Blazing Your Trail: Path Building

The art of building paths and trails.
By Barbara A. Santhuff
October/November 1999
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Paths even find their uses in the winter.
Photo courtesy MOTHER EARTH NEWS editors
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My husband Marc and I had always dreamed of someday buying land and building our own home in the country. But like so many others, we just never seemed to be able to find the time or to set aside enough money to fulfill that dream. Still, I'd grown up in the country and missed the rural life dearly. Little things my siblings and I did as kids kept coming back to me in memories and dreams. Padding through the log woods on a colorful, crisp morning, polishing acorns between our fingers, chasing wild animal tracks through freshly fallen snow... all of these lost pleasures called to me and made our return to the country inevitable.

One day, after Marc and I had actually managed to put a little money away (but were again going through it like bears through honey), I decided that if we were ever going to have our country dream, I'd have to act fast. I placed several ads in area papers, posted cards on local bulletin boards and, after some searching, we purchased 30 acres of the roughest Missouri Ozarks land I have ever seen.

The upper part wasn't too bad, though I did slip and fall into a dangerously concealed hole while hiking through a ravine, nearly breaking my leg. The Missouri Ozarks are sneaky that way; they hide all manner of loosely arranged rocks and critter holes beneath a protective layer of flat, wet leaves.

After stumbling around for an entire afternoon, I discovered what cavemen must have learned millennia ago: Boulders roll downhill. It is easier to walk on the tops of hills than to traverse the rocky bottoms. My mother caught up with us and pointed out the remnants of an old logging road. In the evening light we could make out two equally spaced ruts and were able to follow the old loggers' paths through the predominately oak and hickory forest.

You'd be surprised how slowly trees grow between the ruts of an old log road. Our area hadn't been logged for at least 40 years, yet the biggest tree we had to cut out to make a walkable path looked to be only a couple of inches in diameter.

To cut down on erosion, we decided to let the ruts stay filled with leaves and loose rocks and to weed-eat a path between them. The idea was to make a couple of paths wide enough so that we'll be able to drive to the top of the mountain when we are old and can't get around as well. In the process of raking, Marc uncovered an old mule shoe, which he nailed to a fence post for good luck.

Encouraged by the ease of our first project, we decided to try our hands at adding a couple of single-line trails to connect two log road paths. By squinting our eyes, we could almost see a natural trail through the woods, no doubt already put down by a previous hunter or perhaps some wild animal. We made an opening in the fence — just wide enough for us to pass through but narrow enough to preclude small four wheel ATV's — and then raked out a narrow trail. Trails, meandering routes too narrow for a mower, are the easiest pathways to make and maintain; we have had to weed-eat ours only once in three years.

Marc went one step further and decided to delineate our back line from the federal wilderness area. Since part of the trail he made goes along some very steep banks, it is not one of my favorites. Still, each time we walk it we kick over a few loose rocks and it is slowly leveling itself out to become a very pleasant pathway.

After we had tamed the once forbidding woodlands (while at the same time keeping it wild), we were then confronted with what to do about the six acres or so of bottomland, which hadn't been touched for nearly 20 years. This area was so overgrown with brush, briars and vine-choked cedars that we couldn't even squeeze ourselves through it without getting trapped and scratched. We came up with the idea of making a single path through the mess just to get over to our creek. We waited until fall and then, using only a small push mower, we followed what looked to be an old cow trail. Our first inclination was to make as straight a line as possible, but the nature of the landscape forced us to take the path of least resistance. Luckily (and thanks to the cow), it wasn't a straight line. Straight lines do not occur naturally in nature. I have known several folks who planted their first flower garden in the shape of a rectangle only to come away with it looking like a very large grave.

I made a couple of passes, raising the mower body to slowly chop down small saplings, while Marc followed along with a chain saw to cut what the mower couldn't. That turned out to be mostly overhanging limbs and the stumps of a few larger saplings that stubbornly refused to give up. We then went through with a weed-eater to knock back foliage that had fallen over into the path.

Path Building

Paths are a natural way to spruce up an eyesore and a great way to enjoy your land before you build. Plus, they make great habitat areas, they are endlessly fascinating and they are easy to maintain.

The path building process is difficult but inevitably proceeds more quickly than you anticipate. You need only a push mower, a dual-string weed-eater and a chain saw. A rake and a heavy pair of gloves are also helpful. Within two seasons (and working mostly on weekends), we were able to turn our 30 acres of rough timberland into a wonderful little park.

You do not have to be a landscape designer to plan your paths. Paths can go anywhere. They can follow the natural features of the land, such as our Ridge Path, or else wind wherever you like.

The section that we call Glade Area (though it's not truly a glade) is my favorite. We cleared and mowed out a small area in the middle of nowhere and made a remarkable little campsite. It is such a wonderful feeling to step out in the early morning and feel like I am the only person around for miles, even though the highway is only about 300 feet away. Moss and wild mushrooms thrive under an old cedar and there's a patch of cacti growing there, which I mow around, along with a bunch of wild grass that I also leave untouched. Sometimes I take a book to the Glade and just sit and read or, with my mother, bask in the warm sun like a seal.

You can also blaze a trail to any natural or unusual feature. We have paths that detour off our main path to a natural rock outcropping, to a pond, to the creek, to a mudhole we cleaned out that is now a spring, around a bramble section, along a grouping of sassafras trees — you name it and we've got a path that'll get us there.

We tried to design our paths so that we have access to every part of our land-at least visibly — but we did leave alone a few large areas where wildlife can flourish undisturbed. On our property there's a thicket area too dense even for most predators. This has become a favorite habitat for birds and rabbits. We put out a few birdhouses and feeders and are often able to watch little chicks in their nests.

When making paths, we found it useful to put them between trees. Trees make a nice, discernible border and grass grows more slowly in their shadows. Cedars can be trimmed high enough to walk under, or archways can be cut between them. Often, the trees grow out over the paths and make little tunnels.

If it's a wildflower garden you desire, you may not even need to clear an area. Roadsides or highway right-of-ways are natural areas for these colorful patches, since the open space assures the ample sunlight that most wildflowers require. Left alone, these areas will usually bloom on their own. You can really make your wild land look nice by mowing a narrow strip along roadways that do not have a shoulder. This will also give you a place to get off the road when going for walks. We maintain a path down the center of our right-of-way. Box turtles like to crawl out to sun themselves on the path, and in the evenings rabbits come out to nibble the tender shoots of grass.

Bridge Building

Making paths made our land feel like home and eased us into the real work, which was building the infrastructure for our future house. We selected a site and began clearing. We salvaged the sound wood in the area and dragged the rest down to a burn pile. Marc used the good logs to make simple but functional and attractive wooden bridges. Surprisingly, you don't need heavy equipment to move the logs, although I won't mislead you by saying they're an easy load. We propped the bulkier end in a wheelbarrow, and Marc carried the lighter end on his shoulder. It was rough going, but no worse than trying to move a large piece of furniture.

To make a log bridge you need two fairly long logs, pressure-treated four-foot long 2 x 4s and some galvanized nails. We positioned our logs wide-end next to narrow-end, which gave the bridge a nice twist, then nailed the 2 x 4s across, leaving about six inches overhanging the logs on either side. You may want to use one of the 2 x 4s as a spacer when attaching the others, since it's best to leave some room between the planks of your bridge. We also constructed a smaller step bridge using shorter logs and cutting eight-foot-long 2 x 4s into three equal lengths. Flat rocks can be placed under the log ends to keep them off the damp ground and other rocks can be wedged under the logs to cut down on bounce.

You can also make simple benches out of the trunks of any trees you have to fell. The only requirement is that you have a sharp chain on your chain saw so that you can make a clean cut, and the stumps should be at least 12 inches in diameter. You don't need to worry too much about getting them the same length because you can always bury the longer one in the ground to even them out. Be sure to mound a little dirt around the bottoms to repel water. To make the seat, cut two four-foot lengths of 1" x 6" board and bevel the edges. Space them about an inch or so apart and, using carpenter's glue, glue and nail a 2 x 4 support brace bisecting both seat boards on the underside, then nail the seat to the two stumps. We left about one-and-a-half feet between the stumps, but it's best to eyeball it before you attach the seat. In my opinion, these benches are more aesthetically pleasing in the wild than those you find in stores, and leaving the knots on the stumps only gives them more character.

You will need to chain bridges and any benches that are near waterways, including dry beds. In a flood your footbridges and benches could float off down river like so much debris. Using a light chain and a screw link — not a padlock (you don't want neighbors to think you don't trust them) — loosely chain bridges and benches on one side only to any nearby tree so that the wood doesn't create a dam or tear apart from the force of the water.

Where water is concerned, it is best to take advantage of the existing features of the land and let nature run its course. Resist the urge to fill in natural drainage areas. If you are making a path in a steep area, you might want to consider burying sections of logs to create steps and prevent erosion.

Burn Clearing

Getting rid of excess brush can be a major problem. If you don't want to mulch it, you can pile brush to make cover for rabbits or, if permissible in your area, you can burn it.

To burn large piles you will need a five-foot-diameter burn circle lined with large rocks and placed in an area away from dry grasses. Choose a calm day to burn and don't let your bed of coals get any larger than four or five feet in diameter or the fire can create its own draft and be difficult to control. Keep plenty of water and rakes on hand (a fire extinguisher works just as well), and never leave a fire unattended. Smoldering leaves sometimes fly off, so we found it useful to first burn off the leaves before stacking brush in the fire. Also, brush that has been allowed to dry for a couple of days is easier to burn than green trimmings. Once you have a hot bed of coals, however, it all burns, no matter how green. Evergreen branches are extremely flammable, so be careful.

After a fire, you can go out the next morning, rake back the ashes and still feel heat from yesterday's coals. If you want to keep clearing, you can stack more brush on these coals; the pile will smolder a little, then catch fire again. Now that our paths are completed, we prefer to break up brush and leave it on the ground. But we occasionally still enjoy the crackle and spark of a hot flame. As we are sitting around our ring-o'-fire, Marc always grumbles that he wishes there was some way we could store all that heat and use it come winter.

