Woods Trails for Forest Landowners

Penn State Forest Stewards series article – written by Jim Finley, Professor Emeritus, Forest Resources Management, Center for Private Forests at Penn State.

Those Pennsylvanians lucky to own woodlands or a sizeable urban lot, might have often walked their property following a mental map of favorite places, points of interest, or to just check on something they may have noticed on a previous sojourn. These walkers might have followed a trail, the remnant of an old logging road, or even a wildlife trail. Alternatively, you might just “bushwhack” it, following your nose to places unknown. Either way, following a route or going free style, you might find value in formalizing your walk with a trail. Why? Well, there are several likely reasons to build a trail, path, or follow a “unmarked” pattern as you walk your landscape. A clear path might reduce the attention you give to your feet as you step over branches, negotiate rocky places, tiptoe over wetlands, or watch out for overhead branches that snag your hat. Building a “personal” trail does not involve much. Every time you walk your trail, make small improvements – kick the larger sticks to the side, move a rock for better footing, carry in a board to cross that wet area, or prune some of those branches that steal hats.
Woodland paths by Jim Finley
Whether you are young or older, a clear path allows your mind to wonder and allows your eyes to stray – looking ahead or off to the side instead of down. You might start to see more and different things – plants, fungi, bark patterns, birds, and other critters. Having the ability to shift your focus to what is around you will add immensely to your time afield.

Designing Your Woodland Path

As you design your walking path, look for points of interest that you want to see or want to observe at different times of the day or through the seasons. Your defined travel path may provide learning experiences. For example, you might use specific selected points to identify different growth stages for woodland plants. What do the first leaves of a favorite spring ephemeral flower look like? What does the fruit look like? Can you identify the senescent leaves? It is relatively easy to identify trees from their leaves; learning the winter buds and bark is also important. Visiting a given tree of different species throughout the year will build your skills.

Within any landscape, there are special places where you might find solace. That place might provide a particular view or maybe a blind – a place that is closed in and protected, a place where you can set quietly and think, reflect, listen, and observe. Think of such a place as a grotto; not a cave, rather a place formed by vegetation. In a yard, maybe it is a green room formed by planted evergreens; in a woodland, it might be a copse or coppice of small trees, or understory shrubs. Both kids and adults will find such a place inviting.

Wildlife & Woodland Trails

Many walkers enjoy seeing wildlife – various birds, small and large animals, amphibians, and retiles. With planning a woodland or a yard path can improve your chance of seeing various species. First, with time, your path might become quieter, as you clear away branches and litter. This will improve your stealth as you need not carefully place each step. Second, use vegetation to your advantage by thinking of ways to meander the path around vegetation and other obstructions (e.g., boulders, dead fallen trees) to shorten the sight line between you and what you hope to see. This is easy along the edges of woods and lawn where vegetation extends into the open and you walk around it to see the other side. By shortening the sight-line you may surprise both you and many wildlife species.

Ecologists will tell you that species richness is highest where one or more habitats or cover types come together – think fields and woods, lawns and hedgerows, hardwoods and conifers, older and smaller trees, and forests and shrubs. If you have a way to create a path through different types of vegetation, your likelihood of seeing different species – both plants and animals – increases.

Attracting Wildlife to Trail Edges

Wildlife habitat provides shelter, food, water, and space. If you are lucky enough to have dependable fruit bearing trees that produce either hard or soft mast (i.e., hard mast includes acorns, nuts, pinecones; soft mast includes apples, berries, cherries, blueberries), plan your path to observe these areas in season. Could you build or plant a blind to observe them secretly?

Water is essential for many species. Vernal pools are great to visit in the spring and early summer when amphibians, often starting in February, make their annual pilgrimage to these temporary waters to breed. Making a nighttime visit to observe these activities may go better with a known trail.

Practical Concerns of Woodland Trail Design

Regardless of the type of trail you prefer, use your woods smarts and be tick savvy. Pay attention to the impacts trails may have on wet areas and avoid or protect those resources as best you can. Make sure you’re using deterrents or barriers to protect yourself against ticks that like to hang out and wait for prey to pass. As you enjoy your trails for all that they provide, revel in the knowledge that you’re keeping yourself and the resources safe.

Improving a path through your woods or urban landscape or building a more formal trail takes some planning and familiarity with the land. The process can be focused and intentional or more laissez faire, growing and developing more or less on its own. Walking the land has many benefits for your health and personal enjoyment. 

If you want to learn more about building a formal trail, check out this publication from the University of Minnesota Extension.  Have fun and enjoy the outdoors.


emphasis and headings supplied by Cook Forest Conservancy, and apologies to the author!  

The Pennsylvania Forest Stewardship Program provides publications on a variety of topics related to woodland management. For a list of free publications, call 800 235 9473 (toll free), send an email to RNRext@psu.edu, or write to Forest Stewardship Program, The Pennsylvania State University, 416 Forest Resources Building, University Park, PA 16802. The Pennsylvania DCNR Bureau of Forestry, USDA Forest Service, Penn State Extension, and the Center for Private Forests at Penn State, in Partnership through Penn State’s Department of Ecosystem Science and Management, sponsor the Forest Stewardship Program in Pennsylvania.