What is Involved With Trail Maintenance?
This guide answers that question with information as it directly applies to West Rock Ridge State Park, but this information can be used by others wondering how they can maintain trails in other areas.
I have been a Volunteer Trails Manager at West Rock Ridge State Park since 2007, and a Department of Energy and Environmental Protection (DEEP) Adopt A Park Volunteer at the park since 2012. I have been Trail Manager for the Regicides, Sanford Feeder, and Westville Feeder Trails at West Rock, on behalf of the Connecticut Forest and Park Association (CFPA), since 2011.
I have been Trail Ambassador for the New England Mountain Biking Association (NEMBA) since 2010.
Training and Experience
I learned about trail maintenance through a workshop conducted by the International Mountain Biking Association (IMBA). I have also attended workshops sponsored by the CFPA and the Appalachian Mountain Club (AMC). I have read books on trail maintenance from the AMC and the National Park Service (titles under Resources), and watched a park service video on trail maintenance.
From 2007 to 2018, I have spent 1,700 hours maintaining 25 miles of trails at West Rock, plus had help from others to offer another 900 hours worth of assistance. All of my work is done with the permission and under the guidance of the park supervisor.
During that time, I have established blazing on trails that were formerly unblazed, and kept all trails blazed on a five to six year cycle. Trails are kept clear through annual pruning, and sometimes even more frequently. I have made various trail connections that did not exist before. I created short sections of new trails on Purple and Red. I relocated four sections of the Regicides Trail to improve the experience of hikers. I built boardwalks and bridges on the White Trail to keep hikers above muddy areas and streams.
In 2010, I established blazing on what is now the Yellow Trail at the Naugatuck State Forest, Mount Sanford Block, Hamden, and also reblazed the White Trail. In 2015, I reblazed both trails in the forest. As I reblazed, I also pruned back the trails.
In 2015-16, I established blazes trails at the Naugatuck State Forest, West Block, blazing and pruning back about 20 miles of trails. I spent about 100 hours on this project with help from others who contributed 60 hours worth of work. Most trails in the forest were previously unblazed and those that were blazed were so faded it was hard to follow them. I worked with the forester on both projects in the two sections of the Naugatuck State Forest.
I have helped the AMC on a few work parties on the Appalachian Trail. I have occasionally assisted CFPA on work parties on its trails, including the Aspetuck and Saugatuck Trails. I have helped NEMBA on a few work parties, including Huntington State Park in Redding and the Pequonnock Valley in Trumbull.
I became involved with trail maintenance as my way of giving back to the trails I enjoy hiking. Trail maintenance is a great, full-body workout that also has mental benefits. I feel good knowing I am making a positive contribution to the world that benefits others.
Trail Maintenance Basics
A trail needs to be kept clear of plants growing over the trail, and branches and trees that fall on the trail, and marked with paint or signs to guide people along the trail. The trail surface should have good footing and be free of mud and water.
The key is to have a sustainable trail, one that is well designed to resist erosion over many years of use. To have a sustainable trail, avoid having steep sections and manage water flow, so the trail does not wash away.
Trails should be kept clear of invasive plant species. These are plants that are native to other places, usually Europe and Asia that someone brought back to North America for planting. Outside of their native habitat, these plants can grow quickly, and smother native plants, killing them.
Trails are typically maintained by volunteers in most hiking areas. It is rare for towns or the state to maintain trails. Some places may have a person they pay to maintain at least some of their trails.
Trail workers need to aware of what they are doing to stay safe.
When working in a group, this usually means working away from other people, so you are not in range of the tool they are using, or at risk of getting hit by a falling branch they are cutting, or a rock they are moving.
Never put a tool and a hand near a rock when moving the rock. The hand will lose.
Wear goggles for any activities that may pose a threat to your eyes.
Carry tools safely, so if you trip and fall, the tool will not hit you.
Bring a first aid kit to handle any minor injuries.
Use insect repellent and check for ticks when you get home.
Pruning back the trail typically takes place one or more times a year. Trails in the woods where there is lots of shade probably only need to be cut back once a year. Trails in more open areas may need to be pruned back several times a year. Trails in open areas such as meadows may need to be mowed once a month to keep the grass down. Trails with invasive plant species may need to be cut back several times a year, as these invasive plants typically grow much more quickly than native plants.
I believe in only cutting back what is needed to keep the trail open until the next time. In my experience, adults and especially youth will cut back too much, leaving the trail wider than it needs to be. Where I might cut an overhanging branch, someone else may cut down the entire shrub or tree. Trails are more interesting to hike when you cannot see too far in any one direction, except, of course, for a viewpoint. I typically do most of the pruning on the trails at West Rock.