Tools of the Trade

After you make paths, you will need to go through periodically and cut them back with a weed-eater. But after a year or two, they pretty much take care of themselves. We find they require much less care than a grass lawn. To maintain our paths now takes little more than a couple of passes with the riding mower and a bit of weed trimming. Some of the less sunny paths have developed a nice layer of moss growing over them. I mow the more shaded paths once every spring (after the leaves have bloomed out) and mulch the leaves in the fall. The steepest, narrowest, most wooded trails are maintained mainly by our walking on them, along with the very occasional weed-eating. I recommend staying off the paths with motorized vehicles as much as possible; you'll find the grass you save makes a nice cushion underfoot.

After purchasing the riding mower, we widened our paths to about four to four-and-a-half feet. That's just wide enough to allow two people to walk comfortably and big enough so that the wheels of our mower do not always make the same tracks. We also found that paths do not need to be consistent and in fact it's best to vary their widths. Also, a tree left in the middle often adds a nice, eccentric touch.

When we began our project, neighbors were extremely curious; some even politely scoffed. Now the locals are constantly hinting that they need a place to walk, to pick berries or to hunt. I can't always sell them on my ideas of conservation, but the concept of having to do less maintenance and mowing seems to have universal appeal. We are noticing quite a few mowed pathways springing up around us. And not long ago, a little girl staying at our neighbor's asked me if she could go walking on George Trail, a trail along some steep bluffs that we decided to name after my brother.

When going for walks, Marc insists that I be like Teddy Roosevelt and walk softly but carry a big stick. So far, I have not had any close encounters with wild animals or domestic dogs, but I find a hiking staff convenient for flicking fallen branches off the paths and poking at unsuspecting plants. Not surprisingly, we aren't the only ones who enjoy our paths. So, too, does all the local wildlife. We have had so many deer, rabbits, coyotes, squirrels, raccoons, turkeys and other critters — once I even saw a bobcat — that we put up a tree platform just to observe the abundant fauna. Judging by the tracks in the sand, mud and snow, our paths have become regular animal highways.


America's Greatest Path

The Appalachian Trail, called simply the "AT" by most hikers, is the premier hiking trail in the United States, a continental-scale wilderness pathway set aside for recreational foot travel only. The route of the AT closely follows the ridge line of eastern America's Appalachian Mountain chain for 2,160 unbroken miles, beginning on the summit of Springer Mountain in northern Georgia and ending on the summit of Mount Katahdin in central Maine. As it winds its way through the mountains, it passes through 14 states, eight national forests, six national parks and numerous state and local parks. About 99% of the route is on publicly owned lands, and no fee is charged nor is special permission needed to hike anywhere on the trailway itself, though in some high-use areas registration is required for overnight stays and fees may be charged for use of shelters and other facilities. The entire trail route is clearly marked with white blazes (2" x 6" rectangles painted on trees, rocks, etc.), and a series of three-sided lean-tos or shelters, each spaced about a day's journey apart, closer in many areas, is available to all trail users on a first-come, first-served basis. Water is available from numerous springs and streams, and the trail route passes through or near many towns and hamlets where long-distance hikers can resupply. More than 4 million people use some part of the AT annually, according to surveys, and about 2,500 hardy individuals attempt to backpack the entire Appalachian Trail in one continuous journey each year.

Before making too many paths, you might want to observe your land through all four seasons. That clump of unsightly I weeds might be a beautiful wildflower garden come spring.

Winding paths are more interesting than straightline paths.

Paths that generally follow the natural feature of the land, such as ridges or the bases of mountains or hills, offer interesting and diverse views.

Paths that follow springs, creeks, streams or other waterways are pleasing both to eyes and ears and offer the best opportunity for viewing wildlife.

Fence lines make pathways that are functional as well as attractive. Cedars can be trimmed up or archways can be created under them.

I Keep in mind that paths through shady areas do not grow up as quickly as paths through sunny areas. Paths through wildflower patches will need to be mowed more I frequently and cut back more often than paths through other areas.

It is easier to walk along flat bottomland or along the tops of hills than it is to traverse the sides. Trails along slopes, however, will eventually level out as rocks are pushed to the lower edges.

When making trails down steep hills or mountains, beware of them washing out in heavy rains. You might have to put in log or rock steps every several feet or wind the trail out of the path of rushing water.

When clearing and maintaining woodland pathways, logs and larger limbs can be arranged along the sides to delineate pathways, cut down on erosion and get rid of some of the brush that accumulates.

Narrow ravines do not usually make good trails since they frequently are full of water or fallen rocks hidden beneath a layer ,of wet, slippery leaves.

A good design for paths is a loop inside an outer perimeter I with a few short paths to connect the two.

Paths or trails can generally be made to delineate your property from a neighbor's. Be aware, however, that others might use it.

It is best not to create pathways that make your property easily accessible by outside ATVs or four-wheelers.

Keep motorized vehicles off paths as much as possible. They make ruts, kick up rocks and make paths dusty.

Name your paths and trails by some feature you all can remember: Ridge Path, Creek Path, Main Path, Loop Path or the like.


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