Crow’s Nest: How trails affect our experience in nature

January 23, 2023

By Daniel Barringer, Preserve Manager.

Aerial view of deciduous woods in fall at Crow's Nest Preserve

Photo: Daniel Barringer

I have had the opportunity to observe a forested area here at Crow’s Nest both before and after a trail was built through it. I am sure the trail causes some impact on natural resources: improving access for some species, whether large mammals or plants that take advantage of the disturbance—literally a path that weed seed can vector along, something that becomes part of our maintenance plan. Wider trails could serve as barriers to other species, though none of our wooded paths are that wide. But what I am talking about here is how the trail affects how we experience a space.

Our Deep Woods was part of the preserve for years before we put a trail through it. That doesn’t mean we didn’t visit there—but it was more difficult. Various trail clubs would hike through as a way to connect the rest of Crow’s Nest with the Horse-Shoe Trail, for example, advising participants in the writeup that the hike would include a bushwhack. The experience wasn’t great, as there are multiflora rose thorns to encounter and greater resistance to forward progress through the woods. Orienteering maps even have a color code for those kinds of woods that don’t have an open understory, labeled “Fight,” to describe the experience.

An Eagle Scout laid out and built our first trail in the Deep Woods more than 20 years ago. The trail makes it much easier to get from one end to the other, but it also simplifies our perception of space. Let’s ignore the third dimension—up and down—here. The trail makes the two-dimensional space of the surface we traverse into a one-dimensional line. Instead of being able to travel in any direction equally easily (or with difficulty, in this case), the trail beckons you either forward or back. Instead of relying on possibly ambiguous landmarks in any direction the space becomes easier to process: “I am at this point along the trail.” I think the trail provides a net benefit in ease of access, but I am also aware that it adds a human-created framework through which we experience the landscape.

I am reminded of when I took horse-riding lessons in Chester Springs many years ago. I loved trail riding through woods, along pipeline rights-of-way, and ending up in places I knew because of the road system, without having made use of those roads on that ride. “Wow—how did I end up here?” How much differently would we experience our neighborhoods if the roads were in different locations—or absent altogether? (I realize this is just an intellectual exercise!)

When we laid out the trail alignment for the Deep Woods Trail, we flagged it in early spring. By the time we got ready to clear the trail the trees had leafed out and we could no longer find our flagging tape, so we laid it out again with flags much closer together. I think we ended up with a better trail which passes some landmarks such as old cobblestone quarry sites, a reminder that this land had once been cleared of trees that have since grown up and obscured some of that history.

Even if you bushwhack in the Deep Woods at Crow’s Nest Preserve today, you will eventually arrive somewhere along the trail, so a linear trail is a different kind of landmark than an individual point would be. What is revealed along a trail is also determined by where we put it.

I had the privilege of managing our Green Hills Preserve when it first became a preserve, before it had trails or infrastructure for public access. There were some old farm lanes, some of which we incorporated into the trail system. Other parts of the trail system we designed from scratch, along with a parking area to serve for access. We had fun laying out the trails in such a way as to “interpret” the experience a visitor would have there. I especially enjoyed laying out the “Clarence Trail” there, which took a few tries before we liked how it turned out. While we started with a general concept of a loop that we could draw on the map, we wanted the actual trail design to be based on what you would encounter as you walked it, so in 2016 then-intern Riley Clark-Long and I spent a few days bushwhacking through thickets collecting GPS tracks, comparing them on a computer screen back at the office, and redoing it until we had an alignment that maximized trail mileage in a small space, followed contours of the hills, meandered naturalistically, encountered a variety of habitats, and got you back out into the meadows for spectacular vistas. Once the trail was completed, we collected a GPS track again to represent the trail “as built” since that varied a bit from what we scouted. This last is what was used to prepare the trail map for visitors and is used in the Natural Lands app.

The trails there have only gotten better under current management, as Preserve Manager Erin Smith has since widened narrow sections and increased maintenance of the treadway.

There are several trail-design books out there, most of which focus on the materials, slope, and dimensions of the treadway—the surface that you walk on. One that goes beyond all that is Natural Surface Trails by Design by Troy Scott Parker (2004). I was introduced to his work through a Land Trust Alliance Rally, and his book asks first, “What is the experience you’re trying to create with this trail?” A trail should gradually reveal a landscape, offer a hint of what might be coming without giving it all away, to lure you further in to experience its beauty. We pay close attention to Parker’s concepts of “mini-watersheds” so a trail has small ups and downs and no one part of the trail drains water from too large an area which would leave it susceptible to erosion.

In the end I think adding a trail has limited the amount of ecological disruption to the natural community. On trail club bushwhacks we didn’t typically walk single file and the physical disturbance to the landscape was probably greater than today when it is limited to just one narrow treadway.

We don’t want you to be distracted by our trail design; it is enough to know that nearly everything about it is intentional. The presence of a trail changes the way we experience the space through which it passes, even as it reveals the beauty that we want you to enjoy.