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Trail designers use structures in areas that need help to stand up to weather and many boots. Photo by Bob Zimmerman.

From the Start: How WTA’s Trail Designers Create Beautiful, Enjoyable Trails That Last

By Jessi Loerch

New trails don’t just happen. We can’t simply create a line in the dirt from point A to point B. There is an art and a science to how and where trails are built. Long before anyone starts digging in the dirt, WTA experts spend a lot of time creating a plan for a trail that fits the landscape and will meet the needs of those who will use it.

We sat down with some of those experts so they could walk us through what it takes to make a trail plan a reality.

Volunteer etch in a new trail in the forest.
Pin flags, like the ones here on Squak Mountain, help volunteers know exactly where trail designers intend for a trail to go. Photo by Aaron Bredl.

Be ready for a winding path

Alan Carter Mortimer, WTA’s field programs manager and one of our trail designers, has been building trails with WTA for decades. He explains that creating a trail is a process of constant refinement. Each step in the process brings you closer to the final product. Just like a trail, though, the process of creating a trail can be winding, full of switchbacks and false summits.

“My process is iterative; I don’t start point A to point B. My process starts high and each step I do brings me closer and closer,” Alan said.

Understand the goal

Before a trail designer can do any work, they need to really understand the goal of the trail. This begins with a conversation with the land manager — and possibly volunteers or other interested groups — as well as a lot of questions. Where will the trail begin? Where will it end? Is it an out-and-back or a loop? Will it be hiker-only, or will mountain bikers and equestrians also use it?

The information from these discussions helps determine what kind of trail experience users will want — perhaps a peaceful walk to view birds or maybe a challenging hike to a high summit — and that helps guide the rest of the process.

Alan stands on trail with a grub hoe in one hand.
Alan Carter Mortimer is one of WTA’s expert trail designers. Photo by Carol Blunck.

“All those questions start you on that path of decision,” Alan said.

Ryan Ojerio, WTA’s Southwest regional manager and another of our trail designers, spends a lot of time thinking about the goal of a trail, how the trail will be used and how it fits within the larger system. He likes to design trails that have a good flow and that minimize conflicts among users.

He knows that trails are increasingly popular, but if trails are carefully created, they can handle more people. That may mean planning more one-direction loops or separating bike trails from hiker trails to make trails flow more smoothly for each person using them. All of this early work helps guide the plan for a trail.

See the view from space

The next step is to do some remote research. By using GIS mapping software and similar tools, our trail designers can get a good idea of the overall shape of the land. The 3D view helps them begin to visualize what they’ll actually find on the ground.

Get a feel for the terrain

Next, our trail designers head out to the site to get a feel for the area. They pay attention to soil conditions, tree cover, underbrush and many other factors. They begin to consider where it’s possible to put the trail, where the path ideally should go — and where it shouldn’t.

Ryan taking a selfie on trail while wearing his blue hard hat.
Ryan Ojerio designs trails in Southwest Washington. Photo by Ryan Ojerio.

Ryan calls these positive and negative control points. When WTA was doing design work at the Lyle Cherry Orchard site near the Columbia River, for instance, there were several interesting viewpoints along the route to bring the trail to, but also pockets of rare plants to avoid.

When Alan was working on mapping out trails in the Teanaway Community Forest, he knew that he wanted to go past certain cool rock outcroppings. That helped him plot the route for trails.  

Alan also says that this on-the-ground work gives him a real sense of how a trail will actually work.

“On a digital elevation model, I can tell where steep slopes are,” he said. “But I need to see it in person to figure out if a trail will hold up.”

Mark it out

Once our trail designers have a rough idea for the route of the trail, the next step is to begin marking it out, taking into account everything they’ve already considered. They do this by walking the route and hanging brightly colored flags at regular intervals. As they’re creating this “flag line,” there are some trail-building rules of thumb they keep in mind.

Ryan holds a clinometer up to view the grade of a proposed trail reroute.
Using a clinometer, Ryan is able to measure the angle of a slope, which helps him lay out a sustainable trail. Photo by Ryan Ojerio.

