Blazing a Trail

Designing & Maintaining Trails for Today's Users

By Kelli Anderson

"Unique" is the word many people use to describe the vision and results of an award-winning trail system proposed by the former mayor of Brookfield, Wis. Without a single dime of taxpayer money or arm-twisted-revenue to support the last six years of an estimated eight-year, 28-mile-long project, some might also call it ingenious.

"The Greenway Trail System is a hiking, walking, biking trail that connects parks and residential areas, which we've been working on the last six years," said David Burch, RLA with Bonestroo, an engineering and planning firm out of Mequon, Wis. "The project is unique in part because the city utilized easement fees from a utility agreement to fund and support the designing, planning, construction and maintenance of these trails."

Thanks to forward-thinking and smart negotiations with cell tower companies leasing land in the city's public parks, the leased revenue was directed to a fund dedicated to the future creation and maintenance of a trail system. As the money accrued to pay for various trails, the system has grown and continues to evolve. When complete, the system will include connections between residential, commercial and natural outlying areas to give its residents the kind of commuting and recreational experience they want.

"You have to think ahead," said Bill Kolstad, director of parks and recreation for the city. "One challenge is trying to install a trail system in urban areas where homes are already in place—then it's too late to get the land. We've done good advanced planning, but in some areas we ran into challenges in location."

Garnering community support and input was key to overcoming some of those challenges to create the kind of buy-in and consensus needed to develop public interest and enthusiasm. As more trails are created and future ones advertised, the public eagerly anticipates the ongoing improvement to their quality of life. "Also key has been a great brochure at each of the trail heads," Burch explained. "It tells the story of a complete network and what's in use now. It's a great promotional piece, and it has built anticipation by the residents."

Already winning several awards and recognition for its thoughtful design, the Greenway Trail System proves that the happiest trails are projects that recognize and take into account the changing needs of local commuters, recreators and just plain nature lovers. As with any good project, success is found in good planning, good design and responsible maintenance to keep a good thing going.

One More for the Road

As many recent studies have shown, Americans are turning more and more to the great outdoors—and trails in particular—to connect with nature, save on transportation costs and to simply connect in a more tangible way with their own communities. In a 2005 survey of home buyers by Brook Warrick of American Lives, 92 percent want low-traffic areas, 79 percent want biking and walking trails and 78 percent want open natural space.

It only stands to reason that when taking into account the different seasonal demands, locations and purposes for greenways and trails that one kind of trail design or construction cannot fit all. And it doesn't have to. "Think of a variety for trail uses: paved for bikes, crushed rock for walking, parallel treads for heavily used trails," suggested Stuart Macdonald, editor with American Trails. "Accommodate as many people as possible."

When done right, multi-use trail systems and their multiple construction designs have much to recommend them: functional transportation routes reducing traffic congestion, promoting energy conservation, providing recreational amenities for a wide range of users, creating land service access to outlying areas and even attracting visitors from far and wide (read: "Cha-ching!").

Local governments around the country responding to the increased demands for multi-use and regional trails are not only experiencing happier residents but a boon to the local economy by attracting tourists from beyond their borders. "Another aspect of the benefits is tourism like ski towns expanding to another season," Macdonald said. "The real thing is trails are a low-cost way to enjoy public lands and it's a growth area."

Taking the multi-use trail concept to an all-new level, the City of Elkhart, Ind., has created a path that doubles as an ice-skating trail within one of its riverside parks. "It is the only city in the country to have such a design," said Karin Frey, superintendent of parks and recreation for the city. "In the winter the trail becomes a skating path that leads to an open area. The trail mimics the frozen rivers of Amsterdam."

The creative path system, now only in its second winter, has been very well received and has become an attraction unto itself. "We're drawing from Michigan and some surrounding colleges," Frey explained of the design's success. "And of course we are getting varied interest from families too."

