Trail Building – AMC Outdoors

January 8, 2004

AMC Outdoors, January/February 2002

By Michael Lanza

Though the ground may be deep beneath a layer of snow right now, trail planners are spending the winter hard at work. In our trail-laden region, the notion of cutting a new path is somewhat foreign. But two new ones — the 10-mile Bold Coast Trail through the Cutler Coast Public Reserve in Maine’s Washington County and the 42-mile loop under construction in the Grafton Notch area of western Maine — offer an instructive lesson to anyone who’s ever thought about building a trail. It’s not an easy proposition.

The Bold Coast Trail boasts more than 2,500 linear feet of bog bridge — that’s nearly a half-mile total, or 5 percent of the trail. And all of the wood for those bridges was flown in using National Guard helicopters. The Grafton Notch Trail, the first new trail built by the AMC in 25 years, aims to steer some traffic in this popular area away from the Appalachian Trail. It is being cut through notoriously rugged mountains whose steep slopes are riddled with ledges, ramping up the cost. Work on it began in 2000, and crews from the AMC and Maine Appalachian Trail Club (MATC) hope to finish by 2004.

Constructing a new trail can get very expensive and require a lot of labor. But if you’ve got a hankering to build a trail on your own land, want to know more about trail construction and maintenance so that you can help out as a volunteer, or are simply curious about how the trails you enjoy are constructed and kept up, the following tips will start you on the path to knowledge. They come from two people responsible for overseeing the Grafton Notch Trail’s birth and, between them, hundreds of miles of other Northeast footpaths.

As the AMC’s Manager of White Mountain Trails, Andrew Norkin organizes maintenance of 105 trails that span 350 miles in the Whites and Mahoosucs. Steve Spencer, recreation specialist with the Maine Bureau of Parks and Lands, manages some 200 miles of trail in Maine’s public reserves, including popular hiking destinations like Bigelow Mountain and the Mahoosucs.

Tricks of the Trade
Running water is Public Enemy Number One to trails. Designing, building, and maintaining a trail, says Norkin, “is all about controlling erosion.”

“Our soils are radically different from western soils, and our construction techniques are different,” Spencer says. “We have an organic layer that holds water, takes foot traffic poorly, falls apart quickly, and can turn into goo.”

Consider the Grafton Notch Trail, which will incorporate eight existing miles of the Appalachian Trail between Old Speck and East Baldpate Mountains, and pass over scenic peaks like Sunday River/Whitecap and Bald Mountain. Besides finding a route through steep terrain, the AMC and the MATC have to site the trail to discourage water from draining down it. The trail will inevitably cross many wet areas, where step stones or log bridges will be used to keep hikers from turning the trail into a mud bog. “It is very challenging, because you want to protect the environment, make sure water [runs off] in the best way,” Norkin says.

The Grafton Loop Trail has been very costly to construct due to the harshness of the terrain, says Norkin. “The Mahoosucs are steep, heavily vegetated, and require a lot of drainage and other structures be installed due to the wet climate,” he says. Trail planners estimate construction of a new mile of trail costs about $10,000 per mile. In one case on this trail, Norkin explains, the cost per mile of trail is approaching $20,000. “Thankfully, the AMC and the MATC have a core of volunteers and have recruited others who give their time and thereby help defray the costs,” he says.

Stage One: Planning the Trail
Norkin answers many phone calls in his Pinkham Notch, N.H., office from people seeking advice on building a trail on private land.

“The first thing I say is plan ahead and prepare,” he says. “Folks are eager to jump in and start cutting, they’re not careful to lay out that trail. Trail layout is the most critical aspect. You’re identifying where the potential problems are going to be in the future.” He also refers people to trail-construction guidebooks and other experienced trail builders, or suggests they hire a consultant.

Beginning from scratch with a new trail is “when things are at their best,” Spencer says. He’ll inventory the landscape, decide which features the trail should visit and which features should be avoided. He’ll try to “capture everything that landscape has to offer,” he says. “In the old days, all people were interested in was getting to the top of the mountain and down as quickly as possible. Now we try to see everything a mountain has to offer. Sometimes it’s as exciting walking under a cliff as atop it. The trail should capture all of the senses.”

Don’t set unrealistic goals. “You don’t want a trail at every known scenic spot, nor can you put in a trail everywhere,” Norkin says. Be aware of laws, regulations, and permit requirements, which are less rigorous on private land than public land but exist nonetheless. Secure landowner permission. Avoid critical wildlife habitat.

Figure out where water drainage could pose problems and build in erosion-control devices immediately.

“Lay down your bog bridges in advance of your problem, don’t wait for it to show the wear before putting the bridges there,” Spencer says. “You’ve got to design [the trail] to work from an engineering perspective as well as an aesthetic perspective. We don’t have to go anyplace in a straight line.”

Stage Two: Building the Trail
Once the route is determined, crews begin the hard work of creating the treadway, or the ground where hikers walk. That entails stripping off the organic top layer, where living things grow, because it readily turns to mud. Bringing the treadway down to the mineral soil—the sand and gravel layer beneath the organic layer—helps encourage water drainage. Then the erosion-control devices are built in, their location determined during planning. Those “trail-hardening” tools generally include step stones, stone staircases, water bars, and bog bridges.

A water bar is a log or rock that diverts water, preventing it from running down the trail and creating an unsightly trench. The water bar is always set at an angle to the trail, and the less sharp the angle—that is, the closer to 180 degrees and farther from 90 degrees—the more readily the water bar will flush debris instead of clogging, Spencer says. Hikers can help fight erosion by removing debris from a clogged water bar whenever they notice it.

Where large rocks are available in consistently wet areas, step stones are laid along a trail so that hikers’ boots don’t accelerate erosion. In low, wet ground, stone isn’t always readily available, so bog bridges made of logs are built instead. While logs will eventually rot and need replacing, they also “float” better on wet ground than rocks. Water does flow through boggy areas, albeit slowly, so you don’t want the bog bridges to act like a dam, which is why they’re usually elevated on shorter logs at 90-degree angles to the bridge.

Stone staircases are used in steep sections of trail to prevent erosion from foot traffic. Without one, hikers may pioneer a route around an obstacle. Make sure those stones aren’t too big: Hikers tend to walk around steps much higher than eight inches. Low stone, or scree, walls help discourage hikers from leaving the trail.

Lastly, switchbacks make a trail easier on hikers’ legs, but to some hikers they can seem to make a trail too long, and seeing the trail above tends to encourage people to cut off a switchback. Spencer advises using foliage strategically so that hikers cannot see through switchbacks.

“When hikers do things that we’d rather they didn’t, it’s often because of poor [trail] design and construction,” Spencer says. “The hardest thing to get hikers to do is to walk through that mud puddle instead of around it.”

Michael Lanza is author of The Ultimate Guide to Backcountry Travel, from AMC Books.

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