How To Get Started (Trail Project Basics)

How to Get Started Building a Trail

Creating a trail is something you can probably do right now with the resources around you.

A trail of any kind doesn’t need to wait on a committee or agency to get it going. Trails have been created hundreds of times in Alabama. There’s no need to reinvent ways to establish a trail. Consider this an explanation of trail creation. When you know what to expect, trail creation becomes a manageable project and can be an enjoyable endeavor. And even if it involves hard work and perseverance, we all dream of the rewards awaiting at the end of the trail. Consider these tips:

Think about the characteristics of the trail you want and plan accordingly:

  1. Where is the trailhead? A trailhead is the place that provides access to a trail. A trailhead customarily provides parking, but popular enhancements include trail map signs, water, shade, and a place to sit and rest. A water trail (or blueway) usually begins in one place and ends in another because of the flow of water, so two points of access—a put-in and a take-out—will probably be needed. A hiking or biking trail is normally going to end up where it begins, so one point of access is commonly required. But the water trail isn’t likely to require ongoing maintenance, and natural trails will. Wherever your trailhead will be located, your first task if probably going to be securing permission to use it from whomever owns or operates it.
  1. Who will you need to seek permission from? Blueways often begin and end under a bridge or at a public ramp. Finding out who owns the access to a bridge or ramp can be discovered with a phone call or two. Once in the water and between the banks, you don’t need any permission to be on a stream or river in Alabama. Doing the same for a land-based trail will be a different experience, as you will need to identify and contact every owner of every parcel of land that your trail will cross. This can involve as few as a single landowner in the case of a large holding by a single person or organization or a city or county, or it may involve hundreds of people. A trip to the courthouse to view the area’s property maps to figure out the names and addresses of property owners.
  1. What is the trail designed to do?
    1. Does it provide exercise for area citizens?
    2. Does it provide an overlook of a wide area?
    3. Does it provide the opportunity to pursue one or more sports?
    4. Does it tie together different experiences, educational opportunities, or connect parts of the community together?
    5. Does it promote activities for adults, children, and disabled users?
  1. Before you widely discuss the need to a trail, it is a good idea to have a firm grip on what the expectations of a trail like yours will be. Grants and funding normally come with various strings attached as to accessibility and user choices. If there is a steep, challenging portion, is there away around it for less determined users? Will it answer the needs of the entire community, or a specialized group of users? Ask community planners what the expectations of your planned trail will be from the point of view of the organizations that you will ask to support it. If you don’t do this up front, you may have a problem when you want the community aligned behind you. Will your trail be self-guided (a user can know and navigate the trail and its features because they are obvious or are pointed out with signs along the route), map-guided (users can receive or download and print a map of your trail and the vicinity) or human-guided (users must hire a personal guide or go in a group with a leader)? Whichever it is, be prepared to have guidance in place on opening day and make it available to the public during open meetings during the development of your trail.
  1. Find or create a “Friends-Of group for your trail. Be prepared to find or create a group before you are done, even if one does not exist in the beginning. This may be one of the most important tasks on your agenda. A “Friends-Of” group is going to be essential in getting governments and other organizations behind what you are doing. If your idea takes off, you won’t have time to get a group started when you need it most. Interest and focus will drift away and your project will languish. Be proactive in getting your group together. When you are selling your idea to others, a group of friends will likely be a requirement, not an option. Many grants will ask for details on the groups behind your project.
  1. Sell your idea to the citizens and government in your area. Going before a committee, board, county commission or city government will be an essential part of the development of your trail. They will want to know your friends group. They will want to see and hear how your idea will benefit the community. They will want to know how your project will include the greatest number of people. It is not unusual, once the plan has been presented, for a municipal government or county to pass a resolution of support or issue a letter of support for such a project. Without letters of support from the stakeholders of a community, acquiring funding will likely be impossible.
  1. Where will your trail take the user? Understand the experience your trail will provide the user, and who the user of your trail might potentially be. Is it exclusively, or mainly, for athletic young people? Is it a good place for seniors to exercise? Does it have nearby amenities such as bathrooms, water and benches that make it family-friendly? Does it route the user through interesting parts of the community or, better yet, provide an alternate route to a place people commonly visit?
  1. What will people learn from your trail? The most significant contribution to the community that most trails can make is getting people out of doors where they can enjoy nature. But there are other important aspects of traveling through a community or the outdoors. Uncover the food, music, history, prehistory, geology and heritage of an area and educate visitors to your trail. You will gain much more momentum for your project with each cultural dimension that you add.
  1. How will your trail challenge the user? This is a very important aspect of trail creation. The elevation changes, stream crossings, surface materials, road crossings, roots and boulders—to name but a few—can created challenges, hazards and obstacles along your trail. Some of these will be welcomed by your users, and other may find that they make your project impassable. It is important to know which of these challenges can be avoided and how they can be avoided. Whatever they are, don’t sugar-coat them in selling your trail. Factor obstacles in to your pitch, and be honest about the time, distance and types of surfaces the user will encounter. If an improvement is actually planned, it’s fair to mention it. But don’t let anything be part of the sales pitch to the community if it isn’t going to be available on opening day.
  1. How will people find your trail? You can only call your job finished when a someone who doesn’t live near your trail can find it. Your thoughts and considerations about way finding must leave the trail and stretch into the surrounding communities. People must be able to find your trail in order to use it. Trails have become such an important part of our lives that visitors will see mention of your trail with the expectation that if they are near it, they can find it. Don’t leave this important link open. Get with public and private property owners to make sure that potential users can navigate easily to your trailhead.