Mind the grade: Different types of activities create different impacts on trails. But one thing is universal: as a trail becomes increasingly steep, it becomes less resilient. Steep trails are more fragile because they are prone to erosion, but also because of the abrasion of feet, hooves and wheels. A good rule of thumb is to stay below a 10% grade. Even if trail users don’t mind a steeper trail, the trail designer needs to consider if such a grade will stand up over time — taking into consideration soil type, traffic volume, climate and what resources are available to maintain the trail in the decades to come.

The rule of half: The grade of the trail should be no more than half the grade of the side slope. For instance, if a trail is traversing a side slope with a grade of 12%, the trail itself can only have a grade of up to 6%. This is most important on gentler slopes to avoid creating a trail that climbs too fast for the slope, which leads to erosion issues.

Too steep or too flat: Trails don’t work well on slopes that are too steep — they tend to slump over time and aren’t sustainable. They also don’t work well, however, on very flat surfaces. Over time, water can pool on the trail and repeated use can create deep ruts that are hard to fix.

Where to switchback: If switchbacks are necessary, it’s important to make them long enough that hikers don’t shortcut them and damage the surrounding landscape. Our trail designers will sometimes increase the grade of a trail right before and right after a switchback. When a trail diverges quickly, it discourages folks from taking shortcuts.

Volunteers work amid the trails.
Stumps, rocks and other objects are part of the challenge that WTA volunteers have to work with when building new trails. Photo by Todd Dunfield.

Refine the route

After flagging the trail, our trail designers walk it a few times. They look to see if they like how it feels, and if they’ve missed anything. They make sure the trail has pleasing curves and that the grade varies. Changing the grade has two purposes. It makes the trail more enjoyable to hike (“You don’t want the hiker to feel that they’re on a monotonous march up the mountain,” Alan said) and it gives water a chance to run off, rather than along, the trail. Where the trail dips, water can be channeled off the side slope.

Then our designers begin to make more precise decisions. Sometimes that means sticking smaller flags in the ground to clearly mark where the trail will go. At that point, they decide things like if a stump should be taken out or if the trail can go around it. They decide whether a trail should go above or below specific trees (often they choose above because the tree can help anchor the trail in place). They also mark spots that need a structure built, like a crib wall.

One of Alan’s favorite trail-design projects was Margaret’s Way near Squak Mountain. There was a lot of local interest in the trail, and he laid it out, refining it over and over again until it worked just right.

“It’s one of the trails that stands out because everything clicked,” he said.

Hand it off to the crews

A trail is never created alone. Once Ryan, Alan or any of our trail designers finish up the plan for a project, it’s time for our crew leaders and volunteers to get to work. On Margaret’s Way, for instance, Alan handed off the project in part to Jen Gradisher, who is now WTA’s trail program director. Jen led many volunteer work parties that helped make the trail a reality.

When a trail is finally finished, it’s exciting for everyone, but especially those folks who worked on it from the beginning.

“I love going back,” Alan said. “It’s funny how much you remember. I’ll remember a turn and trying to lay it out. Or I’ll remember a wet spot. … It’s so much work, but when it’s done, it’s really exciting. It’s a good sense of accomplishment.”

A sheet of paper with notes on trail design and plenty of dirt smudges.
When planning trails, designers work with the crew leaders for the project to help them understand the plan, including any structures that are necessary. Photo by Nate Schmidt.

Building leadership skills

Part of what makes it possible for WTA to get so much work done all across the state is our amazing volunteer crew leaders and assistant crew leaders. All year long, we offer chances to support these leaders and help them develop their skills — both at technical trail work and at working with and mentoring volunteers. 

In addition, these leaders come together once a year for Crew Leader College to learn new skills and connect with other volunteers. We’re excited for all the chances for learning and mentorship that Crew Leader College makes possible.

At Crew Leader College, leaders will get hands-on practice in skills such as building trail structures. We also give volunteers a chance to practice, on trail, their skills in supporting an inclusive community. Volunteer leaders get to work through scenarios of exclusionary behavior, and practice interrupting that behavior to ensure everyone’s mental and physical safety.

This article originally appeared in the Summer 2022 issue of Washington Trails Magazine. Support trails as a member of WTA to get your one-year subscription to the magazine.