I went day hiking today in a 2000+ acre nature reserve near my house and just north of Boston, called the Middlesex Fells. I have been hiking in the Fells for years, but I've never really given much thought to how these trails were planned or how they are maintained, until today.
Over the past week, I've been reading the Complete Guide to Trail Building and Maintenance, published by the Appalachian Mountain Club and considered by many to be the trail planning and maintenance bible. If you are interested in volunteering for trail maintenance work or in any aspect of trail stewardship, this is the book for you. Every aspect of trail project planning and maintenance is covered from obtaining permission from private landowners to trail maintenance, tools and safety.
During my hike today, I payed special attention to the features of the trail I was hiking that had been created by trail planners and maintainers. Some of these like the staircase above are quite obvious, but others are very subtle like the use of downed trees to define tread way direction through a forested area. As hikers, we often follow these subtle cues without any conscious thought, but the reality is that they have been thoughtfully defined to prevent trail overuse or control erosion.
Here's another example of the use of downed trees to define a tread way and discourage mountain bikers from riding off the trail. Unless, you're really looking for the intention behind the placement of these natural elements, you won't notice them.
Trail maintenance is the Fells and on many other trails across the country is usually performed by volunteers. It is difficult and labor intensive, but requires an immense amount of ingenuity because maintainers are often limited to using local materials such as rocks and downed trees to create steps, water bars, definers and stabilizers.
I plan on becoming more involved in trail maintenance activities this fall and next year with the Green Mountain Club in Vermont, and encourage you to do the same with the trail organizations and clubs that maintain the trails that you frequent.