Into the Woods

The benefits of nature to our well-being, a concept firmly established by countless studies, has been a blessing primarily limited to those able to access it. Thankfully, in recent years as trails and pathways are designed to accommodate bikes, strollers and roller blades, these networks are also paving the way to include wheelchairs and walking devices to reach beyond our city limits and into our woodlands and prairies.

In October 2007, the Carter School in Boston, recognizing the benefits of nature to their disabled student population, opened its doors to lead its children—most of whom are quadriplegic—into the classroom of the Great Outdoors. "We have a nature trail area called the Woodland Path," said Marianne Kopaczynksi, principal of the public school about their extensive outdoor garden. "There are tall grasses in a serpentine shape designed for quadriplegics who can't reach out to a flower but they can be gently touched by the grassy plumes."

The sensory garden, which includes a nature trail, a raised vegetable garden, water features, an outdoor classroom and more, was one of the first of its kind and required special consideration for the path that connects its many elements.

Knowing that a solid surface was necessary for the children's wheelchairs but wanting something more forgiving than asphalt, the project's landscape architect came up with a solution. "We came up with a rubberized surface as in a playground but eliminated the cushion layer, which is too bouncy," said David Berarducci, owner and principal of David Berarducci Landscape Architects based in Boston. "So we have an asphalt base with 1/2-inch layer of rubberized material."

The porous material, which lets water penetrate through to prevent puddling, was applied across the generous 5-foot pathway to allow for complete wheelchair turns and two-way traffic. Its natural-looking terra-cotta color is banded by a contrasting light cream to accentuate the pathway's edge.

Abiding by the ADA-recommended guidelines (a pitch not to exceed 2 percent or a slope greater than 5 percent), Berarducci admitted that a greater slope is possible but such a ramp requires a handrail. "It's a negotiable percentage," he conceded, "but you don't want to do that—visually handrails aren't attractive and they add to the cost."

Being familiar with the regulations, knowing the children's needs and finding creative solutions, this children's garden with its woodland pathway has given these children access to a world many of us take for granted.

"This is a healthy place. It's quiet and peaceful," Kopaczynski said. "A project like this is a jewel, and we need to support anyone trying to make this happen."

Best-Laid Plans...

Knowing community demographics and surveying wants and needs are an essential place to start. Depending on whether users are younger or older, whether areas will be for walking, running and biking, whether there is interest in all-season use and where there will be high, medium or low traffic are just some of the factors that will determine anything from building materials to locations and design. Ideally, for those communities that have the desire and the foresight to do so, linking trails into an interconnected whole is a great goal.

However, just because you build it does not mean they will come. "Too many build trails for the sake of trails," Macdonald observed of common planning mistakes. "Relying too much on hard-core biking perspectives, you end up with a logical bike network, but if it doesn't engage the public, you haven't lured people out of their cars. You have to look at the broader perspective of the community. Look at all the benefits and kinds of people: the elderly, commercial business, schools trying to reduce busing. Without getting too far into recreation or into transportation, have elements of both."

But while transportation trails built for commuting between residential, school and commercial areas are an amenity most Americans are greatly appreciating in these tougher economic times, it is the recreational trail component that—if done well—makes the destination worthwhile.

Connect the Dots

With hundreds of years of trail blazing under our national belt, it would be logical to assume that the basics of trail design were, well, basic. As nonprofit groups like the Hoosiers Hiking Council (HHC) of Martinsville, Ind., will tell you, however, that simply has not been the case. With 80 miles of deteriorated trails repaired so far in their past 13 years of existence and many more to go, the mostly-volunteer organization spends a majority of its time fixing and replacing poorly built trails.

