When you’re out on the trail, knowing and following the rules seems easy enough, but rules can vary from trail to trail. Some rules are universal, while others differ by state and municipality. Although it’s impossible to list the rules for every trail in the United States, we spoke with RTC’s national Trail Development Manager, Jim Brown, who helped us break them down into five simple categories that all trail users should be familiar with.
That said, here we go ...
1Opening and closing times vary.
Most trails are open from at least dawn until dusk, and many are open well into the evening or all night. For example, the Washington & Old Dominion Trail in Northern Virginia is open from 5 a.m. to 9 p.m., based on a policy implemented in 2013. The High Trestle Trail in Iowa is accessible 24 hours a day. (This unique trail showcases 43 steel cribbings lined with LED lights that come on at night to create a beautiful coal-mine-inspired backdrop.)
The YMCA of Easley, Pickens & Powdersville makes it easy for users of the Doodle Trail in South Carolina to find opening and closing times; the hours—which are based on sunrise and sunset—are posted daily on their website.
Regardless of when you hit a trail, remember to stay alert—and visible clothing is always a great idea.
2Trails follow federal, state and local laws.
Keep in mind that the same local laws and ordinances that apply for other public places, like parks, will likely apply to trails as well, for example: no alcohol, no smoking or illegal drugs, and no discharging fire arms.
It’s particularly important to remember that all traffic laws apply at crosswalks, intersections and turnoffs, and, in the past three decades, many states and localities have adopted bicycle-rider helmet laws.
Some localities will have permit requirements for events and fundraising initiatives, and camping is usually only permitted in publicly designated camping areas or private campsites. It’s a great idea to check with your local trail manager about the regulations that apply in your area.
3Even universal trail etiquette practices can—and do—vary.
Most trails follow generally accepted, universal safety and etiquette practices, such as those outlined in RTC’s list of six key trail use tips.
Sometimes, they are carefully regulated; in Renton, Washington, for example, the Cedar River Trail requires all cyclists to follow a 10-mile-per-hour bike speed regulation within city limits; violators can be fined. (Users on foot and wheel must stay on their side of the yellow line, as well.)
In some cases, the rules exist, but with exceptions. For instance, while racing and speed training are generally no-nos on the Wallkill Valley Rail Trail, you can apply for a permit to hold a race or walk with the Wallkill Valley Land Trust.
And sometimes, the rules are different based on location: In Sacramento, California, and in Rhode Island, the rule is to keep left when walking (as you would on a road, facing traffic) and right when cycling. And some trails ask that all traffic keeps left.
What is more universal, however, is the yielding rule: horses have right of way, then pedestrians, then inline skaters, then cyclists. Another good tip: When passing a horse, do not ring a bell or blow a whistle, but do give the rider an audible heads up.
4Users should leave no trace.
This one almost goes without saying: 1) Pick up after yourself, and clean up after your pets (many trails have trash cans along their corridors or at trailheads, and some provide pet waste receptacles, like those found on the Sioux Falls Bike Trail). 2) Don’t disturb wildlife and local vegetation. Most trails prohibit the destruction or removal of any plants or trees without a permit, and some have rules about not stepping in certain protected plant or wildlife areas. Additionally some may be attempting to nurture the growth of specific native plant species, like those on the Saucon Rail-Trail last year. As the saying goes, “Take only pictures; leave only footprints.”
The intent of some regulations may not be clear at first, but they could exist to protect an environmental resource or historical site. In all cases, try and disturb your surroundings as little as possible to help preserve natural ecosystems and cultural geography. These are the features that make trails special!
5Motorized vs. non-motorized use is determined locally.
There are some trails that do not allow motorized use and/or simply aren’t suited for it. But many trails provide access for snowmobiles and ATVs; the Bangor and Aroostook Rail-Trail in Maine, for instance, is a multi-use pathway that is shared and maintained by many snowmobile clubs.
Note that Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) laws allow motorized wheelchairs or other power-driven mobility devices, even if a trail doesn’t allow motorized vehicles. Federal ADA laws trump all other laws and regulations when it comes to persons with disabilities and trail access.
In closing ...
It’s always best to know and follow the rules of your favorite trails. Together, we can all set a great example for others! Fortunately, trail managers make this task easy: Many trail rules are listed online or at trailheads and major intersections.
And when in doubt, follow the Golden Rule: Treat others (and your community) with the same kindness you want in return to help ensure everyone feels safe and comfortable—and has a great time—on America’s trails.