Alabama is so underrated when it comes to outdoor recreation. Whether it’s hiking, backpacking, mountain biking, horseback riding, whatever the activity, Alabama has some of the most beautiful trails anywhere that will lead you to breathtaking landscapes, glorious color filled wildflowers, and wild and rare animals and birds. As you walk down that trail do you ever stop and wonder how it got there? Who built it? What did it take to build it?
Well, the truth that most—not all, but most—of the trails in Alabama from Huntsville to the Gulf of Mexico are not maintained by paid employees of the state or federal government but by unpaid volunteers who take time out of their lives to give us these amazing outdoor opportunities.
If You Build it They Will Come
Whether it’s a mountain bike trail or hiking trail, the process to build a new trail is virtually the same. Many people believe that volunteers just go out into the woods, find the path of least resistance, and start whacking the brush out of the way. POOF, a trail! That’s far from the truth.
For trail building the old adage “if you build it they will come” is one that trail builders hope come true. While we all dislike trails that are overused and crowded, a trail that has regular visitors helps volunteers maintain that trail by beating down weeds and overgrowth.
Yes, trail builders do use the path of least resistance where possible but for the most part when they build a trail they are looking for a route that provides enough interesting scenery, history, landscapes, obstacles, and water features that will bring outdoor enthusiasts back week after week, year after year, and in turn keep brush down.
Finding Your Way
Finding that right path is not an easy one. Before setting a single boot on the ground volunteers will pore over maps, aerial images, any information they can find about an area where a trail is to be built Once they have an overview of the “lay of the land,” then, ideally, a group of five or more people will visit the area and fan out, looking for points of interest such as wildflower glades, river views, panoramic landscapes, or technical challenges. At the same time they are looking at building challenges. That perfect view of a river may take fording several feeder streams or bogs and now bridges will have to be built.
The process of finding just the right route is tedious and could take months or more to complete. But even then, if the trail is to be built on federal or state lands, an environmental study will have to be performed by land managers. They will walk the proposed route several times during each season and look for habitat that could be endangered by having the trail routed the proposed way. There may be rare plants that can be trampled; users could disturb nesting birds; or usage could damage habitats of endangered species of wildlife.
It’s About Time
Once approval is granted volunteers are finally able to pick up their tools and begin the work of building that trail. But that’s only the beginning. There is still maintenance to be done, re-routes because of nature or land status changes. The life of a trail is perpetual.
The bottom line is, when you walk your favorite trail think about those who made it possible. The best way to thank them is to become a member of one of the many organizations that build and maintain trails in Alabama or join them on a volunteer work day. The Alabama Hiking Trail Society, Alabama Trails Association, Birmingham Urban Mountain Pedalers, and South Alabama Mountain Bike Association are just some of the organizations that have helped to create the trail systems we know and love. It’s only by supporting them and organizations like them that we will continue to have great outdoor places to explore.