But whether repairing older systems or creating new ones, certain design factors are a must for long-lasting success. First and foremost, a trail should connect the dots. Identifying key points of visual interest like vistas, meadows or hunting/fishing areas and noting areas to avoid like steep slopes, erodible soils or roads and waterways help determine the places the trail should strive to include. "It's pretty simple," said Suzanne Mittenthall, executive director of the HHC. "Basically you evaluate your land, people find what's pretty, and you connect the dots to build a trail that's sustainable." And while that may sound sensible and downright easy, judging from many trails-gone-bad, it is clearly easier said than done.

Once the land has been surveyed and points of interest are identified, a well-designed trail should include a varied trail pattern that incorporates curves and subtle bends to enhance user interest. Following natural contours and bending around obstacles to disturb natural areas as little as possible, trails will be more aesthetically pleasing and more environmentally sensitive at the same time.

However, there can be too much of a good thing. The placement and degree of curves should be taken into consideration for bikers. Downhill runs, for example should end with a level, straight run equivalent to the length of the slope before entering into a curve. Ensuring there is enough of a turning radius is also necessary to prevent needless accidents.

Too many curves can cause destruction of a different sort. A design element called a switch-back—a path snaking back and forth within visual range of the user—creates a needless temptation for shortcuts. "We do contour curves because switch-backs are really only for steep bluffs," Mittenthall said. "As long as you can't see the arm of it curving back and forth, it's OK. But if users can see it, it becomes a challenge. They end up destroying the trail, the vegetation and cause erosion."

Another way to keep unwanted shortcuts to a minimum is to make entrances and exits of trails the same—as in a closed loop design—or out of sight of one another. Closed loop patterns, connecting all the points of interest, with one entry/exit have the added advantage of discouraging backtracking and reducing user confusion and vandalism.

Watershed Moments

Without a doubt, however, the biggest design flaw comes down to one word: water. No matter how scenic or creative a trail system might be, if trails are not built to shed water properly, the result will be wasted time, wasted money and needless safety hazards.

It starts from the bottom up. When soils are not properly understood, gradients too low or trails insufficiently outsloped, trails become waterways eroding into gullies, creating impassable trenches and exposing hazardous roots and rocks. "The key is angles and drainage," Mittenthall said. "It's about tilt and reverse grade. We just have dirt and clay—it hardens if you keep the water off. In bottom soils we use a textile with gravel to fill in. As long as you keep water off, you can get soil to mineralize like cement. You can walk on my trails when it's raining because of the tilt."

With a 10 percent gradient considered a good standard (except for highly erosive sandy soils) and cross-slopes of 3 to 4 percent to quickly shed water, trails stand a much better chance of standing up to the watery elements and reducing the need for labor-intensive maintenance and repairs.

Scratching the Surface

"In general too much energy in a budget goes above ground and not enough goes to the surface," said Jim Dobmeier, president of a rubberized surfacing manufacturing company. "It can make all the difference in the world. Some surfaces even attract people—they'll drive out of their way to enjoy that kind of experience. It's a mistake not enough attention is paid to it."

Trail surfaces come in many varieties; choosing the right one depends on its purpose and the natural environment. In the midwest, for example, clay soils—the bane of the farmer and gardener—are the darling of the trail-forger, hardening its mineral-packed soil like cement when exposed to the sun. In the northwest where trees are abundant, wood chips are a renewable resource and a comfortable surface material that reduces soil compaction. In the northeast, lush greenways of grasses and low-growing ground covers reduce erosion and retain snow coverings for cross-country skiing and snowmobiling.

Solid surfaces such as asphalt, stone dust and increasingly popular rubberized surfaces, are ideal for many uses and greatly reduce the need for maintenance. They are also the best solution for high-traffic areas and for accessibility.

Another solid surface treatment is boardwalks. "In areas of poor soils and in wetlands we typically use a boardwalk system," Burch said. "Solid surfaces are suitable for a variety of seasonal uses, easy to maintain and offer a durable, accessible and cost-effective surface."

And while "cost effective" may not be the first thing people tend to associate with solid surface trails, the term begins to make more sense when the annual costs of maintenance materials and manpower for their natural surface counterparts are factored into the equation.