Sometimes storms will break trees and shrubs where they fall on the trail, blocking it partially or completely. Branches six to nine inches in diameter can be removed with hand tools. Larger branches and trunks need chainsaws to clear them. I handle the smaller blowdowns with hand tools. I get other volunteers or ask the state to clear the larger blowdowns.
Clearing blowdowns can be tricky because sometimes one branch will press down on another branch and when the top branch is cut, the lower branch will spring up and could hit someone near it. Branches can fall in unpredictable ways, depending on what they are leaning against.
While sawing a blowdown, you have to keep an eye on the branch because branches may be leaning against another branch or the ground, and when they are cut, they can bind the saw by pressing against the blade, causing it to get stuck. I usually will cut about halfway from the top and then before the saw binds, I cut from underneath to finish the job. If you have a branch that is hanging in the air, as you cut it from the top, it will naturally open up, making your life easier.
Anything we cut, we toss into the woods to naturally decompose. I sometimes use fallen branches and trunks to guide people as to the trail location, so they stay on the trail and don’t wander off into the woods, getting lost and trampling the plants. I also use these branches and trunks to block off trails that people make without permission.
|This snapped red oak along the Red-White Trail by Farm Brook Reservoir was cleared by a volunteer with a chainsaw in July 2018. Clearing this by handsaw would not be practical due to the size of the tree and the number of cuts required.|
Trails need to be marked with paint, or signs, which is called blazing the trail. Painted blazes on trees can typically last about five years before they need to be repainted. Painted rocks last about two years. In some areas they use small plastic, metal, or wooden markers that are nailed into the tree or a post. The ones nailed into a tree need to have the nails reset about every five years, otherwise the tree will grow around the nails and marker.
There are different styles of blazes. I use the system from the CFPA, which uses blazes that are six inches high by two inches wide. If the trail has more than one color, then I use a four-inch main color as the top part of the blaze and the second color is a two-inch blaze directly underneath that. A two part blaze is easier to see and much easier to paint than to use a blaze with a dot in the middle.
Blazes should be placed so that when a trail user is by one blaze, they can see the next blaze. At a turn, there are two blazes with the top blaze off to the left for a left turn, or off to the right for a right turn. At the end of the trail, two blazes are stacked like an equals sign.
In some trail locations, people do a poor job blazing. They will paint too many trees, a practice called “fence posting” because it looks like someone painted a bunch of fence posts all lined up. They may also paint extra large blazes, or use super bright paint, all of which are obnoxious to see and take away from the natural experience of being in the woods.
I do all the blazing at West Rock because I want to make sure it is done right and I want to keep it consistent. The exceptions are the Old Oak Nature Trail, maintained by Common Ground High School, and the Solar Youth Trail, maintained by Solar Youth.
West Rock has three kiosks or signboard that were installed by the state: inside the main entrance on Wintergreen Avenue, at the Lake Wintergreen parking lot, and at the Hill Street parking lot.
I installed wooden signs provided by CFPA at the starting and ending points for the Blue-Blazed Trails at West Rock: Regicides Trail, Sanford Feeder, and Westville Feeder. Solar Youth installed signs at each end of its trail. There are no other signs at West Rock.
Some trail systems will have signs at trail junctions to indicate where people are going, and the distance to that point of interest. The challenge with trail signs is that they are typically wood, which means they need to be replaced as they rot. The other challenge is that they can become a target for vandals, who will write on them, or damage/destroy them just for kicks. Anything stapled to a signboard is at risk of being stolen, particularly when someone sees a trail map of the area that they want to use. If someone has a map, they should be able to navigate the trail system at West Rock without confusion.
Some trail sections have problems with water and mud because water flows onto the trail and does not drain off, leaving a mud, slippery trail to walk on. There are different ways to deal with this problem: stepping stones, water bars, drainage ditches with culverts (pipes to carry water under the trail), boardwalks/bridges, or simply moving the trail away from the problem area.
Which approach trail maintainers use depends on the location and the problem. Stepping stones are a good first approach because they are permanent. The problem is getting the stones to use, since they typically have to be dug out of the ground near the problem area. Another choice is to bring stones in from somewhere else and that means finding a place to get the stones and doing the hard work of moving them along the trail with a wheelbarrow or handtruck.
Water bars are used to guide water across and over the trail, assuming one side of the trail is lower than the trail. When both sides are higher, the water bar instead becomes a check dam to slow the flow of water (and therefore the rate of erosion) and catch some of the sediments that are washing down the trail.
