FAQ: Inquiry on hiking trails - what it takes to create a trail and everything else about a trail!

Q&A on hiking trail building, design and maintenance.

by American Trails Staff

Developing, designing, and building a trail

Topic question(s). What goes into building and developing a hiking trail? Who designs these trails? Who builds these trails? How is the design devised? Are there trail themes? What are some typical considerations trail designers have to take into account?

Response. Trails are generally on public lands managed by federal agencies such as the Forest Service, Bureau of Land Management, and National Park Service. More good trails are on lands of the US Army Corps of Engineers, along with lakes and reservoirs and on National Wildlife Refuges managed by the Fish and Wildlife Service. Every state has a state park system with a thousand more miles of trails, and many states manage rail trails, canoe trails, and other trail systems. Finally, communities of every size across America manage their own trails - from town parks to vast open space areas preserved on the edge of cities.

The following excerpt on general environmental concerns and overall user experience from The North Country National Scenic Trail's “A Handbook for Trail Design, Construction, and Maintenance” provides some responses to the above question:

General environmental concerns

National Scenic Trails should reflect a respect for the land and serve as positive examples which demonstrate that respect. Limitations must not be exceeded in trail development. All those associated with the trail, in any way, should exercise care not to damage the very natural and cultural features that contribute to the beauty and significance of the trail. Everyone has a responsibility, to fellow human beings and to the earth, to treat the land that is temporarily in their care with great respect. By following the points listed below, the integrity of the trail's environment will be protected:

  • Applicable laws, regulations, codes and standards will be adhered to.
  • Trail designers and developers will accept responsibility for cultural and natural resources and insure that they are protected and/or that unavoidable impacts are mitigated.
  • The trail will be designed to lay comfortably on the land. To the greatest extent possible, environmentally benign trail locations will be sought.
  • Unnecessarily steep, erodible, and/or dangerous slopes will be avoided whenever possible.
  • Wetlands will generally be "skirted" or avoided unless there is a very good reason to enter them—such as bringing the user into intimate contact for interpretive or educational purposes, or there is no other equally feasible trail location.
  • Locations of threatened, rare or endangered plants or animals will be identified and protected.
  • Rail designers and developers should be sensitive of the trails potential impact on broader habitat areas such as flyways or breeding grounds and the trail corridor should be used to enhance bio-diversity. A constant awareness of the trail’s potential impacts should be maintained.

photo credit: Doug Alderson
Cardinal flower on the Wacissa Paddling Trail; photo by Doug Alderson

Cardinal flower on the Wacissa Paddling Trail; photo by Doug Alderson

User experience

Protecting the trail’s natural and cultural resources is of utmost importance. Secondly, trail designers and implementers must create the best possible recreational experience for the user. The trail experience is multi-faceted—it offers stimulation of the senses, a place for learning, a feeling of safety, re-creation for the soul, exercise for the body, and overwhelming satisfaction.

The routing of the trail should stimulate the user. Variety is critical—sameness and predictability should be avoided. Around every bend, at the end of every straightaway, over the crest of every hill, through the bottomlands of every valley a new experience should be found. The sounds made by the water in a rocky brook or of a breeze sifting through a grove of white pine, the familiar smell of apple blossoms along a fence row, the relief of the sudden coolness offered by a deep maple woods on a hot, sultry day, the thrill of an unexpected panorama, or an intensely yellow field of sunflowers filtered through the branches of an oak opening, the imprint of sumac against an autumn sky, all singularly or collectively energize senses and fill memories.

The trail is a place of learning, not only about the geographies and natural communities and individual species, both human and non-human, but a place where opportunities exist for understanding life and connected-ness. The trail is rich in history and pre-history, both geologically and culturally. These aspects must be present to all who use the North Country National Scenic Trail so that they have the opportunity to come away from their experience enriched and enlightened.

Funding and maintaining trails

Topic question(s). Who funds these hiking trails? Who maintains the hiking trails?

Response. Funding and maintenance is done by all of these agencies and communities with help from a wide variety of programs. One of the most important is the federal Recreational Trails Program, which uses a small portion of your gas tax.

Environmental concerns and impacts

Topic question(s). What type of an impact on the natural environment do hiking trails have? Are hiking trails ever closed or re-routed due to erosion or other environmental concerns? What measures are taken to combat erosion and other environmental hazards (with regard to hiking trails)?

Pack string on the Palisades Creek Trail, ID; photo by Heather Trussell

Pack string on the Palisades Creek Trail, ID; photo by Heather Trussell

Response. Trails used to just get tramped in, often by strings of horses on the national forests. Nowadays trail building is treated as a science in order to build sustainable trails that don't consume huge amounts of money and time to try to keep them usable. Managing trails is an important issue. that increasingly relies of volunteers. Without good management, you have problems. And yes, trails can get closed but usually the issue is too many user-created trails going all over the place. The goal is to have a trail that is pleasing to the user and can be maintained with a minimum of work. That means going across the slope and climbing gradually, not heading straight up the hill. Erosion is the big enemy, and if water runs straight down a steep trail, you end up with a gully. Not a pleasant place to hike. People like trails that lead you through the landscape with surprises around the corner, not a straight line. People like to go through enclosed area like a grove of trees, but they also like to come out into a clearing or have a view suddenly appear. Trails should enable people to get close to areas that interest them, like streams and wetlands, but then lead away so you don't have trails all through the habitat areas.

The greatest and best hiking trails

Topic question(s). What makes a great hiking trail great and a poor hiking trail poor? What is the best hiking trail you've been on or worked on and why?

Response. In our FAQ section is a list of the Top 10 Hiking Trails based on years of working with the trail organizations.

Over 1,000 trails have been designated as a National Recreation Trail (NRT). American Trails provides a searchable database and map of National Recreation and Water Trails online. Visitors can access information about a particular NRT, search for different trail activities, or get a list of all the NRTs in any state. American Trails also has a state index featuring National Recreation Trails that are searchable by state.

Our Resource Library contains many articles on each of these topics. Topics can be viewed by the following categories, or you can use the site search for more specific articles.

We have provided a few related entries specific to each topic question.

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