What Makes a “Sustainable” Trail?

The Mountains to Sound Greenway National Heritage Area is home to a huge number of trails that allow access to beautiful mountain tops, waterfalls, and shrub-steppe desert views. While trails provide us with opportunities to connect with nature in fun and meaningful ways, these trails and the people using them have an impact on the ecosystems they travel through. As we learn more about the repercussions these impacts have, land managers and organizations with trails programs such as ours are finding ways to make trails more sustainable. 

Sustainability can be tricky to define. Broadly speaking, sustainability means being able to maintain something over time without causing harm to the environment. A sustainable trail should allow visitors to enjoy their activity of choice in a safe way while minimizing impacts to the plants, animals, and ecosystems they’re traveling through. This might seem like a straightforward endeavor, but in practice it can be a difficult balancing act.  

If a trail travels through an area that elk use for migration, it can prevent the elk from reaching important winter habitat. If a trail passes too close to fragile plant communities, users can unknowingly trample them or spread invasive plants along the trail that out-compete the native plants. If a trail is built right along a riverbed, the trail can erode over time and damage important riparian habitat. On top of ecological considerations, trails also need to be built to handle high visitation and changing weather impacts. Building a trail at too steep of a grade will lead to erosion that makes the trails unsafe for the users and difficult for land managers to maintain.  

Photo by Merrill Images

Issues of sustainability can also arise as the environment and use of a trail changes. As this happens, trails need to be monitored and adapted to become more sustainable. The Greenway Trust has been working on tackling some of these sustainability issues at recent projects sites:  

At Saint Edward State Park, the Greenway Trust trail crew has been helping reroute trails away from the shoreline to restore and protect sensitive habitat.

Old trail at St. Edward State Park before the reroute

In the Mt. Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest, our team helped install a new trailhead toilet at Pratt Bar to better protect the water quality of the Middle Fork Snoqualmie River (one of Washington’s few designated Wild and Scenic Rivers!).

The new trailhead restroom at Pratt Bar being installed

In the Teanaway Community Forest, the Greenway Trust is helping to implement a new trails plan that will concentrate visitor use impacts away from important wildlife migration and watershed areas. And in Upper Kittitas County, the Greenway leads and implements design of Towns to Teanaway, which decommissions unsustainable, unofficial trails and replaces them with corridors that meet grade standards and avoid sensitive seasonal waterways. In addition to these on-the-ground projects, we also encourage trail users to #RecreateResponsibly through online messaging and by meeting them where they’re at (literally!) with our recently launched Trailhead Ambassadors program.  

The Trailhead Ambassadors set up at a busy trailhead

Creating sustainable trails is no easy task! It takes a great deal of planning, time, funding, and collaboration to ensure that our trails can support high quality visitor experiences while protecting the beauty and functionality of the landscapes that we love so much. The next time you’re out on your favorite trail, take a moment to really notice the path beneath your feet and consider all of the care and energy that went into each and every mile.  

hiking boots

If you love spending time outdoors and believe in our mission of ensuring a long-term balance between the needs of people and nature, there are a number of ways you can get involved and support this work: