A Trail Construction Primer


Four of us were struggling to keep our footing on the side of a hill covered with tall, dry grass. Dead ahead of us was a thicket of poison oak and 10-foot-tall manzanita. We were marking a potential trail route on Bureau of Land Management territory near Igo, and we had just crossed the remnants of an old road.

As Shawn Stapleton, a hardy BLM employee wielding a chainsaw, began attacking the thick brush, I asked why we didn’t just put the new trail on the old road. It was at least 10 feet wide, the brush was relatively sparse and the grade didn’t seem too steep. Wouldn’t that be easier, to just use what’s already here?

“Never,” said Brian Sindt, the McConnell Foundation trail expert who was laying out the route. “The drainage is all wrong on those old roads.”

Instead, we labored slowly through the brush, dodging dangling poison oak branches and a nasty ant colony. Welcome to trail building, I thought to myself.

Trail construction 2
Shawn Stapleton carves a trail route out of the manzanita.

I’ve been lucky to spend countless hours running, hiking or riding a bike on trails through forests, grasslands, deserts, dormant volcanoes, sandstone canyons and high country granite all across the United States and several foreign countries. These days, I log most of my trail miles on the ever-expanding trail system in and around Redding. It occurred to me not long ago, however, that I knew very little about how a trail actually gets designed and constructed. Who decides where to put a trail? Do you follow wildlife paths or old logging roads? What do you do about creek crossings? What other factors are there to consider?

So I set out to learn some basics on a recent morning with Sindt, Stapleton and Reed Crane, a University of California, Davis, student who spent his summer working for the BLM. Starting in early August, Sindt, Stapleton and a few others (Crane has since headed to school) have been staking out about 15 miles of planned multi-use trail on BLM land that lies roughly north of Placer Road and east of Muletown Road. 

If approved and built, this is how the trails will run: From a trailhead near the Muletown/Placer intersection, one trail would meander generally northeast about six miles to Mule Mountain Pass, near where the Swasey Recreation Area trail system connects to Whiskeytown National Recreation Area. Another seven-mile trail would run roughly parallel to Mule Mountain Road into Whiskeytown, where the new trail would connect with the Salt Creek Loop. There would also be some shorter spur trails. It’s an exciting project that would provide excellent new loop options and get ever-so-close to linking Whiskeytown with the Clear Creek Greenway, which runs from Cloverdale Road nearly to Highway 273.

Sindt, who works closely with the Redding BLM office, began gathering maps, aerial photos and other survey information and started plotting points on a GIS map for trail. Avoiding backyards and potential hazards (such as old mineshafts), he laid out trails that average no more than a 5% grade over long stretches.

When I tagged along, the crew was still in the early stages, clearing brush in a narrow corridor and planting flags where the trail was planned. Once the trail is marked on the ground, the BLM will undertake a formal public review to determine the project’s potential impact on the environment. Only after that review is complete and both the BLM and the National Park Service formally approve the project may construction commence. For now, the crew is simply proposing the route.

From Muletown Road, our group of four hiked cross-country for about 30 minutes to where the orange flags stopped. Sindt hauled the chainsaw in a special backpack designed specifically for the task. Others carried fuel, chainsaw parts, fire extinguishers, a GIS mapping device and other specialized equipment. I mostly tried not to fall down the hill. The GIS device contained Sindt’s map, and we could see that the trail was only about 10 feet off the mapped alignment.

The guys had already scouted the area and knew we were headed toward a switchback on a ridge. Sindt broke out a clinometer – a small instrument used to measure gradient – rested it on top of a pole and aimed it at another pole with a horizontal bar that Crane held about 20 feet away. Crane inched the pole down the hillside until Sindt flashed a thumbs up.

“That’s a 5% slope,” Sindt said. Crane planted a flag in the dry earth. Sindt then took his position on top of that flag while Crane walked another 20 to 25 feet ahead. They two repeated this process dozens of times, avoiding only large trees. Stapleton stayed one step ahead, whacking at manzanita, poison oak, ceanothus, toyon and tree branches. Crane, Sindt and I dragged the brush and branches out of the way as we proceeded. We would go uphill an average of 4% to 5% for three or four flags, then downhill just slightly for a couple flags. This “grade reversal” technique ensures the trail doesn’t become a streambed during wet weather, Sindt explained.

Trail construction
Brian Sindt (left) and Reed Crane (in yellow) align the potential trail.

As we got close to the future switchback, Sindt explained another strategy. The trail needs to go uphill into the switchback from both directions to ensure water doesn’t wash away the sharp turn. A small dip for a few feet after an uphill switchback (or a brief incline before a downhill switchback) helps achieve this requirement.

After more than an hour of what seemed to me to be tree-by-tree, seat-of-the-pants trail design, Sindt got out the GIS computer again. In fact, we were precisely on the course he had drawn up back in the office. These guys knew what they were doing.

So much of trail design, I learned, is based on easing long-term trail maintenance and minimizing erosion. Around here, trails that climb more than 6% tend to erode quickly, which means they need lots of regular maintenance and even rebuilding from time-to-time. Culverts? They help keep a hiker’s feet dry in January, but culverts need at least annual cleaning or they clog with leaves and create a big erosion problem.

“I want to build something that will be here 100 years from now,” Sindt summed up.

Of course, there are other factors in routing a trail. The crew had to realign more than 500 feet of the flagged course when they discovered their original alignment would provide a bird’s eye view of someone’s swimming pool. Neither trail users nor the people with the swimming pool want that, Sindt noted. The trail would take advantage spectacular vistas of the coastal range, Lassen Peak and even the Sutter Buttes on a clear day. And the trail along Muletown Road could rely heavily on a pre-existing feature: an abandoned water ditch, which would provide a very gentle path for miles.

Once the trail is staked out and the formal review process is complete, the heavy construction may begin. With hand tools, crews (usually composed of inmates or California Conservation Corps workers) clear a 10-foot-wide swath, scattering the debris or setting it aside for future burning. Then a powerful, narrow Sweco trail dozer comes through to grade the actual trail. Then hand crews return to rake the surface, spread straw and sometimes seed to prevent erosion.

“Then it’s a trail, but it will take a couple of years before it looks good,” Sindt explained. After two or three years, the edges soften, the vegetation starts to grow back, and the tread smoothes.

I intend to revisit the Muletown trail project in the future and report on the progress. In the meantime, I’ll remind you that no trail exists there right now. You could probably find the flags, but it’s all slippery cross-country hiking, and riding a bicycle or horse would be impossible.

shigley-mugshotPaul Shigley is senior editor of California Planning & Development Report, a frequent contributor to Planning magazine and a very slow trail runner. He lives in Centerville. Paul Shigley may be reached at pauls.anewscafe@gmail.com.

Paul Shigley

has been a professional journalist since 1987. For 12 years, he served as editor or senior editor of California Planning & Development Report, a statewide trade publication for land use planners, real estate development professionals and attorneys. Prior to that, he worked as a reporter or editor at newspapers in Redding, Grass Valley, Napa and Calistoga. Shigley's work also has appeared in the Washington Post, the Los Angeles Times, Planning magazine, Governing magazine, California Law Week, National Speed Sport News and elsewhere. In addition, he is co-author of Guide to California Planning, a college text and reference book, and is currently working on a book for the American Planning Association about the Bay Delta and California water resources. A graduate of California State University, Sacramento, Shigley has contributed to A News Cafe since 2009. He and his wife, Dana, live in western Shasta County.

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