Frequently Asked Questions about trail creation

  1. Is there a suggested outline to follow for trail creation?
    If your trail is going to go through a natural area owned by one or a few benevolent private parties or one or two agencies or governments, your job will be considerably easier than a trail that involves many landowner permissions. A good strategy to consider is to break your project into segments and start where you can get permission easily.
  1. Where should I look for funding?
    The better you can marshal the evidence that your trail will improve community life, and even bring visitors (think tourism) to gather in your community, the better your case will be to ask your community for help. The Alabama Department of Economic and Community Affairs (ADECA) operates the state’s Recreational Trails Program (RTP) with more information at ADECA staff can advise you of other opportunities as well. Before you get too far with your request, be sure to discuss the various requirements for each opportunity and consider your ability to meet them. If your organization will handle public funds, you may need to either form or partner with a 501(c)(3) nonprofit association. If you already are a 501(c)(3) nonprofit association or have access to a partnership with one, you may need a sponsoring governmental agency, such as a city or county, to successfully apply for your grant.
  1. How long does it usually take to create a trail?
    Obviously, the answer to this question has much more to do with the type and the length of trail you want to create than anything else. But some things won’t change no matter how long your trail is. It will probably take you only a few weeks to get on the agenda at city and county meetings because they meet regularly and often have flexible times. Meeting with corporate or private parties may take much longer. If you work with a foundation, it may take up to a year to get a meeting set up. Likewise, applying for a grant may take only a day, but you may have to wait for months to find out if it has been awarded to your project. The fewer entities you deal with, the faster the process is likely to be.
  1. What does it cost to create a trail?
    Again, this depends on the length and type of trail. A lighted, paved urban walking track will probably cost several hundred thousands of dollars per mile. An off-road vehicle track will be in the neighborhood of $40,000 per mile. Blueways can be established for under $1000 per mile, and walking trails on city-owned property could cost as little as the signs to direct travelers on them. Don’t forget that there is more involved in a trail than paid services. Cities, counties and some businesses own heavy equipment and usually employ people who know how to operate it. If they support your project, they can provide services at a reduced rate or at no charge. This type of support is called “in kind goods and services” and may be used as the matching part in certain grants that require a match.
  1. Who can help me plan and build a trail?
    Try to get help from all the parties that are going to matter over the life of your trail: you, your friends group, property owners, city and county governments, corporations and agencies. Involve law enforcement and do not attempt to create anything they will not support and agree to patrol. Local volunteer organizations, community and municipal support are almost essential to perform maintenance. A woodland trail may be free with volunteer labor, but will need that labor to return every year or so to keep it clear. Ongoing maintenance is a requirement of many grants, and if you do not have the funds to pay for it, you must make a convincing case that you can keep an organization together to perform maintenance for some specified time in the future. There is a lot of guidance and experience available within the partnerships of the Alabama Trails Commission. Do not hesitate to call on the ATC to help get your project off the ground. Their various agencies and stakeholder groups can provide valuable assistance.
  1. What are some of the kinds of trails I can consider?
    The stakeholders of the Alabama Trails Commission comprise a wide spectrum of trail uses, including multiple combinations of the following:

    1. Woodland hiking trails
    2. Urban and suburban walking trails
    3. Park trails
    4. Mountain biking trails
    5. Road biking trails
    6. Paddle trails (blueways)
    7. Greenways
    8. Off-highway vehicle trails
    9. Horse trails
    10. Rails-to-trails (abandoned railroad rights-of-way turned into various types of trails)