Info:Hiking Trails

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Hiking Trails

See Trails page for trail listing.

Hiking Trail in County Park

I suppose the classic definition of a "Hiking Trail" would be something like a narrow rugged trail used to walk (hike) through the wilderness. However, use of the term often covers a much broader range of trails including some trails that hardcore hikers would likely scoff at calling hiking trails. For the purposes of trails on this website, I'm going to accept the much broader definition of hiking trail to basically cover just about any outdoor trail passing through a natural environment where people choose to walk. So whether you are taking a short walk on a wooded trail in a city park, or a rugged hike along a ridge, or a multi-day backpacking trek, you're doing so on a hiking trail.

Some hiking trails are destination-based trails such as trails to waterfalls, lakes, or scenic overlooks, while others are journey-based trails that simply provide a route to pass through and enjoy natural areas without having a specific destination other than the trail itself (though there may be specific points of interest on the trail that may be considered destinations). Hiking trails range from small trails of less than a mile to trails thousands of miles long, and range in difficulty from well-maintained easy relatively flat footpaths to extremely rugged trails with very steep rocky, rooty, and slippery surfaces, water crossings, and a variety of other obstacles to deal with.

Types of Trails used for Hiking

Below are some general classifications of the types of trails available to hikers. There can be a lot of overlap from one classification to another and this list is intended more to just give a general idea of the variety of trails available for hiking rather than trying to develop firm classifications of trails.

