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Trailheads

Delaware & Lehigh Trail | Photo by Thom Carroll

A trailhead is a designated public access point to a trail, often—but not always—located at its terminus points. The trailhead is typically a place where users begin or end their journeys and where they get oriented to the trail or trail network. While there will normally be other minor access points along a trail, for example at road crossings, within neighborhoods or where two trails intersect, a trailhead tends to be a developed site, purposefully designed to provide amenities to trail users including some combination of:

Trailheads can act as the interface between trails and their adjacent communities. They can serve as a gateway into communities, encouraging trail users to pause, explore and (ideally) spend money in towns. They can also pique the curiosity of residents and visitors alike, welcoming them to use the trail. There may be opportunities to celebrate the culture or history of a place through interpretive signage, historic markers and public art placed at the trailhead. Trailheads can also be ideal gathering places for events such as farmer’s markets, organized bike rides or runs, or community celebrations.

Planning and Design

Valentine trailhead on the Cowboy Trail | Photo by Alex Duryea, courtesy of the Nebraska Tourism Commission
Valentine trailhead on the Cowboy Trail | Photo by Alex Duryea, courtesy of the Nebraska Tourism Commission

Trailheads should not be an afterthought but should be considered early in the planning process. The planning, design and construction of trailheads will depend on the needs of various user groups, land ownership, degree of site development or modification allowable, funding available and a host of other factors. Detailed instructions on trailhead planning and design can be found in the Pennsylvania Department of Natural Resources’ Trail Design & Development Principles document.

User Types

Trailheads and the amenities therein contribute to the overall user experience of the trail. What amenities are provided depends on the needs of current and potential user groups.

It is common for people using recreational trails to arrive by driving, so providing passenger vehicle parking areas at trailheads along such trails is recommended. For trails with existing or anticipated equestrian use, parking areas should be able to accommodate the smooth circulation of a truck-trailer combination, as well as a staging area where users can unload and saddle their horses. The U.S. Forest Service provides a detailed manual on trailhead design for equestrian trails.

Accessibility should be a key consideration along any trail, since users with disabilities participate in all kinds of trail activities. Be sure to include accessible parking spaces, add accessible restrooms and install at least one accessible pathway from the amenities to the start of the trail.

Access Management

At all access points of a trail, including trailheads, you will want to discourage prohibited uses as well as enhance the safety of trail users. Access management includes thinking about how users get from the parking lot (or other amenities) to the trail itself. That might mean constructing an accessible path to the starting point of the trail, and if there are any streets to be crossed, installing clearly marked crossings.

On non-motorized multiuse trails, a major concern is how to keep motorized vehicles from using the trail. Barriers like fences, gates and bollards can help keep certain users off the trail while creating safe access for others (when designed and installed correctly). Landscaped medians and other plantings can also act as visual barriers to the trail. However, don’t forget to think about how those barriers affect trail access for persons with disabilities, including those using mobility devices. The barriers should also be such that maintenance or emergency vehicles can access the trail; for example, by installing bollards that can be unlocked in the event of an emergency or maintenance need.

Signage

Good signage helps orient trail users and is therefore a must when developing a trailhead. The trail name confirms that users are in the right place, while wayfinding signage and maps help users easily check where they are going before they head out on the trail. Trail rules and additional information can be posted in kiosks and on bulletin boards. For more information on signage that can be included at a trailhead, see the Signage and Surface Markings page.

Location

While every trail is different, here are some general guidelines for trailhead placement:

Existing Buildings

Along rail-trails and rails-with-trails, former or active railroad stations or depots are commonly used as trailheads. Because of their position directly adjacent to a rail corridor (now trail), these buildings form natural stopping areas or access points. Around the country, disused depots have been given second lives as trailside museums, gift shops, welcome centers and rest areas.

One such conversion can be seen at the South Londonderry Depot along Vermont’s West River Trail. The depot, which began life as the terminus for the West River Railroad, underwent work in the 2000s to rehab the interior while restoring the exterior to its 1930 appearance. Today it not only serves as a trailhead, but it also hosts a railroad museum and provides a vibrant community gathering space for public meetings, movie nights, exhibitions and other events. Similarly, a former depot in downtown Urbana, Ohio, hosts a coffee shop and bike repair station, making it a favorite stopping point on the Simon Kenton Trail.

If you are fortunate enough to have a former railroad station or depot along your trail, use it! Local trail users and trail tourists equally will appreciate the trailhead’s connection to history, as well as the functional and creative reuse of space(s) within the building.

Funding

The costs of trailheads should be factored when working out the costs of planning, designing, building and maintaining a trail. New trailheads or improvements to existing trailheads can typically be funded using the same sources available to trails themselves, including public (federal, state, local) and private programs.

One federal source, the Recreational Trails Program (RTP), provides funding to states to develop and maintain recreational trails, including the development or rehabilitation of trailside facilities. RTP-eligible work in this funding bucket includes parking areas, toilets, horse and vehicle unloading facilities, signage, and seating. RTP funds were used to relocate and renovate an old depot along the Bugline Trail in Wisconsin.

Other federal funding sources are available, too. The Friends of the West River Trail were awarded a Transportation Enhancements grant from the Vermont Department of Transportation to acquire the old South Londonderry Depot mentioned in the previous section, while trail builders on California’s Bizz Johnson Trail were able to take advantage of U.S. Forest Service funds via the Challenge Cost Share grants program to renovate the historic Susanville Railroad Depot.

To explore the federal surface transportation funding programs that may be used for trailhead projects, see the FHWA’s table on Pedestrian and Bicycle Funding Opportunities.

Many states and municipalities offer other public sources of trail funding that may cover trailhead construction, enhancements or maintenance. For such public sources, organizations may be required to provide match funding. Trail developers and managers can also turn to private funding, ranging from crowdfunding to foundation grants.

Maintenance

Before building a trailhead, decide who will maintain it. This is doubly important when a trail crosses jurisdictions or into areas with existing management authorities, such as parks. A memorandum of understanding can be drawn up to help clarify the roles and responsibilities of each jurisdiction or managing entity. Volunteers can help supplement the work done by trail groups, park departments or public works agencies by performing activities such as trash clean-up and painting outdoor furniture.

Resources

‣ Fact sheet – Urban Pathways to Healthy Communities: Gardens

TrailNation Collaborative

TrailNation Collaborative is a nationwide peer learning community from Rails-to-Trails Conservancy that brings together advocates, leaders and professionals from across disciplines to establish and accelerate trail networks across America. The collaborative provides proven tools, methods and resources, combined with RTC’s expertise and network of partners across the country, to accelerate the development of connected trail systems. When trails are connected across regions and states, trail networks have a proven transformative impact—they are essential infrastructure that creates thriving, healthier communities.

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