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How to Identify Different Kinds of Trails

Making smart trail choices will help you stay safe and ensure that these special places remain beautiful for future hikers.

Trails offer us adventures to high peaks, exploration to the wildest corners of Washington and relaxation among countless mountain lakes and meadows. They beckon and lead us into wilderness. But not every trail is safe—for us or for the environment. That’s why WTA has compiled a guide to the differences between open, abandoned and closed trails—and everything in between. After all, knowledge is power. And making smart trail choices will help you stay safe and ensure that these special places remain beautiful for future hikers.

gladys divide_ejain.jpeg
Gladys Divide Trail. Photo by ejain.


Developed Trails

Most of the trails you hike are probably considered open and maintained, which means they are sanctioned for use by a land manager and generally receive some level of regular maintenance. While many trails share the “maintained” category, they don’t always look the same.

One maintained trail might be elaborately constructed with wooden stairs, gravel and lots of signage, while another trail may be an overgrown path with limited signage and no footbridges. Regardless of how they look, these trails are designed with people and the environment in mind and are the best choice for travel into wilderness.

Example: Glacier Basin at Mount Rainier (well maintained); Fisher Lake in the Alpine Lakes Wilderness (less maintained)

What should I do? Travel these trails.

Social Trails

Located mainly at camp areas, social trails are often small, foot-wide paths that have an intended destination. These paths typically direct foot traffic to popular water sources, toilets or

firewood and are developed by people’s feet. With social trails, it’s important to stick to the most apparent ones to help keep the number of trails to a minimum. Too many social trails can heavily impact an area.

Example: Trail to Snow Lake toilet in Alpine Lakes Wilderness

What should I do? Travel these trails.

Boot Paths, Way Trails and Scramble Paths

Just like social trails, these trails are formed naturally by years of foot (or hoof) travel. But instead of being constrained to small areas such as campsites, they often involve high country travel routes and paths leading to mountain peaks and lakes. These trails lack the planning of open and maintained trails. They often follow the line of least resistance, which means that they go straight up or down a mountain instead of having switchbacks, and thus are more susceptible to tread widening and erosion. Sometimes boot paths become so popular that land managers must take action and incorporate them into the maintained trail system to reduce erosion and other environmental impacts, as well as to increase user safety.

Example: Original Mailbox Peak Trail in the Middle Fork Snoqualmie Valley

What should I do? Proceed with caution.

Unmaintained and Primitive Trails

Unmaintained and primitive trails are part of the official trail system but haven’t received maintenance in a long time. That doesn’t necessarily mean they won’t receive maintenance at some point in the future. If additional funding becomes available, maintenance can be restored. Because these trails are unmaintained, hikers should be extra-vigilant and watch for common hazards like blowdowns and unsafe terrain.

Example: Notch Pass on the Olympic Peninsula

What should I do? Proceed with caution.

Abandoned Trails

Abandoned trails were once on the maintained trail system but, for one reason or another, have dropped from the official list of “system trails.” Since the trails are no longer in the trail inventory, they do not receive maintenance and likely won’t in the future. Sometimes trails are abandoned because a new and improved trail (and one that meets U.S. Forest Service trail standards) is built in a nearby location. Regardless, hikers should be extra-careful on these trails.

Example: Leroy High Route in Glacier Peak Wilderness

What should I do? Proceed with caution.

Mount Maude and Ice Lakes
Abandoned trails often require good route-finding and navigation skills. Photo of Mount Maude and Ice Lakes by mOuNtAiNeEr51


Bootleg and User-Built Trails

User-built trails are not approved by land managers and have not gone through the proper analyses to ensure they don’t negatively impact the environment or wildlife habitat. These trails usually do not meet land manager trail standards and can create safety issues for hikers. They are sometimes located in places that are less than ideal, including fragile habitat. They are not recommended for hikers.

What should I do? Avoid these trails.

Closed and Decommissioned Trails

Sometimes the Forest Service closes and decommissions trails because they have been relocated to better, more sustainable locations. Other times trails are closed and decommissioned because they didn’t belong there in the first place. Either way, the Forest Service doesn’t want hikers and others traveling on them.

What should I do? Avoid these trails.

Once you know what to look for, identifying trails can become second nature. But identification is just the first step in enjoying a hike that’s safe for you and for the beautiful terrain you’re passing through. Help us increase the number of open and maintained trails in Washington by joining us on a trail work party or lobbying for more funding for your favorite trail. The sky is the limit—or it’ll seem that way when you’ve summited a mountain on an incredible trail that you helped make possible.

An example of a closed trail near Rattlesnake Mountain. Photo by Erik Haugen-Goodman.