  • Trails in City and County Parks: These are your local little trails that may be formal trails developed and maintained by your parks department or may be informal trails that just exist because people started walking there years ago. These trails may or may not be mapped or have trail markers, but are generally short enough so even though you may feel lost temporarily, you probably won't get lost in the sense that you put yourself in danger of not finding your way out. Though you don't generally expect these trails to be rugged, surprisingly there are some very rugged trails in city and county parks (such as informal trails that have been created along ravines, bluffs, or other steep areas).
View from a hiking trail
Frozen waterfalls are prime destinations for winter hiking
  • Hiking trails in State and National Parks and Forests (and Provincial Parks): These are the classic hiking trails and tend to be among the most scenic trails (as you can see by the two photos on the right) you will likely encounter. They may range from short "Nature Trails" (covered separately) to much longer and more rugged hiking trails with long and/or steep ascents and descents. The more popular trails in State and National Parks are often well developed and maintained with bridges or boardwalks for water crossings and may even have stairs or other trail modifications to make steep sections easier to negotiate. These are some of the most scenic trails simply because State and National Parks are inherently located in the most scenic natural areas. Trails in National and State Forests tend to be less developed and subsequently may be more rugged due to more crude water crossings, overgrown trails, erosion, etc (though there are some very rugged trails in State and National Parks). They also generally do not have the level of dramatic scenery as their State and National Park counterparts, but also do not get as much use and therefore often provide a more secluded feel.
  • Nature Trails: Nature Trails are a fairly specific category of trail and are generally short loops (usually between a half mile and couple of miles in length) designed specifically for casual viewing of nature. They are usually well-maintained well-marked trails with fairly gentle grades (though some may have some moderately steep sections). Self-guided nature trails usually have signs located along the trail pointing out specific natural points of interest (such as types of vegetation, animal habitat, and geographical features). Nature trails are located in everything from city parks to national parks and forests.
  • Trails in Wilderness Areas: "Wilderness Area" is a specific designation which protects areas and restricts what can be done within those areas. From a hiker's perspective, trails in wilderness areas are not all that different from other trails such as those in State and National Parks and Forests since most of the restrictions in wilderness areas do not pertain to hiking. Though trails in wilderness areas may be very rugged and remote, there are also trails in National Parks and Forests that are equally rugged and remote. What is most notable about wilderness areas is the absolute prohibition of any motorized vehicles.
  • Thru-Hiking Trails: Thru-hiking trails are very long (hundreds or thousands of miles long) point-to-point hiking trails that generally follow some significant natural geographical feature such as a mountain range or body of water. Probably the most well-know thru-hiking trail in the U.S. is the Appalachian Trail. Thru-hiking seems to be gaining in popularity and there are many new thru-hiking trails in the process of being completed. Obviously (or maybe not so obviously), you don't have to hike the entire trail. For most of us, hiking shorter segments of these long trails is a more reasonable approach than taking an entire season off of work to go hiking. Due to the complex logistics of creating a thru-hiking trail, these trails often pass through a mix of public and private lands and may even have sections where you are essentially hiking along a road. The trails themselves range from well-developed, well-maintained, heavily used sections to very narrow minimally maintained lightly used sections (all on the same trail).
A beach can be a natural hiking trail
Riverbed at low water can be a natural hiking trail
  • Naturally-occurring Hiking Trails: Sometimes nature makes it's own trails. These include beaches and rocky shorelines, dried (or low water) riverbeds, frozen lakes and rivers, geologic features such as old lava flows or other rock features that prevent vegetation from taking over. Since some of these trails area essentially temporary trails (frozen lakes and rivers, or low water riverbeds), you're probably not going to see them documented as an official trail, but they make for some very interesting hiking. Animal trails may or may not make for hiking trails depending upon the nature of the animals that made the trails. Where I live, animal trails tend to go nowhere (usually just short trails to food sources and water), but I'm sure there are places where more migratory animals may make trails that work a little better for hiking (watch out for ticks).
  • Bushwhacking: There is really no such thing as a "bushwhacking trail" since bushwacking is by definition hiking where there is no trail (just heading off in to the brush/forest). In many places, leaving the trail (bushwhacking) is simply not allowed due to the damage it causes to the natural areas. In others, it may be allowed but is likely a really bad idea due to the type of bush you will be whacking. To put it another way, bushwhacking can be extremely hard work and a generally unpleasant experience in areas with thick and thorny underbrush, not to mention wetlands and other swampy areas. Plus, if you've never gone off trail, you may not appreciate how easy it is to get disoriented (lost) when bushwhacking (though a GPS helps tremendously). That being said, there area places where bushwhacking can be reasonably accomplished and I'm sure there are many bushwhacking enthusiasts out there (though I don't know what they call themselves since bushwhacker already means something else). And in places that get enough snow to cover the underbrush, bushwhacking on snowshoes or skis can take the bushwhacking out of bushwhacking.
  • Trails designed for other purposes: Since you can hike on just about any trail, there are many trails that area not necessarily designated "hiking trails" that provide hiking opportunities.
Forest Road
Cross-Country Ski Trail used for Hiking
    • Forest Roads and Jeep Trails: Sometimes referred to as "Fire Roads", forest roads are access roads made to provide access for logging, land management, fire control, or other uses. Some forest roads get a fair amount of automobile traffic and have somewhat well-maintained very wide (enough for two-way auto traffic)gravel/crushed stone surfaces. These are generally not a great place to go hiking, but then there are the narrower (wide enough for one truck) natural surfaced or gravel/crushed stone roads that get little to no auto traffic and may even be permanently closed off to automobile use (see photo on right). Seldom used or abandoned forest roads often become somewhat overgrown, eroded and potholed and may start to look more like a hiking trail than a road.
    • Cross-Country Ski Trails: Ski trails are generally a series of interconnected loops and tend to be wider than conventional hiking trails and follow gently curving paths that often seek out the hills (unlike hiking trails that generally follow more direct routes). In the snow belt, there are numerous cross-country ski trail systems that offer hiking opportunities during the off-season. Most groomed cross-country ski trails prohibit hiking when there is snow cover. See the Cross Country Ski Trails Page for more detailed info on ski trails.
    • Mountain Bike Trails: As mountain biking has gained in popularity and numerous trail use conflicts emerged, trails started being constructed specifically for mountain biking. For the most part, hiking is also allowed on most mountain bike trails. Heavily used mountain bike trails are generally not a great place to hike, but lesser used trails or trails during the off-season can provide some hiking opportunities. Be aware though that trails designed for mountain biking are often very different from trails designed for hiking. Some of the newer mountain bike trails try to make the best use of the land available by making frequent tight switchbacks in an effort to add technical interest and more miles for mountain bikers. These types of trails may get a bit annoying for hikers used to more direct routes. See the Mountain Bike Trails Page for more detailed information.
    • Snowmobile and ATV Trails? I personally would be hard pressed to hike on a designated ATV trail. Snowmobile trails may provide some hiking options, but usually in areas that have snowmobile trails on public land (snowmobile trails on private land are probably off limits to hikers), there area also plenty of hiking trails that provide better hiking than the snowmobile trails. Plus, snowmobile trails may have water crossings or go through swampy areas that are not a problem when frozen, but can be rather unpleasant in summer when you're on foot.
    • Horse Trails: This is another one that is probably not the best place for hiking if the trail is heavily used, but a horse trail that doesn't get much horse use may provide some hiking opportunities (or work as a connector to another hiking trail).

Trail Markings and Difficulty Ratings

Yellow Blaze on hiking trail

Trails are marked in many ways. Everything from classic old wooden signs with trail names and directional arrows carved into them to custom printed metal or plastic signs to various types of color-coded posts placed along the trail. But the closest thing to a standard way of marking trails is the use of blazes. Blazes are colored markings usually placed on trees along the trail. The ones I've encountered most were either rectangles (maybe 2 or 3 inches wide by 3 to 5 inches tall) or circles painted on the tree slightly above eye level. Painting on the bark of a tree is not all that precise so in many cases the blazes just look like a blotch of paint. For single standalone trails, the color blue seems to be used the most (that's just my experience), but additional colors (red, yellow, white, orange) may be used for additional trails in the same system or to uniquely identify a major trail. Thru-hiking trails will usually maintain the same color marking for the entire trail. For example, the Appalachian Trail is marked with white blazes, and the Ice Age Trail in Wisconsin (my neck of the woods) is marked with yellow blazes throughout its length (see photo on right). On well-defined trails that get a fair amount of use, most of the blazes probably seem unnecessary unless there is another trail intersecting with the trail, but if you've ever tried to follow a hiking trail after a foot of snow has fallen, you will quickly gain an appreciation for each and every blaze (see winter trails photo further down this page). The spacing of blazes along the trail is not standardized; ideally you would like to be able to see a blaze from any location on the trail, but that isn't always the case. There does tend to be a greater emphasis on placing blazes whenever the trail changes direction. Check out the wikipedia article Trail Blazing for additional information on blazes including the use of multiple blazes as directional markers (I have to say that I was unaware of this little system, I guess I will have to pay more attention on the trails to see if these are actually used).

