A Path to Success: How to Design Engaging Trails that Connect People with Nature

Public trails, when thoughtfully designed, are excellent for recreation and environmental education. By integrating unique features and a variety of amenities on trails, users can enjoy an elevated experience that inspires a connection with nature. And with travel to the trailhead typically as the only cost, trails promote environmental justice by providing accessible recreation opportunities for all socioeconomic groups.

Following, Dudek’s landscape architects outline seven steps for designing trails that integrate recreation with restoration to delight users while minimizing risks.

1. Outline Your Goals and Needs

Effective trail design begins with a clear vision of what you’d like to achieve and how you’ll get there. Think about how the project will be funded and whether that will impact the schedule. Engage the community and seek input from a range of outdoor enthusiasts, such as mountain bikers, electric-bikers, hikers, equestrians, pedestrians, and wheelchair users. Potential trail users can inform your goals and needs, and even help to identify funding sources. Engaging and inclusive site amenities, like rest areas, educational signage, and accessibility features, should also be considered in the initial visioning.

2. Enlist Experts to Support Your Trail Design

Utilizing experts throughout the trail design process results in technically sound designs, accurate scheduling, and time savings. When selecting project support, you’ll want to include a variety of specialists.

Additionally, geomorphologists, hydrologists, stormwater specialists, or arborists may be included to address site-specific conditions.

3. Evaluate Opportunities and Constraints

Once you understand your needs, assemble a team of experts, and plan your trail alignment, you can evaluate the opportunities and constraints of the proposed route. A landscape architect will lead the team in performing a trail alignment analysis, which will require conducting one or more site investigations, obtaining up-to-date topographic surveys, classifying and mapping vegetation, and locating sensitive areas. Your landscape architect will keep in mind site conditions and characteristics, such as soil types and infiltration, hydrology and hydraulics, key views and desired experiences, and erosion potential, in addition to trail feasibility. The opportunities and constraints analysis provides essential insights for designing a trail that harmonizes with its surroundings and optimizes benefits for trail users.

A professional landscape architect will conduct site investigations to support trail alignment analysis.

4. Develop a Conceptual Design

Using findings from the opportunities and constraints analysis, you’ll then work with experts to develop a conceptual design that incorporates trail components and considers factors like:

  • Whether any segments need to be decommissioned or are in need of habitat restoration
  • Trail access points, signage amenities, key views, and other unique user experiences
  • Sensitive resources like existing native trees and wetlands
  • Creeks and road crossings
  • Trail steepness and directional facing of segments
  • Trail grading and how water will drain from the alignment

The conceptual design process sometimes requires multiple trail alignment analyses, as each alignment may present positive or negative traits or pose different levels of construction feasibility. An alternatives analysis proposes various routes and identifies a preferred alternative that might consist of elements from multiple alternatives.

Involving the community during this step helps determine the preferred trail alignment. Once the concept is established, the design can be submitted for regulatory agency approval.

5. Finalize the Detailed Design

Following conceptual design approval, landscape architects will collaborate with you to finalize a detailed design tailored to site-specific conditions. For instance, they might use a nature-based design approach, using logs, boulders, and other existing materials on the site, when designing retaining walls and switchbacks. During this stage, you will also finalize any amenities, like kiosks, benches, and trash receptacles.

Landscape architects may use a nature-based design approach, to incorporate logs, boulders, or other existing materials on the site to blend built and natural environment.

6. Prepare and Submit Trail Construction Documents

Once the detailed design is complete, the design team can prepare precise construction documents, including plans, details, and specifications. Plans and details convey the trail’s physical characteristics and amenities, while specifications prescribe how everything will be installed, including any applicable standards, necessary materials, and other construction requirements.

Once the construction documents are complete, they can be submitted for local and regulatory agency review and approval. Don’t forget to account for the permitting and environmental compliance process in your schedule! Permits may require approval from both federal and state environmental regulatory agencies, as well as your local city or county planning, community development, or building departments. Environmental compliance requires clearance through the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) for projects with federal funding, or your state’s environmental protection policies. All permits must be completed before bidding and construction can take place.

7. Build and Maintain the Trail

Once your construction documents and permits are approved, it’s time to break ground! For optimal results, hire a qualified contractor who can work closely with your landscape architecture team, so that the trail designer can be on-site to:

  • Provide field oversight, field adjustments, and adaptive management
  • Conduct field observations for conformance with the plans and specifications
  • Provide construction milestone reviews
  • Grant provisional acceptance of construction progress and completion
  • Prepare trail as-built drawings

Once construction is complete, establish a maintenance and monitoring program to support long-term success and sustainability. This can be achieved by working with habitat restoration specialists and landscape maintenance and management partners who can provide resource protection, remedial planting and seeding, irrigation, erosion control services, and long-term adaptability.

Get Started with Dudek’s Trail Design Experts

We include intriguing elements, like boardwalks and observation decks, and utilize our in-house creative artists to design educational and interpretive graphics that convey the environmental context of the surroundings. Our landscape architects have decades of experience designing paved and unpaved trails throughout California, including:

Northern California
Southern California

Dudek’s landscape architecture and habitat restoration expertise is augmented by our construction subsidiary, Habitat Restoration Sciences (HRS), enabling us to support you in creating a sustainable community resource that balances recreation and restoration to foster a sense of stewardship and engagement.

Contact us to help create trails that connect people with nature.