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Trail Design and Building: Creating Journeys in Nature for Visitors

By Andrea Stevens

Tom Carr working on one of HHLT’s trails.

Perhaps you have enjoyed a hike at our Long Reach Preserve, zig-zagging up and down slopes through the oak-pine forests and crossing the sponge-like peat of the shrub bog in the valley. Or maybe you have followed the timber bridges through the wetland forest at Curtis Farm, eventually reaching the stunning scenery of Curtis Cove.

Harpswell Heritage Land Trust (HHLT) maintains nearly eight miles of hiking trails on seven preserves and two trail easements. Our low impact trails offer public access to shores, forests, freshwater wetlands, meadows, and other natural features while respecting the conservation values of these protected lands.

We are very fortunate to have a dedicated team of volunteer stewards who monitor and manage our preserves and trails. Several of these stewards have years of experience in designing, building, and maintaining trails in Harpswell and beyond.

HHLT trails are carefully placed and constructed to ensure the best possible experience for visitors while respecting and working with what the land has to offer.

A trail is “not just a way to get from point A to point B, but it is a journey…it needs to be interesting so visitors will want to return” says Tom Carr, a volunteer steward for HHLT and local trail expert.
Tom point outs that trails should be created so that people will want to follow them, rather than finding their own routes, which are often referred to as “social” trails.

Tom has been hiking “forever,” often sharing his love of the outdoors with his two dogs. In addition to his volunteer work for the Harpswell Heritage Land Trust, Tom has designed and built trails for organizations in Northern New Jersey, the Maine Coast Heritage Trust and the Maine Island Trail Association.

Tom has a keen sense of direction and an eye for siting trails that complement the terrain or the lay of the land, highlight diverse natural features, and offer positive and memorable experiences for visitors.

But how does a great trail differ from just a good trail? What is involved with planning and building a trail? What are the “best practices” for trails that make them resilient and sustainable through the coastal storms, high winds, and long winters in Harpswell?

Tom explains that when deciding where to put a trail, he doesn’t necessarily use existing trails (deer trails, old logging roads, social trails, etc.). The easiest route is not always the best route. He is cautious of putting trails on steep slopes, which will contribute to erosion. He stays on high ground when possible, looks for interesting landforms, and respects natural barriers (e.g., wetlands) that may require bridging. How water will eventually flow near or across trails is important to keep in mind. He tries to follow contours (lines of equal elevation) and designs and builds trails that will be easy to maintain in the years to come.

Who will use the trail is also a consideration. All HHLT trails are open to hikers and most (aside from trails at Skolfield Shores Preserve) allow dogs. Some trails are built wider than others to accommodate snowshoers and cross-country skiers.

Once the trail has been designed and flagged on the land, the building process begins. HHLT often schedules a series of volunteer work days to get this done, engaging our own volunteers as well as groups of college students and community organizations that are eager to work outdoors. Mattocks, fire rakes, leaf and stone rakes, pruners and chain saws are all part of the suite of tools that are used to clear the trail to the appropriate width and height and to make it walkable and enjoyable, offering a journey that will be remembered.

We encourage you to get outdoors this fall to explore our natural and cultural heritage along Harpswell’s well-crafted trails. Click here for details on Harpswell trails.

October 2018