Deciding on Trails: 7 Practices of Healthy Trail Towns

A book review of Amy Camp's 2020 book of ideas to help fulfill dreams of developing a trail town program.

by Jim Schmid

Amy Camp
ISBN 9798578619489

Finally, stay-at-home news to cheer about. In 2020 Amy Camp was able to sit down and write the trail town book she’s dreamed about since 2014. For Amy, putting her trail town thoughts into a book was a passion project taken on at just the right time; with her travel at a halt she had a project to commit to and be excited about. Now those of us in the trails world have a book full of ideas to help fulfill dreams of developing our own trail town program.

Amy doesn’t waste any time. With the title of Chapter 1 she gets right to the point “You Lose the Magic When It’s All About the Money.” She goes on to say “places that value trails only for the anticipated financial benefits miss out on what I think of as the ‘trail magic’ that can touch communities. So much of the magic of trails has little to do with economic benefit and everything to do with human interactions and joy-inducing nature experiences.” Amy wants us to know for her the most important element of becoming a successful trail town is in the fostering of a trail culture.

In 2007 Amy was hired as a program manager and spent the next five years implementing the nation’s first Trail Town Program along the 150-mile Great Allegheny Passage (GAP) between Cumberland, MD and Pittsburgh, PA. The goal was to empower community development through outdoor tourism. Realizing that a world-class trail needs amenities along its entire stretch, and towns working together can create a much broader impact. Trails can help attract and support tourism and new businesses. In addition, local residents and trail users spend money on trail-related activities and related businesses. Many communities are looking for ways to capitalize on their current trails and Amy offers practices that will help move your community forward.

In the heart of her book Amy devotes a chapter to each of her seven practices of healthy trail communities:

  1. Adopt a shared vision - Successful trail towns have a shared vision and a plan to get there.
  2. Physically connect trail to town - Create a safe and enticing route that connects your town to the trail and conveys a trail culture where trails are valued, trail users are welcome, and services are easily found.
  3. Extend an invitation - Encourage locals to use the trail and extend hospitality to visitors.
  4. Cultivate a trail culture - By celebrating your trail and town.
  5. Know your market - Offer memorable trail experiences by knowing who is using your trail, what their needs are, and ways to create products and services that keep them coming back.
  6. Share your story - Create an authentic sense of place by facilitating both a sense of connection and feelings of pride and belonging among visitors and local residents.
  7. Commit to quality trails - Quality trails require sound and thoughtful construction, interesting features, and an ongoing commitment to maintenance and stewardship.

On the book’s back cover Amy says “This book is not a ‘how to’ for structuring a trail town program. Rather, it is a call to action for trail communities.” After reading her book you may want to delve deeper into the trail town phenomena and luckily for us there’s many communities that have embraced the trail town concept and have written manuals and guides that are on their websites. Most of the guides are while heavy on the “how to maximize trail-based economic development” also offer many examples of improving your community and trail relationship.

There are many trail town programs and guides listed in the book’s Resources section. I did a quick search on the Internet to read some of these guides. The first trail town guide to be published was by the Allegheny Trail Alliance in 2005. Their Trail Towns - Capturing Trail-Based Tourism, A Guide for Communities in Pennsylvania was written to help community leaders take advantage of the economic opportunity that rides or walks into town.

In their Guide they define a Trail Town as: “A destination along a long-distance trail. Whether on a rail trail, towpath, water trail, or hiking trail, trail users can venture off the trail to enjoy the scenery, services, and heritage of the nearby community with its own character and charm. It is a safe place where both town residents and trail users can walk, find the goods and services they need, and easily access both trail and town by foot or vehicle. In such a town, the trail is an integral and important part of the community.”

Twelve years later the Progress Fund published The Trail Town Guide: Revitalizing rural communities with bike trail tourism: Tips from the oldest, most successful program, 2017. The chapters follow their five keys to success: (1) Partnerships; (2) Assessment & Research; (3) Connecting town to trail; (4) Development; and (5) Marketing. The Tools & resources section includes fact sheets, assessment workbook, sustainable trail guide, preservation and signage guidelines.

And in 2021 the Fourth Economy and Great Allegheny Passage Conservancy released their Great Allegheny Passage Economic Impact Report. This report seeks to quantify the economic value GAP tourism brings to the five-county region in 2019. They estimate that the GAP generates more than $121 million in annual economic impact. The GAP now generates more in economic impact in a single year than it originally cost to build.

There’s much to learn from the GAP trail town program and many other long distance trails are taking advantage of what has happened along the GAP and today they are applying this knowledge to their trails and communities.

Many of the National Scenic Trails are following the lead of the Appalachian Trail (AT) and their Trail Community Program. To date fifty communities along the AT corridor have been recognized. In 2012 the Conservancy added to their website Appalachian Trail Community: A Designation Program of the Appalachian Trail Conservancy where they present the four criteria they consider before adding a community to the program: (1) Community support is evidenced by creation of an advisory committee. (2) Hosting an annual Appalachian Trail volunteer project, event, or celebration. (3) Appalachian Trail related educational or service learning program or project. (4) Language for the protection of the Appalachian Trail in land-use plans, planning tools, ordinances, or guidelines.

Another program example is the North Country Trail Association: Trail Town Handbook who’s chapters include: What is a Trail Town?; Creating Your Trail Town; Design Guidelines; Economic Restructuring; Promoting a Trail Town; Master Planning Process; and Toolkit.

