Pedaling Toward Progress

By Renee Powers

Roanoke, Va., is the Mountain Biking Capital of the East, and rightfully so. The city has over 60 miles of natural-surface trails in five parks, and that doesn’t include the mileage in nearby county parks, state parks, or national forests. However, this has not always been the case. Decades of planning and crafting an outdoor community have gone into making Roanoke a trail town. Here is how the city manages its volunteers, designs trails, and in turn attracts active citizens to the region.

Step 1: Have a vision and develop a plan. Whether this is a master plan for parks that will allow trails to be connected to schools, downtown areas, or existing greenways, or just a trail system for a park with a lot of forested and unused space, the assessment of existing resources is the key. Make sure to include agencies or individuals that may be able to provide volunteers, such as local “friends of” groups, and do an environmental assessment to protect resources, such as endangered species, banks of waterways and lakes, and important wildlife habitat. Identify individuals who are trail users but may travel elsewhere, and include them in the planning as well. These individuals have seen the good and bad of other trail systems and may help you design the “dream” of a trail system.

While there is no “perfect” trail system, there are definitely types of systems that work well in some places and not in others. For example, if the park land has only a few hundred acres, it is important to maximize mileage in the smaller space. The trail-system design should be for stacked loops that are tight and use the land to increase in difficulty, while focusing on increased mileage. If the park land is vast, such as a few thousand acres, destination-style trails are best. Hikers and mountain bikers can be taken to the overlook and back another route. Crossing the same area three times would be frustrating for trail users with all of the land available for construction, and may result in their shortcutting the trail when they can see another section of it. Create large stacked loops so a one-hour, two-hour, three-hour, or longer adventure can be planned. If the department hires someone for a trails position, this person should be able to lay out and design trails. If not, there are several options for hiring trail-design professionals that can assess the land and design a system that will work best for the topography and land available.

Step 2: Raise money. Volunteers need to have tools, be trained to operate equipment, such as chainsaws and mini skid-steer-style trail-building machines, and this trailhead infrastructure comes at a hefty cost. Allocating department funds, even a few thousand dollars a year, will greatly help with upkeep and broken tool replacement. However, bathrooms, signage, bridges, and parking lots come at a much higher price tag. Working with volunteer organizations to fundraise and grant writers is a great way to bridge the dollar gap in the world of trails.

Step 3: Begin working on the plan and build the trails. This is really where the training and recruiting of volunteers comes into play. Having a staff member dedicated to overseeing the volunteers and maintaining the trails is best, as all questions, training, and planning can be done through one point person. This person can assess the trails on a regular basis by biking or hiking them, and allocate volunteers to problem areas, as well as coordinate new projects. If the person is active in the biking or hiking community, he or she will also be able to build relationships with trail users and recruit them as volunteers, as well as monitor the trail system for any illegal use and future needs. This staff member can also lead programs on the trails, such as guided hikes or mountain-biking clinics to engage the community in the responsible use of the trails as well as help the community be more active.

To assist the staff person overseeing trails, a trail crew-leader format works well. This allows a volunteer who wants extra responsibility and has additional skills to take on a training and leadership role. Many times, trail users have resided previously in another community and have experience in volunteering with trail groups, designing trails, operating a chainsaw, or even leading a trail crew elsewhere. However, it is best to have a training session for crew leaders to ensure they understand the standards the department wants volunteers to follow; conduct a field assessment and have crew leaders build a section of trail or have them shadow a workday or lead a supervised workday. This is a great way to offer more opportunities for trail work, as well as disperse the projects among multiple groups.

Step 4: Turn your town into an “outdoor town.” The “if you build it, they will come” saying does not always work. Great trails in places that have no other amenities for those who ride bikes and hike will seldom get used. Encourage businesses such as breweries, coffee shops, restaurants, campgrounds, and hotels to look at available land within a few miles of trailheads. Distribute a map to local businesses, but also put it online. Spend some marketing money by contacting outdoor magazines to get writers to do a story on the trails in your area, or include the trail map in the next issue. Trails that have a reputation have one for a reason. Trails have either been around a long time, are close to population centers, or are truly great trails. Quality work and diverse types of trails (flow, jump line, technical, and cross country) make for a great trail system. Really market what your trail system has to offer for all types of biking and hiking, and your park will be on its way to the next best trail system!

Renee Powers is the Trails Supervisor for Roanoke Parks and Recreation in Roanoke, Va. She has been hiking, mountain biking, and building trails in Roanoke since 2013. Reach her at