The Red Trail south of the main entrance at West Rock has drainage ditches that collect the water as it comes down the slope of the ridge, and then directs that water into culverts to carry it under the trail. Over the years the drainage ditches and culverts have filled, so water runs onto the trail and sits there. This project has been on my wish list for years.
Another option is to simply move the trail to higher ground, away from the low area where the water collects. This requires careful study to make sure the trail is being moved to a dry location.
Constructing wooden boardwalks and bridges is something that should be done only if there are no other options. The price of the wood and deck screws for even a simple bridge can be $200 or more, and the bridge will need to be replaced when the wood rots away in about 20 years.
|This winter photo shows the benefit of these stepping stones.|
A major focus of my work at West Rock is removing invasive plant species. Invasive plants are plants that are not native to the area and were typically brought here by someone traveling to another area of the world. That person saw this plant growing somewhere else and thought it would be a good plant for their garden, or another use. Once planted here, the non-native plants spread through their seeds, and into the woods.
Invasive plants typically share these characteristics: they can grow in poor soil where native plants may not grow. They produce lots of seeds, which allow them to spread rapidly. In the spring, their leaves come out before the native plants, and in the fall, they keep them longer than the native plants, meaning they can grow for a longer period of time. They are hard to kill. Even when cut to the ground, they grow back. They grow much faster than native plants and can form dense thickets of just that plant.
From a trail maintenance point of view, they are challenging because they grow fast and can typically take over an area.
If the smaller ones can be pulled out, this is best approach because once uprooted, that particular plant is dead. The larger ones need to be cut over and over until they die. The challenge is getting back to a particular area often enough to do this. Most areas will need repeated visits due to the seeds in the ground that will continue to sprout until none are left.
An important thing to keep in mind when pulling and cutting invasive plants is that there are often native plants growing near and under the invasive plants. It is important to leave these native plants alone because these are what we want to grow in the woods. Also, if everything is removed from an area, the invasive plants will come back first and will come back more strongly than the native plants.
When I teach people about invasive plant removal, I tell them that if they are not absolutely sure what they are cutting or pulling to leave it alone. It is better to leave an invasive in place that I can come along later and cut or pull, than to remove a native plant that I cannot replant if removed by mistake.
If the invasive plant has any berries, I place it down exactly where I cut it because I do not want to spread the berries any further by tossing it into the woods. Sometimes I will collect some of the berries and put them out with the trash, to reduce the number of seeds in the woods.
Invasive plants are located across West Rock. The worst area is the Teal Trail between the Red Trail and Amrhyn Field where many of the invasive plants listed below are growing over a large area. I have completed several work parties over a few years on this trail and we have only made a dent.
These are common invasive plants at West Rock. This is not a full list, and also does not include invasive plants that are in Connecticut, but I have not seen at West Rock.
This website gives information about many of the invasive plants on my list and why they are so bad for the woods.
My West Rock website has plenty of photos and information:
Asiatic bittersweet is a tan vine that wraps around trees and strangles them, which kills them. They have an orange root and in the fall they have bright red berries. Smaller vines (less than one inch in diameter) can be pulled out of the ground. Larger ones need to be cut. I tell people to cut them as low as they can and as high as they can so they slow down how fast they regrow.
Japanese honeysuckle is a thin vine that is thread-like when young and looks like tan twine when it gets older. This vine twists around trees and shrubs and creates dense mats along the ground. This is a challenge to remove because it grows in all directs and the vines often break when pulled.
Native vines include grape vines, which I leave alone, and poison ivy, which I only cut when it is on the trail. Grape vines have a dark brown bark and they hang from trees, not wrapping around the bark like the invasive vines. In the fall, they may have concord grapes, which are ripe when they are purple (not when they are green). Poison ivy grows up the side of a tree and has a hairy appearance, which is the root of the vine. These need to be handled very carefully because the oil from the plant causes a rash in most people.
|Invasive honeysuckle lines the Red Trail as it approaches the South Overlook. Even when cut to the ground, this invasive plant will quickly grow back.|
Multi-flora rose is a pricker bush with sharp thorns that can scratch deeply. This plant grows quickly and has small white flowers in the spring and red berries in the fall. Cutting these takes time because the multi-flora rose grows in all directions, and trail workers have to handle the stems (called canes) carefully because the thorns are so sharp.
Multi-flora rose is easily confused with native blackberry and raspberry, plants that are desirable. The difference is that multi-flora rose has a circular stem that may be reddish or green, and multiple canes sprout from a center root. Blackberry has a purple stem that has sharp angles, and raspberry has a purple stem that is waxy. Both blackberry and raspberry have individual canes located near other individual canes.
Wineberry is an invasive raspberry that is easily recognized because it has reddish-purple short hairs around its canes.
