Giving Back to the Trails: The Life and Work of Ryan Ghelfi

A profile of Ryan Ghelfi, ultrarunner and executive director of the Selway Bitterroot Frank Church Foundation.

By on October 5, 2023 | Comments

Former professional runner and cofounder of Trails and Tarmac coaching, Ryan Ghelfi, has entered a new era of giving back to the community, as the newest executive director of the Selway Bitterroot Frank Church Foundation (SBFC) nonprofit that works on a “massive backlog of deferred trail maintenance on public lands,” in the biggest wilderness area in the lower 48 states, which occupies Idaho and Montana. Ghelfi felt a call to give back to the trail network that so many trail runners and ultrarunners, as well as general outdoor recreationists, tap into for their physical, mental, and spiritual well-being. He also wanted a career change and challenge — and that it is.

“A large percentage of U.S. trails, especially in wilderness, are disappearing. The maintenance isn’t happening and hasn’t been for long time. Eventually, they’ll be taken off the map. Brush eats trails, and wildfires — which the U.S. West is prone to — burns down trees and trees fall down. These trails are often tough to find or nearly impossible to use over recent years or decades,” said 35-year-old Ghelfi, who grew up in Redding, California, then moved to Ashland, Oregon, a hotspot for trail running. In February 2023, he took the executive director position and his family relocated to McCall, Idaho — a huge change but well worth the opportunity to give back to public lands, which shaped Ghelfi’s life trajectory, through a full-time job.

Ryan Ghelfi - out on the trails

Ryan Ghelfi out on the trails. All photos courtesy of Ryan Ghelfi unless otherwise noted.

Ghelfi said, “There are a lot of big wilderness areas in the lower 48 — Alaska has tons, too — with a super high value and an immersive recreational experience. Designated wilderness is a federal land designation from an act passed in 1964, which protects lands at a high level: you can’t have a ski lift, logging, mountain biking, anything developed or mechanized. You can hike, run, or bring horses.”

As a kid, the athlete got hooked on a range of mountain adventures from skiing and hiking to backpacking. “My mom took us four kids backpacking by herself — Katie, Eric, Hailey, and I — all ranging between the ages of five and 10. I was introduced to the outdoors and wilderness at a young age,” said Ghelfi, who in high school ran the 3,200-meter distance in track plus the 5-kilometer in cross country. “I was pretty slow. Anything short, I’d get whooped. As with any ultrarunner story, the longer, the better,” said Ghelfi, who ran in college at Southern Oregon University, where he studied business with an emphasis on accounting, and learned how to ski tour.

During college, Ghelfi mountain guided on Mount Shasta, in California, took on a role at Rogue Valley Runners specialty run shop, and got backcountry ski guiding jobs. Less than a year after college, and with one road marathon checked off, he ran his first 50k and didn’t look back. For a decade, he was a competitive post-collegiate runner, including joining the Nike Trail Running Team, in 2014, and a few years with Hoka. One of his favorite memories was setting the fastest known time on the Wonderland Trail in Mount Rainier National Park. Ghelfi met his now wife, fellow mountain runner, Natalie, when the duo both worked at Rogue Valley Runners, and the two married less than a year later. For fun, they launched a fastpacking business, Wilderness Fastpacking, guiding in northern California, in the Marble Mountain Wilderness and Trinity Alps. Weeklong routes would feature 50-mile loops with a 15-pound pack, and providing all the gear needed to customers.

Ryan Ghelfi - 2018 Lake Sonoma 50 Mile

Ryan Ghelfi has some company crossing the finish line at the 2018 Lake Sonoma 50 Mile. Photo: iRunFar/Bryon Powell

“I love running, traveling by foot, seeing amazing places, and being immersed in the wild, intrinsically. You’d have to cut off both my feet before I’d stop covering long distances in cool, wild environments. The community side is amazing and more important than any other part — it’s still my first priority,” said Ghelfi.

His guiding and retail career only netted $30,000 a year — not “kid-raising money.” Ghelfi and his wife were expecting a baby right after he co-launched Trails and Tarmac with David Laney, which was a solid investment. The duo spent six months building the website and brand, which has been strong ever since. Coach Jen Shelton suggested the company joins “1% for the planet,” and Ghelfi decided to instead find a nonprofit that they could donate the full 1% of the revenue to for a greater impact: Siskiyou Mountain Club, which centralizes on wilderness and trail stewardship.

“They were unbelievably successful — bringing back hundreds of miles of trails left for dead. Over a decade they built partnerships, financial support, and a volunteer base. I got hooked on that, joined their board, ended up being their treasurer, and we gave them money. I was 28,” said Ghelfi.

