Building Trails through the Forest: A Landowner Project

Grassy Meadow Trail,
Grassy Meadow Trail before and after trail construction. Photo: Randall S Hansen.

Our beautiful 40-acre woodland farm is nestled in the rolling hills of Garden Valley, between Lake Ellen and the Columbia River in Northeast Washington’s rural Ferry County. We’ve completed a management plan for our forest, and are now part of the American Tree Farm System—as a Certified Tree Farm. We have established these goals for our woodland farm:

  • Long-term forest stewardship
  • Natural, sustainable growth/harvesting
  • Protection of wildlife habitats
  • Multi-generational legacy

As we moved forward with our forest management plan, two of our goals were to improve the health of our entire forest and improve access to our entire property. But how? The answer is to build trails.

While the end-result of your work will be an amazing trail through your forest, before you jump into the project you should be fully aware of the hard work it will take to build the trail — especially if your property is heavily wooded, includes water bodies, and has an uneven terrain. Trail-building is NOT a weekend project.

Before you begin building your trail(s)

There are a few things to consider before you start building your trail. First, decide on the purpose for your trail. Is the trail going to be purely recreational? Do you want a “strictly business” trail that goes from one point to the other efficiently, or a trail that meanders through the forest? Will it be a hiking trail, or access for ATVs? And what is the difference between a wide trail and a narrow road? Just when is a Forest Practices Application (FPA) required?

The general rule of thumb seems to be that if the trail is for recreational purposes only and involves minimal environmental impact, you probably don’t need an FPA. But if this trail is for timber-related activities like logging or firewood sales, it would then fall under the definition of a “Forest Practice” and thus may require an FPA:

“”Forest practice” means any activity conducted on or directly pertaining to forest land and relating to growing, harvesting, or processing timber, or removing forest biomass, including but not limited to: Activities in and over typed water; Road and trail construction; Harvesting, final and intermediate; Precommercial thinning; Reforestation; Fertilization; Prevention and suppression of diseases and insects; Salvage of trees; and Brush control…”

from Forest Practice Rules Chapter 222-15 WAC

You will not need a FPA for a trail used for logging that is less than 600 feet and meets the Class 1 Forest Practice definition. If you have any question as to whether a Forest Practice Application is needed it is highly recommended to check with the regional DNR Office in which your proposed project is located.

Give forest practice office staff the county your project will be in and ask for the Forest Practices forester to contact you. Staff will be glad to assist and answer your questions. The good news is that even if you do need to file an FPA for your “multipurpose” trail there is no fee to pay unless you are including the sale of timber in the FPA. “No trees, no fees…”

Route of Grassy Meadow Trail
Route of Grassy Meadow Trail

Your next step is to survey the area where you plan to build the trail, examining natural elements that will either enhance or hamper trail-building. For example, if you have a stream on the property, you’ll not only want to determine the best point to cross it, but also focus on ways to avoid soil erosion near the stream. Also, if you have steep hills, consider creating a switchback or two rather than a direct trail up the hill. I’ve found that looking at an aerial view of the area is a helpful starting point, but nothing beats actually walking your property and mapping out the final elements of the trail as you walk it, noting options for moving the trail to protect or enhance elements of the forest.

My personal philosophy is to NOT remove any healthy, mature trees in building our trails. I will remove saplings and junk trees, but I have yet had to cut down a healthy tree in my trail-building. For our trail-building, no chain saws are required. On one of our trails, there is a lot of downed forest debris. Luckily, most of it is rotted, so removing it has been fairly easy. A chain saw may be required to help clear larger trees already on the ground.


I find the actual building of the trails enjoyable. Yes, it is dirty and hard work. But, seeing your vision unfold in your forest as you build the trail — and then actually walking it once it’s completed — is extremely fulfilling. In terms of the tools of trail-building, we generally use shovels, pruning shears, and a tractor. We remove and prune smaller vegetation, use the shovel to remove rocks and return debris back into the forest, and the tractor for both initial clearing and for trail maintenance (using the bush hog attachment).

We don’t have any streams or wetlands on our property, so there is no need for bridge-building. If you have a water crossing, you may get by with stepping stones or some planks, but check with the DNR Forest Practices staff before planning anything more elaborate to find out what rules might apply. Finally, we envision most of our trails to be chipped — using the chips we create from our forest thinning projects. (Our tractor also has a chipper attachment.) Some trails may remain bare or naturally covered in pine needles. For trails closer to your house, you may prefer adding gravel or river rocks for a prettier appearance.

Additional trail-building resources

This article is just a quick overview of our process for building trails. These are some of my favorite resources:

By Dr. Randall S. Hansen, Owner, Hansen Woodland Farm