Plan for Success

Thanks to the research and school-of-hard-knocks-wisdom found in such groups as the California Department of Parks and Recreation, guidelines for maximizing multi-use trail success have been developed to help those interested in putting their best foot forward.

  1. Trails must be easily accessible to the public.
  2. Trail systems should connect residential, commercial and recreational areas to one another.
  3. Provide a regional approach to provide guidance to communities as they plan their trails.
  4. Trail designs should be taken into consideration for plans involving natural drainage channels, landscape corridors, rights-of-way and other open spaces.
  5. Surveys should be conducted to determine needs and wants of the community for both recreational and transportation aspects of trail design.
  6. List priorities for implementing new trails as they impact existing trails or regionally planned trails.
  7. ADA-accessible and barrier-free trails should be clearly posted on maps and signs.
  8. Trail plans should be included in the planning process for new transportation structures like roads, bridges and overpasses.
  9. Trail systems should strive toward a close-loop design.
  10. Trail design should include aesthetic, educational, scientific, historical, scenic and cultural points of interest.

For more trail design information visit the California Department of Parks and Recreation Web site or go to

Maintaining Safety

Whatever the trail surface, when it comes to keeping them in top form it is essential to understand the particular maintenance requirements of each trail and the terrain it will traverse to avoid needless man-hours in repairs and safety hazards for trail users.

Wood chip trails, for example, which decompose over time, need fresh material added about every two years. Wood chips can also interfere with water drainage and may require a more vigilant eye to keep pathways clog-free. And while solid-surface trails like asphalt, stone dust and concrete may be a more maintenance-friendly option at the outset, over time cracks and small ruts, if left untreated, will become potentially deadly potholes for unwary bikers and skaters.

By and large, however, the main enemy of the trail is water. Over time outsloped trails typically develop berms on the outside edge which will eventually prevent water runoff and lead to trenching. By simply pushing the 4-to-5-inch berm back into the path as needed, water damage can be avoided. However, if left too long, deeply trenched trails become too hard to repair and often have to be relocated all together. An ounce of prevention in this scenario is definitely worth the pound of cure.

Some methods for diverting water are also more maintenance-intensive than others. Water bars, for example, are a common go-to solution but because of their tendency to fill up with debris over time and to require regular clearing, it can create a maintenance battle many find frustrating. For that reason, some prefer to design trails that implement the reverse-grade technique.

For many trails, simply having volunteers or staff regularly walk a trail to report any early warning signs goes a long way toward making short work of an otherwise too-little-too-late approach. For nonprofits like HHC, volunteers are the backbone of a dedicated operation, collaborating with hiking enthusiasts, scouting groups and community groups to report possible problems, to repair damage and to do the routine work of clearing brush every one to two years.

Ultimately, understanding what the community can contribute on a consistent basis as a well as identifying their limitations will go a long way toward making best choices. Early discussions and designs that include user input and where maintenance roles are spelled out for staff and volunteers can eliminate a lot of unwanted and unanticipated maintenance headaches.

Sign Me Up

But even with the best planning and construction, a trail experience can still fail to deliver the best results without good mapping, signage and amenities. In the case of Brookfield, the planners found ways to make the most of existing features by connecting its trails to city parks where users would have access to restrooms, water fountains and trash receptacles.

They were also forward-thinking when it came to their signage. Coming up with a master plan for their signs, the result is consistency in both design and message. "Before we installed any signs we came up with a plan," Kolstad said. "We made sure we had a consistent logo, theme and colors to phase it in as our trails are completed."

Other amenities include parking and bike racks near all trail heads and benches for seating scattered throughout the system. "More importantly, we've posted maps to help people find their way around," Kolstad concluded. "We're an edge city—the first suburb of Milwaukee. People are used to sidewalks without having to use cars. They're interested in a transportation alternative and the national trend is more outdoor recreation."

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