To Build a Trail: Routing, Building, Maintaining, and Sustaining our Public Trails
By Ellen Bergan, Land Stewardship Assistant
From our Winter-Spring 2021 issue of The Twig, “The Trails Issue”:
On the day of Sycamore’s 30th birthday celebration this past November, I ventured to our Trevlac Bluffs Nature Preserve in Brown County. As I followed the preserve’s upper Yellowwood Trail through its mixed hardwood forest and along the rugged bluff of eastern hemlocks, I found myself appreciating not only the scenic vistas of the preserve, but characteristics of the trail itself.
Perhaps this shift in focus was incited by the reflective nature of Sycamore’s birthday, or simply by the stewardship mindset my work has inevitably wired into my brain. Regardless of the reason, my focus was drawn towards the small intricacies that defined the trail: The strategic placement of blazes on trees, always ensuring that the next white mark was just within sight; the gentle curve of the path as it followed the land’s contours, its switchback weaving down a hillside and dipping over a creek bed.
Sycamore currently has over 30 miles of trails throughout our preserves that span across southern Indiana. Since the onset of COVID-19, our trails have seen a significant increase in use, and responses to our trail surveys indicate how important these trails have been to people during this difficult time. Even with their significant role in our outdoor accessibility, it’s often hard to conceptualize the immense amount of work that goes into trail creation and upkeep.
Sycamore and Hoosier Hikers Council volunteers work on the Yellowwood Trail reroute at our Trevlac Bluffs Nature Preserve in 2018.
The process of building an enriching, long-lasting trail begins with the land itself. Before we can break out any rakes or shovels, we need to determine the route the trail will take through the area. While this decision involves a multitude of considerations and logistical factors, Pete Banta of the Hoosier Hikers Council sums it best:
“The best hiking trails encourage people to stay on them and water to stay off them.”
When scouting potential trail routes, we look for ways to incorporate interesting features of the landscape that visitors would want to encounter, all while avoiding roads, property boundaries, and potential hazards. At the same time, trails are routed to follow the sides of hills and ridges, making it flatter and easier to walk on. If the trail will pass over ravines or creeks, we look for easy crossings to reduce the need for infrastructure that would require further maintenance.
Incorporating drainage features is essential to the longevity of the trail; allowing the trail to dip and curve lets water flow downhill and mitigates erosion, while also creating a more dynamic hike. With all of these considerations in mind, we flag the general route, walk it again for modifications, and then put up pin flags that follow the topographic contour of the route.
Hoosier Hikers Council volunteers clear the treadway for the trail at Downey Hill in 2014. | Pete Banta
Once the route has been identified and flagged, trail building can begin. Depending on the length and terrain of the trail, this construction process can last several years. Sycamore’s six-mile trail at the Laura Hare Nature Preserve at Downey Hill, built by hard-working members of the Hoosier Hikers Council, took three and a half years to complete. No matter its duration, there are foundational steps that one must take in order to make a well-built trail:
Following the pin flags, clear a treadway of shoulder width:
- Trim vegetation and bushes
- Remove fallen branches, leaf litter, and duff (other types of decaying organic matter) with fire rakes
Cut and shape a level surface with an arsenal of handy tools:
- Recommended gear: shovels, field hoes, McLeods (rakehoe), and Pulaskis (axe-like cutting tool)
- Lessen steep gradients by cutting the trail back and forth up a slope, known as switchbacking
- Create a level hillside tread by “benching,” or digging the trail into the hillside itself
- Build in drainage features that will shed water, such as waterbars
Install blazing and signage in places easily noticed by visitors
Once the trail has been completed, however, the work is far from over. In the wise words of Chris Fox, Sycamore’s Land Stewardship Manager:
“Like a vehicle, without proper maintenance, even the best built trail will eventually become a problem.”
Maintaining a trail means making sure that all components of the path are kept in good condition. Trails need to be cleared of obstructions that can impede its walkability. Paths are regularly mowed or trimmed during the growing season to clear encroaching vegetation, and fallen trees or branches often need to be removed. While most of these arboreal obstructions can be easily moved to the side of the trail, many still require us to haul out a chainsaw to help with clean up. Occasionally, more significant repairs are required to ensure the treadway stays in good shape, such as fixing an erosion issue or repairing a footbridge.
There’s also maintenance to make sure navigational signage stays clear and easy to read. Trail blazes that help hikers stay on the path, either through paint splashes or arrow markers, need to be checked on. Additional trail signage might need to be installed, such as the new “You Are Here” location signs that were put up at several of our preserves this past fall.
One of the biggest lessons I’ve learned from stewardship is to, above all, be flexible and expect daily changes to our plans. The process of packing up all our tools, hiking the trails with our gear in tow, and completing regular maintenance tasks can take a lot of time. We often need to rearrange our schedules when an unexpected trail maintenance issue arises. Some maintenance projects can be much bigger in scope as well. The June 2019 tornado that hit Beanblossom Bottoms required several months of boardwalk repairs and a complete change to our stewardship plans for that summer.
Land Stewardship Manager Chris Fox installs a trail sign at the Laura Hare Nature Preserve at Downey Hill.
Trail work is arduous, time-consuming, and really sweaty. But, we know that the work is worth it. Trails are our way of connecting people to nature and to the mission of Sycamore Land Trust. This past year in particular, we have all become more aware than ever of how important access to natural areas is to our physical and mental health.
However, Sycamore’s trail system would not be possible without the support of dedicated volunteers — from volunteer land stewards that monitor our trails and preserves, to Sycamore’s Trail Ranger group that tackles more complicated trail improvements, to the Hoosier Hikers Council that has built several of Sycamore’s trail systems. We are also incredibly thankful for the donors whose contributions support our land stewardship work.
Trails are hard work, but they reflect the care that we all share for our environment and for each other. Every trail is the result of a complex, continuous effort to ensure that we can continue to experience the natural landscape around us. Recognizing the work behind our trails can lead us to be more perceptive hikers, dedicated stewards, and appreciative of those who help sustain the paths they take us on.
Fresh snow covers the trail at the Laura Hare Nature Preserve at Downey Hill.
Interested in helping with trail work?
The Hoosier Hikers Council is an all-volunteer organization that has been building, maintaining, and promoting natural surface hiking trails in Indiana since 1995. Visit their website hoosierhikerscouncil.org for the most recent updates on volunteer opportunities, or email email@example.com.
Sycamore Land Trust has multiple volunteer stewardship opportunities. Attend future volunteer workdays, become a Trail Ranger or Preserve Steward, or sign up your group for a special work day at a nature preserve. Find updates on opportunities at sycamorelandtrust.org/volunteer, or email firstname.lastname@example.org.