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Thursday, March 21, 2019  Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Sports >  Outdoors

How to build a trail in five (not so easy) steps

Kristy Canright (left), Mark Westfall and Bree Warner dig out a trail on Mica Peak, Sunday June 3, 2018. The trio was volunteering with the Washington Trails Association. (Eli Francovich / The Spokesman-Review)
Kristy Canright (left), Mark Westfall and Bree Warner dig out a trail on Mica Peak, Sunday June 3, 2018. The trio was volunteering with the Washington Trails Association. (Eli Francovich / The Spokesman-Review)

Once the hard work of making a trail is finished – the brush cleared, the rocks removed and the roots extricated – the trail itself quickly becomes all but invisible, just one of many unseen infrastructural amenities.

So, perhaps next time you’re hiking, pause and consider the work that goes into creating quality, long-lasting trails.

Here are five basic steps Mica Peak Conservation Area trail builders are using.

Step 1: Path of least resistance

First things first. You have to figure out where the trail will go. And how it gets there.

During the design of the Mica Peak trails, Spokane County worked with Alta Planning and Design, a landscape architecture firm that focuses on hiking, biking and other forms of active transportation. Alta examined the topography of the area and mapped out a trail that wouldn’t exceed a 10 percent grade. A 10 percent grade allows bikers, hikers and horseback riders to comfortably, but efficiently, travel up and down a slope. It also protects the trail from erosion.

Additionally, Alta solicited input from trail users. Members of the Washington Trails Association, Evergreen East and Back Country Horsemen told planners where they wanted trails, or what areas should be avoided. Those considerations were balanced with topographical considerations and other factors.

Step 2: Check your work

After Alta Planning came up with a trail option, Spokane County parks planner Paul Knowles, Washington Trails Associations leader Holly Weiler and longtime WTA volunteer Todd Dunfield walked the proposed route. Knowles said what Alta proposed lined up nearly exactly with what they saw.

“We have a lot of elevation to gain, so keeping it at 10 percent makes it longer, but that’s better for keeping it sustainable,” Weiler said in a message. “Poor trail design is steep … we follow the contour lines instead.”

Weiler also pointed out that because the trail is mixed use, they have to consider sight lines to “help avoid conflict.”

The trail trio marked the future trail site with orange flagging tape in preparation for the beginning of trail work.

“You never want trails that are razor straight,” Dunfield said. Instead, trails should have a “whimsical” element.

Step 3: Don’t hurt the critters

Because the Mica Peak Conservation area is a key elk and moose habitat, Knowles said the county ran its plan by the Spokane Building and Planning Department and the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife to make sure it wouldn’t negatively impact those animals.

It was determined the trails did not negatively impact those habitats.

Step 4: Get dirty

Now it’s time to start building the trail. On Mica Peak, thick brush required volunteers start with trimmers and saws.

Once they’d cleared some trees and bushes, they started building the trail tread. The trail, Dunfield said, is about 30 inches wide and intersects the hillside at about a 45-degree angle.

Volunteers dug down to mineral soil, he said. Then they removed all the organic material – roots, plants, etc. If they didn’t, the increased sunlight and oxygen would prompt rapid plant growth. Additionally, volunteers cleared brush and plants out on either side of the trail to provide some buffer from plant encroachment.

While cutting the trail, you also have to consider where water flows.

“Water really is the biggest enemy of trails, especially of new trails,” Dunfield said.

Step 5: Pack it down

The trail is flagged, graded and cut. What’s next?


Frequent use keeps a new trail plant-free. As people, horses and bikes ride across the surface, nitrogen is pounded out of the dirt, making it an inhospitable place for most plants.

In the case of Mica Peak, WTA volunteers will use the trails they’ve built to get to new work sites. That will help solidify the new trail, Dunfield said.

But no matter how used the trail is, every trail needs maintenance, Weiler said.

“Some (trails) are better constructed than others and last longer, but erosion will always get them in the end,” Weiler said.

That’s why WTA does periodic maintenance. How often depends on trail use, weather, soil time and other variables.

“It’s a pretty involved process,” Knowles said. “It’s amazing to me that we get the kind of volunteer effort that we get.”

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