Monthly Archives: October 2011

Hot on the Trail: Pathways create interest and access in woodlots

Hot on the Trail: Pathways create interest and access in woodlots

Build it and they will come. In the movies it was a baseball diamond built in a cornfield that attracted so much attention. The same is true when it comes to woods trails, says John Morton, who has made a career out of designing pathways that provide opportunities for recreation and relaxation. “I hear all the time from clients, ‘Wow, we get out in the woods so much more now that we have a trail!'” he explains. “Trails really get people out there, and it’s a very gratifying part of the work.”

Morton was a two-time Olympian and Nordic ski coach at Dartmouth. “When I gave that up, I wasn’t sure what I was going to do,” he recalls. By good fortune, he found he was able to use his cross-country skiing background to develop a niche designing ski trails. “Fairly quickly, that expanded,” he says, “because trails that are good for Nordic skiing are also good for a number of other outdoor recreational activities, such as running, biking, horseback riding, walking, snowshoeing and so on.”

John Morton got his start by designing Nordic ski trails, but today Morton Trails is involved with a wide array of trails designed for recreational and relaxation purposes.
Photos courtesy of Morton Trails.

What started out as a small enterprise has turned into Morton Trails (, a company based in Thetford Center, Vt., that is sought around the country for its trail design expertise. Morton works with fellow designer David Lindahl to create trails for ski areas, schools, office developments and private landowners, among many other clients.

Morton says he has designed a number of trails for large landowners seeking to take advantage of their farmland and forestland. Some, such as Morse Farm in East Montpelier, Vt., are interested in expanding into cross-country skiing or other recreational ventures as a way of increasing business during the winter months. Others are commissioned by individuals seeking better access to their woods.

Rarely does Morton have to start from scratch. “Almost everywhere in northern New England, and in other places in the country, there are old farm roads or logging roads or skid trails. It’s very rare that you find a place that is completely unbroken forest,” he says. “There are almost always different ways to access the woods.” He adds that one of his challenges is to find ways to incorporate as many of those existing access points as possible into a “well-designed, well-configured trail network.”

Of course, there are times when that’s not always possible. “I might say, ‘This ascent is just too steep to be enjoyed by people, and furthermore it’s going to be environmentally unsustainable – it’s going to be constantly washed out,'” Morton explains. Sometimes he’s able to link existing logging roads by creating new trail sections that avoid problem areas or that provide access to previously inaccessible parts of the woods. “One of the comments I often hear from people is, ‘Wow, I would have never thought of going that way.’ They may have always gone a certain way since the time the road or skid trail was created, but I may come at it from another way,” he says.

Morton says he starts a project by meeting with the client to get a clear sense of what they want. “That can vary quite a bit. It might be a retired couple who bought an old hillside farm; they might not want to get to the high point on their property, they might just want a route that is relatively narrow and gets them outside to enjoy their woods,” he points out. “I had another client in northern New Hampshire that wanted a really tough Nordic ski trail built in the woods. Her sons had been ski racers and she wanted the best, most challenging trail she could get on her property to be sure that her sons came back home to visit every vacation.”

Trail construction usually requires clearing trees and brush, and then building the trail with an excavator. The uses-walking, biking, forest access, etc.-and the amount of use the trail will receive determines the width and complexity of the trail.

In many cases, landowners want to be able to travel the trails by vehicle or tractor at times in order to access remote parts of the farm or forest. “And that’s the way we design the trails – Nordic ski trails are ideally 12 to 14 feet wide, and that’s not much different than the typical woods road. So, the trails we build are usually wide enough that they can be maintained by a tractor and flail mower,” he says.

Regardless of the intended use of the trail, some key considerations are nearly universal: “We try to make use of the terrain, or any interesting natural features, such as ledge outcroppings. We obviously try to stay away from wet areas and other environmentally sensitive areas,” explains Morton. “When we are forced to cross a drainage area, we try to find the area of least impact. If we’re going to put a bridge in, we’d much prefer to put one in over a 10-foot span than a 40-foot span.” Culverts are usually a faster, less-expensive option, but Morton explains that there is concern in the environmental community about the disruptive impact that culverts have on the hydrology of the stream, and thus the ability of fish and other wildlife in the water to travel freely. “We try to balance these concerns,” he adds. “One solution that’s becoming more popular is a half-round culvert, which keeps the stream bottom intact and arches over the water.”

To help control water on the trail and prevent erosion, Morton designs swales rather than water bars. “You can put in these very gentle swales or grade reversals to direct the water off the trail or help it sheet off the slope,” he explains. “The two most concerning issues about water are volume and velocity. If you can get the water off the trail before it accumulates a lot of volume or velocity, you eliminate a lot of erosion.” And gentle swales are much less jarring or disruptive than a sharp water bar when it comes to uses such as skiing and biking.

Morton Trails often works in conjunction with local contractors in the area the trail is located for construction of the trail. “The two steps usually are clearing – cutting, clearing and stacking the brush – and building the trail,” says Morton. The clearing of the trees is sometimes a bonus: Depending on the value of the timber harvested, that can sometimes go a long way toward offsetting the cost of the trail itself. The building of the trail is best accomplished with an excavator, either large or small, depending on the desired width of the trail. “I usually spend about half an hour with the operator beforehand,” he explains. “These excavator operators are usually so skilled that once they understand what the goal is, how we want the turns banked, for example, they’re great.”

“I hear all the time from clients, ‘Wow, we get out in the woods so much more now that we have a trail!'” Morton says.

In most cases, Morton says he works with the landowner’s forester in order to be sure the trail system meets not only the current needs of the landowner, but also provides access for future harvests. Morton Trails is currently working with L.L. Bean in the development of a large outdoor adventure center on 600 acres of woodland surrounding the company’s distribution center in Freeport, Maine. “We’ve collaborated with their consulting forester,” cites Morton as one example. “He and I went out together: I designed where the ski trail should go, and he figured out how to use as much of that trail as possible for his skid road network.” Especially when it comes to stream crossings, it’s best and most cost effective to be sure that a single trail can serve as many uses as possible, he says.

In general, trail maintenance is determined by the amount of use a trail gets. Some trails require a special design and some added maintenance. In the case of expert-level mountain biking, for example, the trails are typically of the narrower “single track” variety. These trails might need to be “hardened” through the application of crushed stone or some similar material in a narrow strip along the best line, where most of the hard use occurs. Most private trails don’t require much maintenance because they just don’t get as much use; public trail systems might require a little more, depending on the amount and type of use.

For private landowners seeking a simple trail network or improvement of logging roads where there is no major stream crossing, there often is no permitting required. For larger, more visible trail systems, permits might be needed, says Morton. There usually is no conflict between the installation of a trail system and a landowner’s participation in a state current use program, he adds: “Very often, the design and construction of a trail can fit right into a forest management plan – it counts toward the management. The landowner can dictate what the goals are: the goal doesn’t have to be highest value timber production. The goal can be wildlife habitat or recreation.”

For many woodlot owners, the goal is simply to spend more time in the woods, and that type of access is exactly what well-designed trails provide.

Patrick White is a freelance writer based in Middlesex, Vt. Over the past 10 years, he has covered a wide range of agricultural operations around the Northeast. He is always on the lookout for unusual stories and cutting-edge installations. Comment or question? Visit and join in the discussions.

from Farming Magazine, August, 2011

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