said, I did get to do some off-roading a few years ago in Zambia, outside Lusaka by the Zambezi River, and it was tons of fun.

  8. What comes around goes around
    Years ago, as a callow, feckless yout, I used to toss my empty beer bottles out to avoid being busted for them. This was mostly on the Blue Ridge Parkway which is Federal property and possession of alcohol is a Big Deal. A decade later I sobered up, and have since always carried good trash bags & gloves in my cars to pick up current trash.

    I don’t document what I pick up, but it amuses me to note trends: in the 90s, I picked up many, many Mickeys large-mouth bottles. In the early 2000s, it shifted to mostly 40oz bottles, with increasing numbers of PBR & Red Cap singles mixed in. Right around the Great Recession, there were a couple of summers during which I picked up several hundred Redi-Whip cans. The last decade or so, things have gotten much tidier: most of what I pick up now is blunt wrap packaging.

    1. I’m a 4Runner guy and stay on the dirt roads, and trail runner where I go off road, on my feet. Drink of choice these days seems to be Michelob Ultra in Oregon and Arizona where I am mostly, they’re everywhere! I pick up as many as I can.

  9. Note to hikers, the open bed of a pickup is not a trash can, especially if it’s not your truck.
    I often find someone else’s litter in the bed of my parked truck, ready to fly out as soon as I drive off (I don’t need that ticket thanks).
    If I ever catch someone tossing garbage in there I might just make them eat it.
    Same goes for anyone who bothers to pick up their dog’s poop but then leaves the poop filled bag on the trail. How is that better? Now it’s more visible and will take longer to decompose. Solipsistic morons, stop breathing my air.

  10. You don
    t have to be on a trail to find idiots. My wife once rode her Vespa to the local supermarket. When she came out she found someone had tied their dog to it.

  11. In my experience the off road crowd seems to either be really nice people just trying to enjoy their vehicles outdoors in a responsible manner, or complete tools pushing their limits and using the outdoors as a trashy playground. There’s not much middle ground. We’ve already discussed King of the Hammers a bit in other posts and most of the hundreds of thousands of attendees there fall into the latter group, to the point where I turned down going out there with my company this year.

    Living in San Diego I am lucky easy access to a huge off road desert playground on public land and there are a few places I simply won’t go because it’s nothing drunken clowns trying to out-“Hey y’all, watch this!” each other. See Glamis for example. It’s definitely a shame.

  12. I’m seriously going to miss going to Nemo Tunnel. I remember my first time through there, I rode on the roof of an old Grand Cherokee, hanging on to the roof rack. I’m glad you shared the picture of us there, and Vanna White! That was the last time I went there, and I’ll always be glad I have that picture. That was such a great weekend, with some even better people.

  13. I’m an avid kayaker in the Western New York area. The Buffalo River and Inner Harbor areas always have litter floating in them, so I make a point of taking out whatever I come across. There feels like there has been less garbage in the waterways in the last couple of summers, but I have no real data on that.

    It’s about 50-50 on the litter coming from the shore or the vessels. I’m willing to believe that much of it is accidental (wind blowing things out of the boats, etc.) but not for the Jet-Skis. They give pleasure boaters a bad name. I do everything I can to stay out of their way, but apparently many of them take a perverse pleasure in getting as close as they can to unpowered craft. I’ve also seen them pitch their bottles into water.

    1. I live near the Adirondacks, and the influx of people during the pandemic onto our trail systems has had some pretty serious impacts. I always keep a trash bag lined pocket of my backpack when I’m hiking to try to bring out whatever I come into contact with. It comes back full far too often.

      1. Usually I carry an extra ziploc bag for scraps I find on the trail, although I’d really like some little salad tongs to go along with it. The road that goes past my house is absolutely trashed with beer bottles, cans, old tires, fast food wrappers… The only good time to clean the roadside is in the winter, otherwise the poison ivy and ticks are an added hazard along with the narrow shoulder.

        WTF is wrong with people who have no respect for the land?

      2. Doesn’t even have to be trails. I scuba dive and grab every piece of trash I can reasonably carry. Normally more than I can carry/haul. Don’t get me wrong, I understand a fair amount of it is incidental stuff blown off shore, blown off boats, and the like. But I know a lot of it isn’t.

    2. Agreed, popular spots just get thrashed no matter the mode of use. The trail damage isn’t as intense though, even on very heavily trafficked bootleg mtb trails.

    3. I wish somebody would have folliwed the leave no trace rule when I was a kid. Because some jackass decided it would be a good idea to carve themselves out a fort in the base of the bluff below a trail in Fort Casey state park in Washington, the biking trail let go and collapsed so it had to be re-routed. Also when it collapsed it took somebody I know with it, which resulted in a fractured vertebra and a severe wounding of peide as we all teased him after he healed up about the fact tat he had turned onto his back to, in his words, “save the bike.”

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