Trails to Nowhere

Not in Douglas County, Colorado, where trails, and the things you do on them, remain as popular as ever.


Trails, or more precisely the things you do on them -- walking, bird watching, bike riding, jogging, roller blading, cross-country skiing, hiking, talking and so on -- are some of the most popular and least expensive activities in the country (and possibly the world).

That’s a big statement, but survey after survey returned to parks and recreation departments nation-wide echo its truth. Trail creation and maintenance are among the most important, if not the most important, priorities for recreation customers.

Nowhere is this more evident than in Douglas County, Colorado -- one of the nation’s fastest growing counties and one continuing to make a huge commitment to trails.

Multiple Uses -- The Next Big Thing
“The biggest thing happening in the world of trails is multiple-use considerations,” says Ron Benson, Director of Parks and Trails for Douglas County. “By multiple use, I mean creating a soft surface parallel to a concrete or asphalt surface. So, if you’ve got parallel trails, you’ve got roller bladers and bikers on the hard surface and joggers and hikers on the soft crushed or fine surface.”

Besides the simple logic of providing a surface specific to the sport or activity, these parallel trails also help to separate wheeled traffic from foot traffic, most of the time ensuring a safer experience for all users.

Which is the top priority for Benson.

“The main thing you need for a nice trail experience is a safe experience,” says Benson. “So, we’ve really beefed up our ranger presence on the trails. They’re on foot, on horseback, on bikes, and, in some of our more isolated areas, on ATVs.”

Benson says his rangers, while capable of enforcement, are really there to educate, educate, educate. He believes it is better to work with folks, to talk with them about why their dog needs to be on a leash, for instance, instead of simply ticketing them for the offense.

This education policy is carried through in every aspect of the department.

“We do a lot of ‘What’s the best way to be courteous on trails -- who yields to whom,’” says Benson. “The message is spread throughout our trail signage, it’s on our trail maps, and it’s reinforced by the rangers -- in a positive way.”

Aesthetically Pleasing Trails to Somewhere
In Douglas County, the trail philosophy is to put together a sound plan (make sure the trails serve a purpose), and make sure they’re as pretty as possible.

“I call them trails to nowhere,” says Benson, “where people come to the end and say, ‘What do I do now?’”

Camp Business – Middle, Center Zone Code

Instead, Benson’s staff works to create a non-vehicular traffic grid, where trails are used to connect point A to point B (park to school, grocery story to park, etc.) or at a minimum loop trails that start and end at the same point -- so there’s a defined beginning, middle and end.

But, a logical reason for the trail is only criterion number one. Even more important (or at least as important to the folks at Douglas County) are the aesthetics of the trail. Is it pretty?

“We try to make as much of the trail as pretty as possible,” says Benson, “because if it’s not, if it’s ugly, you’ll never walk it again. We want you to walk it for the rest of your life.”

Benson believes that a large majority of his customers use trails that are within two miles of their homes.

“It’s a simple question of how much time you have,” says Benson. “On the weekend, you might drive 20 miles and take your bike, but most of the time you’re hiking, riding or whatever right around your home because you only have so much time, so much daylight.”

Benson’s definition of “pretty” takes some getting used to. He charges his design staff with placing the trails along the most scenic routes, but understands that if the trail is going through the center of town from the grocery store to the school, you may not have many options.

No problem. There’s more to “pretty” than meets the eye. In the case of Douglas County, the trails have consistent, well-designed signage. All the signs look basically the same (same font, same basic design, same color scheme) and give the user the feeling that this place is put together. The staff really knows what it is doing.

The staff adds to that feeling by strategically placing picnic shelters, trashcans, water fountains and other amenities to ease you through your walking experience -- so much so that you’re left with the feeling this was a really enjoyable experience even if you never saw a single tree.

Of course, maintenance plays a big, big role in the user experience -- aesthetically and practically.

Maintaining for Aesthetics, Safety and Purpose
“I tell my guys, ‘When you walk that trail, pretend you’ve never walked it before,’” says Benson. “How does it look? Is it clean? No graffiti? Smooth, even surface? Bridges are all painted -- not peeling? And so on.”

Benson’s staff is always sweeping trails, emptying trashcans, plowing trails (guaranteed open within 24 hours of a major snowstorm), but the real attention to detail comes in the form of proactive maintenance.

“We had a guy break his leg on one of our trails last year,” says Benson. “We had put in a new trail, and in one section the water was draining over the top. In the summer months, no problem (unless it builds up slime), but in the winter it froze up like a Popsicle. We had a guy come around the corner, slip and break his leg. The next day we went out, pulled the panel, or stone as we call it, and put a culvert in so the water would drain underneath the path.”

Douglas County budgets $40,000 to$50,000 per year just for concrete replacement. Because the workers are building over expansive soil, whenever they get an inch of heave (or more), they pull the slab and re-pour. If it’s less than an inch, they grind it down -- all in the name of alleviating trip points.

And they do other things -- mow wide berms next to the trails so nobody can sneak up on someone using the path, trim low-hanging limbs so bikers and equestrians can ride without ducking, and follow “best practices” when it comes to trail creation (eight feet wide, 2 percent maximum cross-slope grade, 5 percent maximum grade or less) -- at least as much as possible.

“We are in a mountainous region, so we may not be able to meet the 5 percent maximum grade on a certain trail,” says Randy Burkhardt, Trail and Open Space Planner for Douglas County, “but in those cases we work to make sure there’s an equivalent trail somewhere in the county.”

Equivalent means the same basic experience -- and in Douglas County, the staff prides itself on making sure that experience is awesome.