Spiritual Journeys: the Light on the Trail Ahead

Reflections on the spiritual aspect of trails.

by Stuart Macdonald, Trail Consultant, American Trails

This is the time of year that most of the world celebrates life, the passing of the old, birth and rebirth. In our country, amid the holiday hoopla, we also seek the spiritual connection that is at the heart of our religious traditions. For many of us, that includes a brisk walk under the bare trees in the wan winter light, or braving the slopes to feel the crunch of snow and a glimpse of distant hills. From frozen meadows to salty sandscapes, this season is a time to be with people we love while savoring our beautiful natural world.

This is also a good time to reflect on the spiritual dimension of trails and pathways. There are so many ways that people find a sense of joy and renewal on trails of many kinds. Whatever the terrain or type of trail, there is that sense of anticipation, of looking ahead. And that reminds us how in every season of human existence, we still see glimmers of hope, and the light of joy ahead of us.

Ian Bradley, who wrote Pilgrimage: a spiritual and cultural journey, notes that the number of Europeans making pilgrimages is steadily rising, even as church attendance has slipped. “Many people, uncomfortable about sitting in pews and uneasy with institutionalized religion, find it easier to walk rather than talk their faith,” he writes.

For at least a thousand years, pilgrims have walked the Way of St. James (El Camino de Santiago) to reach the cathedral dedicated to St. James at Santiago de Compostela. There are many other pilgrimage trails from Turkey to Tibet where people seek a spiritual connection. In Japan, the pilgrimage route around the island of Shikoku reaches 88 Buddhist temples and sacred places. In New Mexico, pilgrims walk a few hundred yards or a hundred miles to reach El Santuario de Chimayo during Easter week.

Many of you will have seen the Associated Press story about the “Gospel Trail” in Israel. The 39-mile hiking route runs from Nazareth across the hills and through Jewish and Arab towns. The project was supported by the Israeli Tourism Ministry to help visitors have a more intimate journey through Biblical landmarks and landscapes.

Another interesting exploration of spirituality is Ronald Bearwald’s “Twenty life lessons of the trail.” He writes about the serenity and rigors of trails that put us in touch with our own capabilities and sensibilities. (ATM Spring 2010 Issue)

We wish you all a happy holiday season, and joy at the end of your own pilgrimage!

— Stuart Macdonald and the American Trails staff

Attached document published December 2011

About the Author

Stuart Macdonald spent 19 years as Colorado's State Trails Coordinator. He is the editor of American Trails Magazine. During 1998-99, he represented State Trail Administrators on the national committee that proposed regulations for accessible trails. He chaired the National Recreational Trails Committee, which advised the Federal Highway Administration in the first years of the Recreational Trails Program. Stuart grew up in San Diego and his main outdoor interest besides trails is surfing. He has a BA in English from San Francisco State and a Masters in Landscape Architecture from Utah State.

More articles by this author

Webinars on YouTube that you might like

Adaptive Trail Mobility Equipment and Programming 101

Apr 11, 2024

This webinar will discuss adaptive recreation equipment and programming, as well as funding resources that can help facilitate equipment purchases and programming.

The Path to Mental Health

Jan 25, 2024

This webinar will demonstrate ecotherapy ideas for attendees to implement in their own communities, on their own trails, and at different scales, and also show the importance of collaboration for community health.

More resources in this category

Why Trails Matter: Trails and Greenways Promote Health

posted Feb 1, 2024

Trails and greenways create healthy recreation and transportation opportunities by providing people of all ages with attractive, safe, accessible and low- or no-cost places to cycle, walk, hike, jog or skate.

STEP IT UP! The Surgeon General’s Call to Action to Promote Walking and Walkable Communities

posted Jan 22, 2024

The Call to Action provides strategies that communities can use to support walking, which we hope will result in long-lasting changes to improve the health and health care of Americans today and of the generations that follow.

Parks, Trails, and Health Workbook

posted Dec 29, 2023

Consider this workbook as a starting point. Every project is different. This workbook is intended as a guide to be adapted for specific situations.

Hiking Trails in America

posted Dec 29, 2023

Call it walking. Call it hiking. Seldom has something so much fun also turned out to be so good for us!


1,449 views • posted 12/25/2011