Building a Trail Town from Scratch

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How to initiate grassroots development of a trail network in your hometown

A volunteer trail-work party. Photo by Adam Reitz.

You hop on Facebook and see posts from your running pals in other towns out hitting the trails—photos of stunning singletrack and endless miles of forest with poster-worthy sunrises and sunsets. Later, you sigh, lace up your road shoes and hit the asphalt to fight traffic, hecklers and stoplights—all the while thinking,How do I get trails like those in my town?”

My town of Rochester, New York, was not always a hot bed for trails. There was a time—as recent as the 1980s—when the runners of Rochester, like so many runners of other cities that lack quality trails, had no choice but to hit the roads. But, over the past 40 years, the county parks department and private trail organizations have worked together to change that. Master plans were created and trail lovers began to lay the groundwork for nearly 500 miles of well-maintained trail systems.

Today, Rochester boasts 21 county parks, almost all with runnable trails. Numerous private systems are now open to the public, including the Crescent Trail, a footpath in nearby Perinton with over 46 miles of singletrack, and the Victor Hiking Trails, a system of 12 trails with singletrack, doubletrack and bike paths.

With all of these new trails open and in use, I helped start an organization in 2012 called #TrailsRoc. It serves as a resource to bring the 21 county parks and multitude of private systems together in one place. #TrailsRoc leads runners on weekly runs on different trails, helping them learn the systems and gain confidence to explore on their own. In addition to the trail runs, #TrailsRoc hosts trail-work days and keeps an eye out for undeveloped areas in which new, sustainable trails might be built.

How can you make the same thing happen for the town where you live? Read on.

Taking the First Steps


Jim Unckless and Dave Schaeffer belong to the Crescent Trail Association (CTA), a nonprofit organization of volunteers who help plan, develop and maintain the Crescent Trail in Perinton, New York. They agree that the first step in turning your city into a trail town is to assess opportunities for space to establish trails. These can be on public or private lands. Says Unckless, “After roughly determining the route you want, you need to find out who owns the land and contact those people to describe what you want to do and how it will impact them (hopefully minimally).”

After determining ownership of the land in question, Schaeffer suggests the next steps:

1. Have a plan. Objectives, ideas and trail-map designs will move you in the right direction.
2. Get buy-in from local officials.
3. Engage volunteers.
4. Develop partnerships with local outdoors groups.

Says Unckless, “We work closely with the town—with the Supervisor, Planning Board, Conservation Board, Parks Department and DPW, to push for trails on town land and as part of new developments. Developers can deed land to the town or otherwise provide open space and easements for trail rights of way.”

Fostering Advocacy

A few members of the #TrailsRoc crew. Photo by Ron Heerkens, Jr.

Not everyone in your town might think a trail is a great idea, so advocating for the benefits of the trail is vital to the process. Getting the local community on board is the best way to move forward, as your local government is likely to support what they do. If you can form as an organization like the CTA did, your probability of success goes up.

“The chances of just one person being able to build a new trail and maintain it are almost impossible,” says Unckless. “The Parks Department could maintain those segments that are on town-owned land but not on private land. We do have individuals in the community who have adopted sections of the trail informally, and their work significantly reduces our workload.”

Unckless also suggests taking time to form officially for other reasons. The Crescent Trail Association is a 501(c)3 non profit, which helps with funding and grant writing and adds legitimacy to what they do. People are more likely to work with, donate to, get involved with and see you as a benefit to the community they live and work in if you are an official organization.

Stacey Estrich, Parks Director in Perinton, agrees on the importance of gaining municipal buy-in: “The town plays an active role in the construction of the trail itself by matching funds via monetary, labor and equipment use.” Some trails may have been built privately, but Estrich points out the many benefits of town involvement with your new trail: “There are several state Trail and Recreation and Park capitol improvement grants the town submits for. We also apply for local block grants or fundraisers.”

Designing and Building New Trails

Creating a trail is more than just cutting down a few trees and clearing the brush, says Adam Reitz, who works with the Genesee Off Road Cyclist (GROC), a mountain-biking organization that has built many trail systems in Rochester.

“It’s essential to understand sustainability when designing a trail,” says Reitz. “Poorly designed trails catch and collect water—the primary agent of erosion and most trail damage. A properly designed trail is not only more sustainable, but it generally works with the landscape in ways that are more visually appealing and more fun for various users.”

The International Mountain Bike Association has published materials that outline standards for sustainable trail design. These standards have been adopted by countless land managers and agencies when developing guidelines for best practices, and can be a great place to start if you’d like to learn more about trail design and building:

Keep in mind that, on some lands such as established wilderness areas, power tools are not allowed. Some public lands may also have restrictions on structures such as bridges and walkways. Reitz says part of the planning process for your new trail should be working with local authorities to determine allowable materials and tools and other requirements. “Requirements for bridge and boardwalk design are often specified by land managers,” he says. “Their specifications conform to usability/accessibility and insurance.” For example, a town or county may establish a regulation that boardwalks need to be at least two feet wide—and, if more than 18 inches off the ground, require a handrail for safety reasons. Be sure to educate yourself on any and all local guidelines before you begin building.

Above all, Reitz advises to never take shortcuts: “Great trails take time to construct and they will last much longer.”

Utilizing Volunteers

Both the CTA and the Victor Hiking Trails are built and maintained almost all by volunteers. The CTA has recruited a group of 12 volunteers who meet every Wednesday from April through November to work on trails. Working on reports from those who use the trail, these groups tend to specific needs each week. The CTA equipment includes walk-behind trail mowers, string trimmers, chainsaws and hand tools, all purchased by the CTA using dues and donations. Local towns can help by adding resources when they can.

Your volunteers do not need any trail experience to help build a trail but they should be paired with experienced trail builders and be willing to learn something new while working hard. Volunteers should plan to bring whatever tools are needed for that days work plan. That can include shovels, rakes, clippers, and, if permitted, power tools.

In the end, building a trail is about community. You don’t need to reinvent the wheel here; the trails you see did not build themselves. A quick Google search will put you in contact with trail lovers with a wealth of knowledge and experience to help you get started building your own trails.

Putting the Trails to Use

Racers enjoying their trails. Photo courtesy of #TrailsRoc.

Your trail is built! It is a beautiful space to enjoy the outdoors, so what happens when someone comes along and wants to run a race on your new system?

Mort Nace, General Manager of Medved Running and Walking in Rochester, and one of the local pioneers of trail racing knows all of the ins and outs. “First things first,” he says. “You have to know what your impact on the trail will be and what your clean-up plan is.”

Every system has a different policy on use for trails. You need to know if that trail is a private system, or a municipality system. Either way, be sure to go through the proper channels for approval. Initially, it may seem like a lot of work—but save yourself time and energy by heeding Nace’s advice: “Make sure there are no surprises on race day and this means planning like crazy.”

There will be hard work, especially during the start-up days, but the rewards will come when you are finally the one posting pictures of sun-spackled singletrack in your neighborhood—and knowing you made it all happen.

Eric Eagan, Co-Founder of #TrailsRoc, is an avid trail runner living in Greece, NY. When Eric is not running, he is hiking the Adirondack Mountains, the Finger Lakes Trail, snowshoeing the trails and hills of Western NY or canoeing the waterways of New York State.

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