Rather than constructing new trails, the Selway Bitterroot Frank Church Foundation (SBFC), where Ghelfi now works, cuts and clears overgrowth and logs from existing trails every year, using human-powered tools from loppers to crosscut saws — a big piece of steel with handles on either end, so one person can stand on either side while sawing a log that’s fallen across a trail. “The materials and construction in modern-day crosscut saws are not nearly as good, so groups like SBFC all use saws that are often 100+ years old to cut trees from trails. They’re aging out and hard to sharpen. In the world of wilderness, these are the skills and tools we’re losing,” said Ghelfi. They’ll host eight-day projects where horse-packers carry the food, gear, and tools into a remote location with volunteers and others where a couple of hundred people work on a singular objective.

Ryan Ghelfi - using crosscut saw

Ryan Ghelfi (right) sing a crosscut saw to clear a fallen log.

In Ghelfi’s perspective, it’s essential to address these issues today, so that future generations can enjoy these trails, too. That includes his three kiddos: six-year-old Laiken, three-year-old Alden, and four-month-old Josephine.

“Wilderness designation matters, because the world changes a lot and faster and faster. Immersive wilderness experiences have been foundational and transformative for me: Being able to disconnect from the modern world in a place that is undeveloped where you don’t have cell reception and can be 30 miles from nearest road,” said Ghelfi.

Trail runners eager to learn more about the wilderness areas near where they live can read, which has an interactive map. Wilderness areas can overlap with federal land managed by the National Park Service and U.S. Forest Service, as well as the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Ryan Ghelfi - with family

Ghelfi exploring in the mountains with his family.

Ghelfi also suggests researching and reaching out to local organizations that do trail maintenance near your city or municipality, to learn what trails are available and how you can get involved with supporting the upkeep and stewardship. Use “wilderness trail stewardship” in your Google search for nonprofits doing wilderness trail work in local areas. Sign up for the email list, so you can receive notifications about trail work days.

Generally, “Runners are very underrepresented as members, in various internal roles, and as volunteers at SBFC, where volunteers and members are mostly retired, forest service employees, hikers, backpackers, hunters, anglers, and backcountry horsemen — all types of users intersect for stewardship,” said Ghelfi. You could also ask a local running store or outdoor shop if they know of any upcoming trail stewardship days.

While living in Oregon, Ghelfi also uphilled inbounds everyday on skis throughout the winter at Mount Ashland, which was a quick 15-minute drive from the house. At the time, no race existed. “I got the ball rolling, and it was a big endeavor: We started the Mt. Ashland SkiMo Summit event, and it was fun. Before that, there was no unifying event that would bring backcountry people together in southern Oregon, and we had 120 people sign up the second year. The route doesn’t stay at the resort and goes into the backcountry, so we had to get permits from the forest service, and it’s benign enough terrain that you can avoid avalanche zones. They’re still doing it, and that’s happy for me,” said Ghelfi, who directed the event for two seasons before needing to relocate.

Ryan Ghelfi - skiing uphill

Ghelfi skiing uphill on his local slopes.

Today, Ghelfi is healing from a knee injury sustained when he hit a tree while skiing, and adjusting to his new job. Driving around the periphery of the entire wildness area takes 14 hours: 30% of the job is travel and field time to meet people face to face. Every day he makes sure he rides his bike despite pressures of the job and a limitless to-do list. “Balancing it is knowing if I don’t, then I failed. You can be a workaholic to a fault. I love being with my kids and doing stuff with them,” said Ghelfi.

His goals on the horizon include healing up the knee, so he can run again, and to grow the volunteer internship positions at SBFC, the wilderness ranger fellows, as well as reaching more people and spreading the good news of the wilderness. While coaching has taken the sidelines, he and his wife plan to continue to guide fastpacking in the future, as well. He also wants to help bridge the gap between the running and stewardship communities.

Ghelfi said, “I love runners and the running community — I think there’s a lot of trepidation and not a lot of people that know how to read maps well, so people need to find ways to gain this experience to go into the wilderness and wild places. We need more people engaged, and as volunteers for the access and stewardship, for the longevity of public lands. Most people that work on trails are older and retired. Our generation is going to have to get going and get prepared — if we don’t to it, who will do it?”

Call for Comments

  • Are you familiar with Ryan Ghelfi’s running career, or his work with Selway Bitterroot Frank Church Foundation? Tell us your memories!
  • What other similar organizations doing trail work do you know about?
Morgan Tilton

Morgan Tilton is the WeRunFar columnist of iRunFar and a Staff Writer for GearJunkie and AllGear Digital. Morgan has covered outdoor industry news, adventure travel, and human endurance for nearly a decade. Aside from iRunFar, Morgan has written for more than 70 publications, including recent contributions to Outside, Forbes, Trail Runner, Runner’s World, Bicycling, and NewsBreak. She’s a recipient of more than a dozen accolades for her travel writing from the North American Travel Journalists Association. Based in Crested Butte, Colorado, Morgan enjoys mountain running and exploring the high alpine in the summer when she’s not splitboarding or mountain biking.