example of type of trail where a cairn may be used (no cairn shown in this photo)

In open areas with no trees, cairns are sometimes used in place of blazes. Cairns are basically three or more rocks stacked in a manner that makes it obvious they were intentionally stacked (not just a natural pile of rocks). The ones I've encountered generally consisted of no more than five or ten rocks. In the northwoods of the upper great lakes region (where I spend much of my hiking time), we don't have a lot of need for cairns, but I have seen them used occasionally when a trail passes across a bald peak or ridgeline (photo on the right shows an example of the types of places I have seen cairns use, however there is no cairn in that photo). The problem with cairns is they need to be regularly restacked due to being knocked over by wind, rain, snow, hikers or animals. And, they are easy targets for mischievous morons. They also don't do much good after the snow falls. Check out the wikipedia article Cairn for additional information on cairns.

Rugged hiking trail through talus field, with blue blaze painted on rock

Since walking tends to be a little more stable than other trail activities such as skiing or mountain biking, the importance of difficulty ratings on hiking trails does not rank quite as high as for trails used for these other activities. Which may help to explain why difficulty ratings on hiking trails tend to be extremely subjective. The most annoying rating situation I run into frequently is when trails are rated as difficult simply because they are longer than the other trails. As if we couldn't figure out that hiking ten miles is going to be more difficult than hiking three miles. And then there are the regional differences. A trail designated as more difficult or most difficult in some of the vertically challenged areas of the great plains states may actually be easier than a trail designated as easy in the mountains. I've hit a few trails in Canada that had sections that were so difficult that they would be completely off the scales used for trails I frequent in the Midwest. In fact, if those same trails existed somewhere else, they may not even be considered trails at all and would likely have a big gate or fence across them prohibiting entry. The photo on the right shows a "hiking trail" through a talus field. You can see the blue blaze painted on one of the large rocks in the photo.

I think for most hikers, knowledge of the difficulty of the trail is not used so much to choose a trail, but rather to plan their hike (type of footwear, expected travel speeds, should they bring trekking poles?, etc.). Unfortunately, a basic difficulty rating doesn't provide the details for these decisions, so you are generally better off looking for more detailed information on the trails by talking to other trail users, park rangers, reading trail guides, reviewing topographic maps, and checking websites like this one.

Winter Hiking Trails

Hiking trail in winter, you can see blue blaze on tree in center of photo
Even large lakes such as Lake Superior can sometimes become hiking trails

As snowshoeing has gained in popularity in recent years, I've started to see more and more trails designated as "snowshoe trails". I don't particularly like this designation because these are just hiking trails with snow on them and you may or may not need snowshoes to hike them. And in many cases, it's much easier to hike them without the snowshoes (I've seen my share of folks trudging around with their new snowshoes in four inches of snow or on hardpacked trails that could be easily hiked in a pair of sneakers). So I'm gonna just stick with calling them hiking trails regardless of whether or not there's snow on them.

And for those that have not hit a hiking trail in the winter, you would probably be surprised at how much foot traffic many hiking trails get after the snow falls. Hiking trails along rivers and waterfalls become particularly scenic in the winter (see photo near top of this page) and these types of trails often get so much traffic that even with a couple of feet of snow on the ground, you probably do not need snowshoes to hike them (unless you are the first one out after a heavy snowfall). However, going off trail to explore the ravine along the waterfalls is probably a whole different story and your snowshoes will come in real handy for that. Hiking popular trails in winter is pretty easy because you will have a very well-defined trail of footprints to follow, but hiking a less popular trail or being the first out on a trail after a significant snowfall can bring a whole new dimension to hiking. This is where those colored blazes on the trees become incredibly important, and even with them it is very very easy to lose the trail. In the photo on the right, you can see the blue blaze on a tree (barely) but can you see a trail? Neither could I. Because of this, you have to be very careful when planning your winter hiking routes. Doing an out-and-back is the best choice in an untracked trail because you can feel pretty comfortable about getting back by just following your own tracks (provided you're not hiking during a major snowstorm). But trying to connect several untracked trails into a loop can be rather risky. I have had to turn around on at least one occasion about two-thirds way around a loop because I completely lost the trail (making my hike a little longer than I had planned). Had I been a little further around the loop when I lost the trail, I may have tried something really stupid like thinking I could bushwhack my way back to the trailhead.

Winter hiking also opens up some temporary natural hiking trails such as frozen lakes and rivers that allow you to get to places you wouldn't be able to see in the summer (without a boat). The photo on the right shows how even a big lake like Lake Superior can sometimes become a hiking trail (though I was actually skiing that day).


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This page is authored and maintained by Dave Piasecki