In Deciding on Trails appendix Amy lists current Trail Town Programs. Two of the long distance trails (Arizona and Florida) that I have been involved with in the past use the term “Gateway Community.” Like the AT they want to recognize and celebrate communities near their trails no matter what you call the community.

Many states are taking an even broader picture of what it means to me a trail town and Amy lists a few of these states. These recognized towns don’t have to be linked by a long-distance trail. They just have to support trails in their community. A few of the manuals out there are:

Trail Towns: Capturing Trail-Based Tourism: A Manual for Communities in Northern Michigan, 2013. Chapters include: What is a Trail Town?; Trail Town Design Issues; Economic Restructuring for Your Trail Town; and Promoting Your Trail Town; and The Trail Town Master Plan.

Pure Michigan Trail and Trail Town Designation Program Application Handbook, Michigan Department of Natural Resources, 2019. Chapters include: A quality trail town experience; Clear information for users; Broad community support; and A sustainable business, maintenance and marketing plan.

Florida Trail Towns Guidelines and Self-assessment - Office of Greenways and Trails. Their web-based assessment recognizes that trail based tourism is a driving economic force that shapes and sustains the surrounding communities. Towns receive free Trail Town signs, stickers, and publicity.

Kentucky Trail Towns: Where the Outdoors and Amenities Meet, A guide to 24 designated Trail Towns in Kentucky that have made a commitment to share their area’s outdoor opportunities, culture, history, and stories.

There’s also community efforts to leverage trails for economic development in: Portland, OR; Leadville, CO; Austin and Dallas, TX, Minneapolis, MN; and Milford, DE to name a few.

In 1995 American Hiking Society introduced their Trail Towns USA recognition program to acknowledge places working toward the goals of Trails for All Americans, a plan to bring trails to within 15 minutes of every American’s home or workplace. It turned out to be a one time effort. The following ten towns were recognized: (1) Jefferson County, CO (2) Anchorage, AK (3) Pinetop-Lakeside, AZ. (4) Manchester, CT. (5) Xenia, OH (6) Los Angeles County, CA (7) Lincoln, NE. (8) Perinton, NY. (9) Orinda, CA. and (10) Raleigh, NC.

photo credit: Mary Shaw (c)
Healthy trail town practice #5: Know your market - Offer memorable trail experiences by knowing who is using your trail, what their needs are, and ways to create products and services that keep them coming back.

Healthy trail town practice #5: Know your market - Offer memorable trail experiences by knowing who is using your trail, what their needs are, and ways to create products and services that keep them coming back.

The Rails to Trails Conservancy (RTC) is investing in eight communities across the country with their TrailNation projects. RTC believes that communities are healthier and happier when trail networks are central to their design.

When you look at the broader picture of communities that are promoting livability you need to check out the League of American Bicyclists Bicycle Friendly Community (BFC) program. Since 2003 the League has certified 497 BFCs. Today it’s known as the Bicycle Friendly America program where the League recognizes bicycle friendly state, businesses, and universities as well as communities.They want to make bicycling a real transportation and recreation option for all people by providing assistance and recognizing those who are doing it well. The program sets standards for what constitutes a real bicycling culture and environment.

The League promotes the 5 E’s for a bicycle friendly America.

  • Equity, Diversity & Inclusion (EDI): A Bicycle Friendly America for Everyone
  • Engineering: Creating safe and convenient places to ride and park
  • Education: Giving people of all ages and abilities the skills and confidence to ride
  • Encouragement: Creating a strong bike culture that welcomes and celebrates bicycling
  • Evaluation & Planning: Planning for bicycling as a safe and viable transportation option

It’s heartening to see so many programs underway to make our communities better places to live or visit. It doesn’t matter what you name your effort what is important that you have community involvement and get moving. An excellent place to start is by visiting Amy’s website to learn more about how she can help you and your community with custom retreats, workshops, and trainings that will move your trail town program forward.

For fun I took a side trip on the Internet discovering other books with “seven” in the title. Here’s a few that I found. The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, The Seven Laws of Spiritual Success’ Seven Pillars of Wisdom, Seven Pillars of Health, Seven Simple Steps to Personal Freedom, Seven Steps to Oneness, Seven Wonders of the Industrial World, and Seven Rocks of Life.

This research got me thinking as to why “seven” is used so much when making lists and I found a 2009 article by Lauren Schenkman “In the Brain, Seven is a Magic Number.” She presents studies on how the brain stores information and why it’s limited. This limit, which psychologists dubbed the “magical number seven” when they discovered it in the 1950s, is the typical capacity of what’s called the brain’s working memory. It’s appropriate for Amy to use the magical number seven when writing about the magic of trails. With my brain’s capacity in mind it’s time to end this review with my favorite quote from Amy’s book:

“Invite everyone to your trails and take heart in seeing them out there.”

About the Author

During his career Jim Schmid served as South Carolina’s first State Trails Coordinator as well as working for the US Forest Service as a Trails Manager in AZ, ID, and FL and also had the pleasure of managing the Florida National Scenic Trail. Jim is a collector at heart. Check out his collection of trail quotes, terms, acronyms, sayings and more at In addition to updating his website and writing book reviews for American Trails Jim enjoys traveling around the country riding rail-trails and mtn bike trails.

Contact: [email protected]

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