Five steps to your best trail yet

Making a trail visitors will remember

Think about the last memorable trail you traveled. Was it open, inviting, and interesting? Did you get the feeling that the trail would lead you some place old and familiar or new and exciting? When you’re planning your next park project, follow these five key steps to build a memorable, beautiful trail.

1- Give your trail a purpose

boardwalkThe first and most crucial step of trail design is understanding your trail’s purpose and how it will be used. Will your trail simply move people from point A to point B or will it allow people to meander and discover? Will your trail control traffic into or through sensitive areas? Will bikes, families with strollers, or people with pets use the trail?

The answers to these questions and more will guide you in choosing the best location, surface, material, and construction process.

2- Make your trail accessible

In almost every project, your trail will have visitors of varying abilities and ages. Whether someone is using a wheelchair, stroller, or just isn’t able to walk on uneven surfaces, you can design a trail to accommodate every kind of visitor. By creating a trail that is accessible and convenient, you expand your park’s audience and ensure equal access for everyone. Read American Trails’ ADA considerations for specific trail-building regulations and suggestions. In general, you’ll want to consider three accessibility factors:

Slope is usually what we think about when we think of accessibility. A good rule of thumb is to keep your grade less than 5% for any distance of your trail. For complete minimum considerations, read this publication from the Federal Highway Administration of the Department of Transportation.

Width is another key consideration in accessibility. In general, the width of your accessible trail needs to be 36” with areas for passing and turn arounds if your width in less than 60”.

For tread (surface), you’ll want to avoid obstacles such as curbs and steps. Highly refined surfaces, paved surfaces, and surfaces such as walkways and boardwalks allow users to traverse difficult terrain and encourage a more diverse group of users. And don’t forget to plan for seasonal changes to your trail’s surface. Will you need to clear leaves and ice to allow for year-round accessibility?

3- Integrate your trail with nature

With the increasing emphasis on minimally disruptive use of nature, we know the most popular trails successfully integrate with the nature they encourage visitors to see. A great trail should not disrupt nature, but allow it to coexist with visitors. Your integration options vary per project, but consider these general tips:

  • Consider elevated walkways in sensitive ecological areas and habitats
  • Add buffer zones and traffic controls to protect habitats and allow views from the trail
  • Avoid disruptive construction to keep impact minimal

4- Make your trail beautiful

BendA memorable trail is not only functional, but also beautiful. When considering your trail design, think about your options for “anchor” points, or particularly beautiful spots. Are you leading visitors to a vista, a unique natural habitat, or a natural water feature?

Not only do memorable trails take visitors to beautiful places, but they’re also beautifully made. Along the way, are you giving visitors interesting experiences? Elements such as bridges, rest spots, boardwalks, and other added points of interest that can be aesthetically pleasing for your visitors and create impressive focal points.

5- Make it last

Experienced trail-builders know the design process isn’t just about the present – it’s also important to choose a well-made trail that stands the test of time. Sustainable trails require the following:

  • Stable, low-maintenance tread material to last in both wet and dry conditions
  • Adequate management of stormwater runoff by allowing natural filtration and slope drainage
  • On-going maintenance and stewardship

Take these five steps – have purpose, create accessibility, integrate with nature, make it beautiful, and choose sustainability – and you’ll have a trail that’s memorable to visitors for years to come.