Winged euonymus (commonly known as burning bush) can be recognized by its cork-like wings that grow along the branches and its diamond-shaped leaves. In the fall it has small red berries and bright red leaves. As a result of the leaf color, it is a popular landscaping plant. This is easily confused with native high bush blueberry, which has a similar shaped leaf, but does not have the corky wings and its leaves are dull red in the fall.
Japanese barberry is a shrub with needle-like thorns and produces bright red berries in the fall. When cut the inside of its branches and roots are yellow. Barberry is a preferred habitat of deer ticks, so areas that have more barberry have more deer ticks, and people going through that area have a greater chance of getting bit and getting Lyme disease.
West Rock does not have much barberry; most of it is located along Baldwin Drive.
Autumn olive is a shrub that can grow to 15 feet in height. It can be recognized by its leaves that are long and narrow and have a medium green color on top, and a silvery green color on the bottom. In the fall, it may produce round, purple-red berries, which can be eaten.
Privet is a shrub that people plant in their yards to make a hedge. It has oval-shaped leaves and produces black-colored berries in the fall.
Japanese knotweed looks a bit like bamboo because it has ribs about every six inches on the plant, and grows to about eight feet tall. It has heart-shaped leaves and in the fall, it grows white flowers that are long and narrow. Knotweed is extremely difficult to kill because when cut or pulled up, it grows back from the roots in the ground.
Mugwort is a weed with medium green leaves that grows to about six feet tall. When the leaves are crushed, they have a spicy smell to them. Mugwort will grow in large patches. Pulling it out of the ground can control it. New mugwort will grow from the seeds in the ground, so this is not a one-time project.
|This picture shows the Yellow Trail reopened in May 2018 after it was blocked by the crown of a red oak tree. Two volunteers using hand tools needed to work for 90 minutes because there were so many cuts to make.|
Tools and Equipment
I use the following tools and equipment when I do my trail work:
I wear long sleeves shirts and pants to protect my arms and legs from thorns and ticks. I wear my waterproof hiking boots for support and protection. I tuck my pants into my socks to reduce the likelihood of ticks getting onto my skin.
I use thick work gloves to protect my hands. I wear a hat to keep the sun out of my eyes, and sawdust from getting into my hair and eyes when I am cutting things over my head.
I drink plenty of water as I am working, and take breaks to eat to maintain my energy level. Accidents are more likely to happen when someone is tired.
Long-handled loppers: Loppers are useful for cutting branches and vines up to about an inch in diameter. I prefer lightweight ones because they are easier to carry and less tiring to use. Some people use heavy duty ones with a mechanism to increase the force of the cut, but I find these too heavy.
Hand pruners: When I am blazing trails and sometimes when I am hiking, I use hand pruners, which are small and portable, and good for nipping off small branches that stick out over the trail.
Pruning saw: I have different pruning saws that I use to cut branches and vines larger than one inch in diameter. I have a folding saw that I keep in my pack when I am hiking in case I need to clear branches that have fallen on the trail. I have a larger fixed saw that I use for cutting larger branches (greater than six inches in diameter).
Some people will use a bow saw, but I quickly learned not to use this tool because it binds very easily when cutting wood. Binding is when the wood presses on the saw blade, pinching it tightly so the saw gets stuck. Any saw can bind, but bow saws are particularly likely to bind. Bow saws are also limited in the diameter of the tree they can cut because they have a top part.
I carry these in a five-gallon plastic bucket, which has a comfortable handle, and is also good for holding trash. Plastic bags are not useful in the woods for several reasons. They easily snag and tear on branches. If there is any liquid in the bottles and cans in the woods (a common situation), it will leak out into the bag and onto the person using it. Bags are easily torn by broken glass. A better portable option is a reusable grocery bag, which resists tears, but leaks and gets dirty from trash.
A chainsaw is used to clear large trees (wider than nine inches in diameter) that have fallen on the trail. I do not own a chainsaw, and I am not interested in using one because they can cause serious injury if something goes wrong. When I need a large blowdown cleared, I will contact the state to have one of its workers to clear the tree. I also know volunteers who have chainsaws and the proper training to clear fallen trees.
I sometimes use a rake, which I will use to clear leaves away from inside and around a culvert. I rake leaves away that are acting as a dam to keep water from draining off a trail. Some sections of trail collect deep piles of leaves, depending on how water flows and how the wind blows. I rake these piles off the trail because they are a slipping hazard. I also rake leaves that pile up on rocky sections of trail because they too are a slipping hazard. Raking away leaves to bare dirt is not recommended because it increases trail erosion. Instead, on dirt, leave a thin layer of leaves to deflect the raindrops as they hit the ground. It is useful to have a regular-sized rake for most jobs, and a narrow rake with a six-inch wide head for culverts and other smaller jobs.
