Hikers at Spring Lake

Happy Trails: What it Takes to Make a Good Hiking Trail

By Stephen Nett
September 1, 2018

A good trail is like a comfortable pair of shoes: It feels welcoming and pleasing under foot and takes you confidently to a favorite destination and back. 

Sonoma County’s Regional Parks have a wide selection of trails to choose from. But making a good trail takes a lot more than meets the eye. 

Trails Through History

Modern park trails are carefully crafted, though it's worth noting that the walking trail is ancient technology. Thousands of years before Sonoma County had roads, such paths were essential to people to move efficiently around the landscape.

The first trails walked by humans in Sonoma County were likely created by wildlife, worn into the landscape by repeated trips to water and grazing meadows. Native peoples later established their own routes to resources and to trading and ceremonial centers. Tolay Lake in Tolay Regional Park, for example, was likely connected by trails to the greater Bay Area and beyond

Portals into Nature

Today’s trails provide more than simple transportation. One of the roles of modern park trails is to provide portals for the public into nature and protected wildlands. The only way most of us will ever experience a mountain pond or glimpse a bobcat is because a park trail brought us there. 

Good trails also remove obstacles that keep people from the outdoors.  Many, like the Valley of the Moon Trail at Sonoma Valley Regional Park, pictured below, and the Cloverdale River Park trail, are specifically crafted so people with a range of physical abilities can experience wild environments and scenic beauty.

Family walking at Sonoma Valley Regional Park 485

Details Underfoot

Trails also protect the wildlife, natural features and environments within the parks. Before a trail is built, park planners evaluate and field check countless routes where it might pass, looking for sensitive habitat, plant and animal species that need to be protected or avoided, as well as points of interest or educational value.  These are mapped as "control points" that help steer where the trail will and won’t run.

A lot of details need to be considered. Wildlife need undisturbed places for raising young and corridors for movement. The lay of the land, steepness of the path, rocks, roots and other obstacles, get factored in.  And the trail itself must be engineered so it’s relatively comfortable underfoot, can be reasonably maintained, and water can drain naturally.  Such details are largely invisible in the final product.

Ridge Trail at North Sonoma Mountain 485This careful engineering is on display on the Ridge Trail in North Sonoma Mountain Regional Park and Preserve, pictured above. Opened in 2015, the trail’s long and gentle zig zags lead hikers 2,700 feet up the mountain. Its rock drainages and other subtle construction features make it an impressive segment of the larger Bay Area Ridge Trail that one day is hoped to link the mountains around San Francisco.

Crafted by Hand

Volunteers building trail at Taylor Mountain 485Surprisingly, much of the trail construction in Regional Parks is done by hand, by everyday folks who volunteer their time. Groups like Volunteers for Outdoor California and the Sonoma County Trails Council as well as Regional Parks organize local enthusiasts to expand or maintain trail routes. They’re always looking for new hands to join.

And in some parks, the trails continue to grow. Taylor Mountain Regional Park and Preserve opened in 2013 with only several miles of trails. Volunteers, pictured above, have since built the Todd Creek and RedTail trails. And construction is set to begin on another 8 miles of trail in the park, thanks to a $1.7 million grant to Regional Parks.   

Dirt Roads Don't Always Make Great Trails 

But many of our Regional Parks are former ranches, and their trails trace old farm or fire roads already on the property. Tracks like these – in Shiloh, Foothill, Helen Putnam, Hood Mountain, and Tolay Lake – were laid down by previous owners for utilitarian purposes, not necessarily for the enjoyment of future hikers, cyclists, or equestrians. 

eroded trail at Helen Putnam Park 485Regional Parks has renovated many miles of these trails already and plans to rehab many more, as funding allows. The work would bring trails like this old farm road at Helen Putnam Regional Park up to modern standards and make them less prone to erosion or not as steep.

That’s one of the goals of Measure M on this November’s ballot: to provide funds for substantial trails maintenance and trail expansion. If approved by Sonoma County's voters, the money will help pay for renovations and construction and help parks expedite long-awaited trail projects around the county.

Find Your Trail

Sonoma County has a bounty of options for those who want to enjoy the human experience of moving through the landscape on trails. You can discover Regional Parks' 150 miles of trails on its Find a Park page, by joining guided hikes or by taking its annual Trails Challenge

Do you have a favorite trail? What makes it special? 

Meanwhile, appreciate the history and crafting, and happy trails.

Stephen Nett is a Bodega Bay-based Certified California Naturalist, writer, and speaker.

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