Increase park visitors while protecting nature

Designing trails for people and nature

When you’re designing a public recreation area, you’re asked to balance a lot: budget, environmental impact, visitor satisfaction, and timeline. Often, the one of the trickiest challenges is balancing the needs of your visitors with the needs of nature. How can you design a park that visitors love but that’s also environmentally friendly?

Luckily, this isn’t a trick question. There’s many ways trail design can increase visitor satisfaction and protect nature, even in challenging landscapes.


Pistol CreekOne of the best ways you can design a park visitors will return to again and again is by increasing opportunities for wildlife viewing. Everyone has a special memory of seeing an animal in its natural habitat and that wonderful feeling of discovery. When you create a park that creates opportunities for these kinds of connections, you’re guaranteeing sustained visitor interest in your project for years to come.

However, you also need to respect the needs of wildlife. If wildlife feel stressed, they will seek other habitats and may leave your area. Elevated trails can be a great way to keep visitors at a safe distance from animals, but still provide awe-inspiring opportunities to watch wildlife. Elevation also allows wildlife to safely travel underneath trails and between habitats- and provide an up close viewing opportunity for a sharp-eyed and lucky visitor! And as we share below, elevated trails can help visitors access wildlife-rich areas that may otherwise be inaccessible. Check out American Trails’ guide to designing trails for wildlife for more.


Pistol CreekWetlands were once considered wastelands by some, but with rising environmental awareness, people are increasingly interested in exploring these places. Whether seasonally wet prairies or open bogs, wetlands are a great spot for bird watching, hiking, and learning. Wildlife often find food and shelter in wetlands, so when you’re designing to increase wildlife interactions, you’ll want to highlight any wetlands you have in your park.

Featuring a wetland almost always requires an elevated trail: few visitors are interested in wet shoes. By providing an elevated trail, you not only give visitors access to these unique ecosystems, but you also prevent disturbance, protecting the area. Wetlands often have variable water levels, so elevating your trail is your best bet for year-round access. This also ensures your hard work isn’t washed out in flood-prone areas during heavy rains.

Sandy Landscapes

Route 66 visitIf you’re designing a trail for a coastal park or a desert region, your project requires special consideration. Some coastal or desert plants are slow-growing or delicate, making it especially important to choose a trail system that reduces impact during construction and visitor use.

Visitors often love desert or ocean ecosystems, but may have accessibility issues that may keep them from visiting these places due to the challenge of moving across sand. A stable walkway opens up these landscapes to visitors of all kinds. Whether it’s a family with a stroller or someone in a wheelchair, an elevated walkway can keep visitors safely exploring a landscape with sandy soil. Elevated walkways also ensure a stable walking surface in landscapes that may experience erosion or shifting surfaces from wind.

Designing trails that are good for people and wildlife requires thoughtful planning. And while it’s a challenging balance to strike, helping your visitors connect with your park and its nature will ensure visitors return year after year.