The best trails share three basic characteristics.

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The best trails share three basic characteristics.

#1 Post by john » Sat Nov 08, 2003 8:40 am

"Engineering alone doesn't ensure building of good trails
PATH TO SUCCESS: The best trails share three basic chara

On the wrong path?

Anchorage Daily News

(Published: November 2, 2003)

In 1995, volunteers helped build a new trail to Flattop, the most climbed peak in Alaska. (Photo by Evan R. Steinhauser / Anchorage Daily News archive 1995)

The high point of the Resurrection Pass Trail on the Kenai Peninsula is a wide-open landscape filled with blueberry bushes and bordered by a trailside stream.

A huge rock alongside the Gold Mint Trail at Hatcher Pass creates an ideal place to climb up and enjoy the view.

Scenes like these "just make us feel good," said trail planner Troy Scott Parker. Parker, the owner of Natureshape Trail Design in Boulder, Colo., delivered that message a few weeks ago to 2003 Alaska Trails Conference participants interested in preserving trails, and creating new ones, throughout the state.

Parker is a willowy guy, articulate and passionate about his work. His business name, Natureshape, is an extension of his belief that the liveliest trails, places we are naturally drawn to, have a few key elements that make them successful.

"Nature itself has a shape," Parker said. "It's never the same shape twice and you can't write an equation for it, yet it's instantly recognizable and profoundly shapes our feelings. That's the entire reason we go on trails -- for the experience, for how the landscape makes us feel."


Alaska trails vary from open roads for all-terrain vehicles to narrow single-track paths ideal for hikers and mountain bikers. Parker's belief is that a trail's technical aspects -- placement for best water run-off, manageable grades for climbing and easy access to trail heads, among others -- are necessities trail planners must consider.

But, at the same time, they mustn't engineer the life out of a trail. Parker's passion is, simply, the esthetics of a wilderness path -- the above-and-beyond details that make a trail not only functional but memorable.

"He's got some really interesting ideas," said Kevin Meyer, a soils scientist with the National Park Service. A lot of them are common sense, he said, but others require attention to what it means to be outside.

Creating a lovely-to-experience trail is not easy, Parker said, and utilitarian Alaskans may find that idea distracting if the objective is to simply get from Point A to Point B.

However, even the simplest trail can be fun too, he said.

Lindsay Winkler of the Homer Soil & Water Conservation District, one of the presenters at the conference, said trail advocates in her area -- Cook Inlet Keeper, Snomads and the National Park Service's Rivers, Trails and Conservation Assistance Program -- are doing just that.

Winkler presented details on an inexpensive trail-hardening method being used near Caribou Lake that not only allows four-wheeler access to the wet area but reduces fire danger by using cleared-out beetle-killed spruce trees that already litter the area.

"We like it because we are removing dead trees and using local resources," Winkler said. Plus, she added, it's only $5 per linear foot to install.

The project consists of locally milled spruce trees, which are made into boards, attached to log sills and nailed into place on both ends. The effect is a long, rough-hewn boardwalk that can sustain the weight of all-terrain vehicles bound for hunting or private land parcels near the lake.

"I was just out there a couple of days ago, and it is just beautiful," Winkler said. "There are wetland pools out there and places where the boardwalk winds in through the tress. That is an area where I have been stuck before, and now it's a leisurely ride. That area used to be a huge mud puddle, and now it's a single path."


Successful trails share some basic characteristics, but Parker refuses to believe that a trail must be highly engineered. In fact, he said, overly engineered trails often convey an artificial feel that makes them less inviting.

"Every trail has a context, and that context is defined by the people who use it, the purpose of the trail, the type of environment, the forces that people are exerting on the trail, the types of trail use, the local ecology and many, many other aspects," he said. "There are so many different contexts, and what works in one context may not in another. I thought there must be something deeper, something simpler. So I went looking for the deep invariant thing, and found the concept of a natural shape."

Good trails have a natural shape, Parker said, as if laid there by chance, not by builders using straight edges. Even trails built with metal grids and wooden planks needn't be linear.

"I don't believe a trail must be highly designed to be successful," he said. "Even without conscious 'design,' a trail can work if it resolves the various forces in its context. And some highly designed trails have failed because they failed to resolve the forces between human psychology, trail use, site features, ecology, etc."

Good trails often gravitate toward interesting vistas, scenic outcroppings, massive trees and other interesting natural landscapes. Parker labels the three elements of an interesting trail "anchors," "edges" and "gateways."

• Anchors can be a large rock perched alongside a trail or a twisted mass of trees around which a trail must cross -- anything that encourages the user to keep walking to see what's around the corner. Anchors often come naturally, like open areas that offer sweeping views, or they can be manufactured, such as bridges over streams or the occasional bench.

• Edges are "just an extended anchor," Parker said. Streams and rivers form interesting edges alongside trails. Lakeside trails that skirt the water have peaceful edges. Some trails are edged with rocks, fences or wildflowers. All of these elements can give a natural feel to a trail, making it intrinsically more pleasing than an arrow-straight trail that bisects an open field or a paved pathway.

• "Gateways mark a point in a trail's existence," Parker said, when referring to the third element of a successful trail. These gateways can be subtle, such as routing a trail between two big trees or built, such as a bridge with fanned-out side rails at a trail head.

Every trail will provide its own natural tendencies, Parker said, and he urged conference-goers not to turn his advice into yet another science.

"Our challenge is to figure out how can we bring life to trails while still achieving our management objectives for each trail," Parker said. "And that's often very simple. The most lively, satisfying trails are always shaped with -- and woven through -- natural shape, edges, anchors and gateways."

Daily News reporter Melissa DeVaughn can be reached at

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