How to Give a New Trail a Natural Look

By Jordan Foxler, AmeriCorps member of the Taconics Trail Crew

As a volunteer of the Trail Conference I never really considered the depth of detail that is expected to go into completing a section of trail. For example, ensuring the back slope is perfectly angled and the out slope is done correctly so that rain water drains off the trail and doesn’t pool on the trail.

3_bronzerWe have employed these techniques and others throughout the half-mile Appalachian Access trail we are building at Canopus Lake in Fahnestock State Park. In addition, we  built stone steps,  set gargoyles to keep them  in place, and crib wall to hold the trail (some of these stones for these structures have been in excess of two thousand pounds). All of this is done with an eye to creating a sustainable walking surface that fits into the mountain, ultimately trying to get a natural look and feel that includes considering how it “flows” for hikers as they traverse.

An important element to trail building is to leave as little sign of your work as possible. Granted the trail looks “built” and constructed, but it fits in the mountain. We aim to disturb the surrounding scenery as little as possible, but, unfortunately, when we work with big rocks, plants and other features sometimes fall victim to our movements.

This past week the Taconic Crew took steps to beautify sections of the new trail and to restore the  “natural look” that the area had before we built a trail through it.

Here are some tips and guidelines for helping new trails fit into old surroundings:

Best practices  1- Limit Collateral Damage

When doing any trail work, limit “collateral damage.” In other words, follow standards that you should also follow when hiking, “leave no trace.” Whether you are cutting brush, removing duff, sidehilling, or setting and harvesting rocks, ensure you limit disturbance to the surroundings. This can be especially hard if there are large amounts of duff, and or rocks and roots encountered while sidehilling. If you have the resources, save duff and leaves in neat piles for later use. In some cases you can fling it downslope from the tread, but be careful to rake the leaves back so you can put them back once the duff is moved down.

Best Practices  2 – Mimic the Undisturbed- Erase Your Traces

adding leaves to naturalize a new trailIf you have to restore disturbed areas, try to match the look and feel of undisturbed areas. If you left traces, work to erase your traces. If needed, go as far as adding your saved duff, and collecting extra leaves for bare areas. If you collect leaves, collect them away from trail view. Mimic autumn’s sprinkling of leaves and fallen limbs.

Best Practices 3 – To Plant or Not?

It’s best to stick to practice #1 and 2, but, if needed, plants can be added. Ideally, you should save some of the plants that would have been killed as you cut and opened the trail corridor. Depending on how much trail you are cutting, some plants could be saved and monitored until ready for planting where needed, preferably not far from where you took the plant from the corridor.  Adding plants back into trail setting can be the touch you need make the trail fit into its new home. The greenery can also help  keep hikers on the trail, and away from former trails if they are planted as well. Visually, the bright green against the brown of fallen leaves is attractive.

When the trail is ready for hikers, it should look as if the trail has been there a few years, not a few days. This can be a hard look to achieve depending on the circumstances, mainly how well you followed the best practices above.

If you’d like to try your hand at practicing these steps, we still have a couple of weeks left on the western leg of the Canopus Beach Loop. If you want to learn more about the ins and outs of beautification or of any trail work, check out our Taconic work schedule on the link below.

About Trail Walker

Since 1920, the New York-New Jersey Trail Conference has partnered with parks to create, protect, and promote a network of more than 2,100 miles of public trails in the New York-New Jersey metropolitan region. The Trail Conference organizes volunteer service projects that keep these trails open, safe, and enjoyable for the public. We publish maps and books that guide public use of these trails. The Trail Conference is a volunteer-driven nonprofit organization with a membership of 10,000 individuals and 100 clubs with a combined membership of 100,000 active, outdoor-loving people.
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