Goggles are an important safety tool to protect the eyes.
|This picture shows my basic tools for trail pruning: a quality pruning saw and inexpensive loppers that I carry in a plastic bucket. I used the saw to clear this tree.|
Blazing Tools and Equipment
I use latex paint for painting my blazes. I look for the “Oops” paint at Home Depot, which is about $8 a gallon as compared to $40 for a regular gallon of paint. Oops paint is where someone requests a color and it does not come out the way they wanted it to look. I sometimes will buy a quart of paint for the shorter trail colors, which is typically about $15. I rarely find colors like orange and yellow in oops paint. CFPA supplies me with blue paint for its trails.
I put the paint into small plastic jars with lids (like a peanut butter jar) to carry onto the trail. A pint of paint can easily last for a mile of trail.
I use cheap 1.5-inch wide paint brushes that typically cost about a dollar. This is the best width because when used on a tree, it is the best side to get a 2-inch wide blaze.
I carry both a wire brush and a nylon brush to scrape dirt, and lichens and other growth off trees and rocks. I use the wire brush on rocks and trees with rough bark. I use the wire brush on trees with smooth bark. I only scrape off what I need to remove. I do not wish to damage the bark.
Some people use a template to create a perfect-shaped blaze. I do not because it requires three hands: one to hold the template, one to hold the paintbrush, and one to hold the paint jar. Trees are not flat surfaces, which is another challenge in using templates. I find that I also get drips and runs with templates. With years of experience, my blazes are close to the correct size and shape.
I sometimes use a greenish-gray paint mix that I create to paint over old blazes where those old blazes may cause people confusion. When possible, I leave the old blazes alone to simply fade. Painting over them means they will eventually reappear as the top paint wears away. If I do paint over a blaze, I paint a random pattern, so it does not look like a blaze. Too often I see people carefully paint over old blazes with black or brown paint, and it is very obvious there was once a blaze on the tree. This is particularly important NOT to do when moving a trail because it confuses hikers.
Connecticut’s rocky soil is often challenging for digging, and the soil at West Rock fits that category with many rocks held together by hard-packed soil.
The pick mattock is the basic tool for digging. It has two blades, usually one wide and one pointy. It can also be used as a lever to move rocks. Wear goggles when using the pick mattock because it can shatter rock when digging.
The shovel is used for moving dirt after the pick mattock has loosened it. Shovels have either flat edge or a pointed tip. The pointed tip shovel is generally more useful because it can dig into a pile of dirt, wood chips, gravel, etc.
Plastic buckets and a hand truck, or a wheelbarrow can be used to move dirt.
There are other digging tools, but these are the most common ones.
Trash and Graffiti
Trash and graffiti are two problems caused by people at West Rock. They take away from the enjoyment of those using the park, and give them the idea that the park is not cared for.
People dump large items along Wintergreen Avenue, such as sofas, TVs and mattresses. They toss bottles, cans and wrappers in different locations: along the park border, and in parking areas at the South Overlook, Judges Cave, Lake Wintergreen, and Hill Street. People will often toss these into the weeds near the parking areas, as if that somehow is better than leaving it where it could be more easily picked up. Litter collection is a great project for any group.
People paint graffiti on rocks, road surfaces, and stone walls. This graffiti can be painted over to hide it.
This trail maintenance overview discusses WHAT to do, but does not describe in necessary detail HOW to perform these tasks. The following resources go into detail on the topics that I briefly reviewed in this overview guide.
The CFPA Trail Manager Packet has useful information pages 5 to 11 (pages 7 to 13 of the PDF):
The U.S. Forest Service publishes the Trail Construction and Maintenance Notebook, which can be downloaded for free:
The Appalachian Mountain Club publishes the following book, which has a list price of $19.95: AMC’s Complete Guide to Trail Building & Maintenance, written by the Staff of AMC’s Trails Department.
The best training would be for an adult associated with Solar Youth to attend training and a work session offered by an outdoors organization. Training is usually low cost to free.
The AMC hosts the Give a Day to the Trails in May every year on the Appalachian Trail. The event starts with a brief overview and focuses on actual work on the trails.
CFPA hosts trail workshops on a variety of topics, and hosts an annual trails workshop in the spring at its headquarters in Middlefield. Website: https://www.ctwoodlands.org/CFPA-events
I schedule trail workshops on a very irregular basis, typically fall, spring and sometimes winter Saturdays from 9 a.m. to 12 p.m. I email my work parties to people who have told me they are interested, and often list them on the AMC website as well.