The Ups & Downs of Trail Design

By Seth Young on June 26, 2017.
The job of recreational engineering is not one of building trails into lovely country, but of building receptivity into the yet unloving human mind.
Aldo Leopold
As I began my term of service as the Trails Coordinator for Polk County, I had little idea what kinds of projects I would be taking on over the next 11 months.  I was excited to find out that one project I would be tasked with was beginning to design and construct a trail system as part of the Polk County Recreation Complex, onto the south-facing side of Little White Oak Mountain, behind the middle school.
I began by looking over maps to try and gain some initial understanding for the lay of the land as well as property boundaries.  After this initial bit of studying, I hit the ground with nothing but my dog, a map, and a roll of flagging tape.  I knew that my goal was to create a multi-use loop trail, about a mile long, capable of being hiked or pedaled by middle schoolers who were just beginning their interest in outdoor adventures.  
As is the case with all things related to trails, there is much more to the way a trail is designed than the casual user will ever know.  I quickly realized that I would have to put my indecisiveness aside if I ever wanted to complete this initial mile of flagging.  Designing a trail is comprised of thousands of small decisions- Should it go to the left or the right of this tree?  Is this too steep?  Will the trail be too narrow between these two trees?
People may ask, what is the big deal? Why does it take so much thought and design to make a simple path through the woods?  The answer is water.  It is the basis for all life on Earth and archnemesis of every trail on Earth.  We’ve all hiked one of those trails that has massive ruts and transforms  into class 4 whitewater every time there is a major rain event.  Those trails are not only unpleasant to hike, but also deposit large amounts of sediment into our precious waterways, having negative effects on the delicate ecology of those systems.
All of those bad sections of trail you’ve hiked almost certainly could have been avoided with a little more planning and better design.  Some of the basic trail design principles to avoid water wreaking havoc on a trail are : avoiding grades steeper than 10%, designing the trail on a side slope so water flows across the trail, having a curvilinear design so that water is deposited off the trail at low points, avoid low-lying flat sections of land and so on.  
Obviously, you have to work with what you’ve got and sometimes undesirable sections are unavoidable.  This is where sets of stairs, bog bridges, or other structures sometimes come in.  One section of the trail I was designing followed a flat section of land along the south branch of Little White Oak Creek.  I flagged out the trail where I thought looked good.  I then came back a few weeks later after a major rain storm and a section of 50 feet or so was covered in standing water.  For me, this initial trail design experience involved a lot of this type of trial and error.  
This trail system that we’ve begun developing as part of the Recreation Complex  is on land directly adjacent to a 1,068 acre tract that was recently purchased by Carolina Mountain Land Conservancy and Pacolet Area Conservancy (two organizations who consolidate on July 7 to form Conserving Carolina).  There have been discussions of adding 300 acres to the Recreation Complex and up to 600 acres to the Green River Gamelands.   There is enormous potential for a recreational trail system in this area and it will be exciting to see how this project evolves in the coming years.