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What Could the Future of Trails Look Like?

Posted by Rachel Wendling at Jan 25, 2022 08:36 AM |
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WTA’s trail team has been thinking about what it means to create the trail system of the future, and three of our staff members shared their hopes. Their thoughts show the importance of three key priorities: create more trails and accessible greenspace, innovate trail layouts and redesigns to improve hikers’ experiences on trails, and find ways to help people feel safe and welcome in the outdoors.

WTA’s trail team has been thinking about what it means to create the trail system of the future, and three of our staff members shared their hopes. Their thoughts show the importance of three key priorities: create more trails and accessible greenspace, innovate trail layouts and redesigns to improve hikers’ experiences on trails, and find ways to help people feel safe and welcome in the outdoors.

Meeting the needs of trail users in a rapidly growing area

by Holly Weiler

Recent data from the U.S. Census Bureau indicates the Spokane area is among the fastest growing population regions in the nation. At the same time, less than 10% of Spokane County is public land. Fortunately, local land managers and nonprofit organizations are working hard to secure more open space, protecting it for both conservation and recreation.

Many of WTA’s local projects occur on new Spokane County Parks land protected through the Conservation Futures Program. As new parks are added, local stakeholder groups join a planning process to help determine where new recreational trails will be located. Then WTA’s many volunteers help make those plans a reality! Over the course of the past few years, WTA volunteers have helped create new trails at Liberty Lake, Antoine Peak, Mica Peak and the Dishman Hills.

Balsamroot flowers blooming along the Antoine Peak trail.
Yellow balsamroot blooms at Antoine Peak. Photo by Holly Weiler.

Spokane County is also home to the two largest state parks in Washington, Mount Spokane and Riverside, both of which have their own robust and growing trail systems. One of our new trail projects in 2021 was starting work on a new, approximately 3-mile connector trail at Mount Spokane State Park.

WTA volunteers have also been working hard to make improvements to existing trails, but the bulk of our work within Spokane County over the last several years has been new trail construction to meet the needs of a fast-growing hiker (and biker and equestrian) community.

Holly Weiler is WTA’s Eastern Washington regional coordinator. She spends a lot of time, both in and out of work, on the trails all around Spokane and beyond. She’s helping lead efforts to build a strong trail system that can stand up to the needs of a growing population.

Building a safe and inclusive trail system in a changing world

by Moleek Busby

The future of trails is culturally diverse. We are designed to be a multicultural social experiment in the United States. The numbers from the census show, in Washington and across America, that that is true. And that is an affirmation for the inclusion work we’ve been doing at WTA. But it also makes it clear that we are going to see some conflicts on trail.

As someone who works in risk management, it’s part of my job to think outside of my circle a little. At WTA, we’ve begun tracking information about incidents of exclusion at our trail work events. There’s value simply in having that knowledge, and in understanding what’s happening. Then we can share the information with our staff and volunteers and help them make things better for the future. It may mean giving our trail crews the skills to negotiate a conflict, and giving them the tools to know when to simply walk away from a threatening experience.

A narrow trail shrouded by fog, surrounded by evergreen trees on either side.
Photo by Evan Heitman.

Beyond WTA, it can mean how we reach out across the state and going to communities — and not just to White people — to help build a more welcoming trail community. I’d love to see more pop ups at trailheads, with ambassadors from local communities. They could share information, and also get information from hikers about what their experiences have been. 

Listening to hikers and understanding what is happening can help us make trails safer and more welcoming. Really, the goal is to highlight the fact that Washington state is ethnically growing, and not just ethnically — all types of marginalized people are showing up to recreate outdoors. And this learning and listening is a way of acknowledging that we’ve got work to do.

It can also mean looking at things as seemingly simple as trail names. It’s really interesting that we have so many Native American names of towns and counties in our state, but not of trails. I’d like to see more efforts to reconsider the names of trails. In my big goal, I envision a Harriet Tubman Trail in every state.

The nation collected data that shows how diverse we are. We have that data, and we have to better serve those communities that are rising up and want to recreate outdoors. We have to get the message out there that the outdoors are for them. We’ve seen a bigger growth during the pandemic in terms of folks getting outside — it shows what the future could be. But it has to be very intentional.

Moleek Busby is WTA’s field operations senior manager. A big part of his job is thinking about risk management, and helping crews and volunteers be safe on trail. And he is passionate about advocating for marginalized people to have ownership in their space, and to feel safe while volunteering and recreating on public lands. He has been thinking about what the census data means for the people who use trails. And he’s thinking about how we can create a world where trails reflect the people who are going there, and where everyone feels safe and welcome.

Building a trail system that works for everyone

by Ryan Ojerio

How do we build a trail system for the future that works for everyone, from hikers to mountain bikers to equestrians? In some areas, the answer is to share the trails. But as we plan for the future, we should also think about sharing the landscape.

Most of the trail systems we have, however, were not designed with multiple activities in mind. Often trails are there because they used to go to a fire lookout, or perhaps they provide access to a popular fishing area. That may mean some trail users are making do with trails that don’t quite work for their needs and they are encountering people using the same trail in a different way, such as going at a different speed or direction. When we build new trails or rework a trail system, we have the chance to build something better for the future.

Field of wildflowers next to a dirt trail overlooking layers of mountains in the distance.
Photo by Caleb Ely.

A modern trail system could identify specific areas for different activities, and tailor the layout and design to offer the best possible experience for that activity. With thoughtful design, it may be possible to create an intuitive flow of people through the system with a minimum of use restrictions. Rather than telling people where they can or can’t go, offer a diversity of “habitats” and people engaged in similar activity types will naturally find themselves among others mostly going in the same direction at a similar speed.

The two approaches aren’t mutually exclusive. We can have a blended trail system where different users interact in some areas, but also have trails that are single use. And of course, some trails will remain multi-use and it’s important for all users to be thoughtful about sharing the trail.

But creating some trail systems that are separated by activity would have many benefits, including allowing more users to get into a “flow” state — a feeling of full focus and enjoyment in an activity — more easily. A hiker or biker having to pause and negotiate how to pass effectively has to temporarily leave that flow state — no matter how positive the interaction.

One of our goals is to create space for people to enjoy the mental health benefits of being outdoors, and with that in mind, we can look at new trail systems in a different way.

Ryan Ojerio is WTA’s Southwest regional manager. He’s been thinking for years about how to make the future of trails work well for all users — no matter how they prefer to get out on trails. And that means thinking beyond individual trails to how trail networks function across entire landscapes.

This article originally appeared in the Winter 2021 issue of Washington Trails Magazine. Support trails as a member of WTA to get your one-year subscription to the magazine.