Developing Interpretation for Trails
By Jim Kimmel, Ph.D.
Dept. of Geography
Texas State University
San Marcos, Texas
Trails are important venues for self-directed interpretation. Trails take many forms - walking, wheelchair, biking, skiing,
swimming, boating, and auto. Here are some tips on the interpretive design of trails, not their physical design.
1. The trail should be designed for interpretation. The trail should connect points of interest.
2. Interpretive trails must be accessible (conveniently located for most of the visitors). Accessibility for handicapped people is important. The federal Rehabilitation Act and Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) specify requirements for handicap accessibility.
The Access Board
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3. A trail intended to introduce visitors to an area should be one-half mile to one mile long and should take about 30 minutes to complete. These trails are not hiking trails.
4. Stops on the trail should be clearly marked. They should be interpreted with on-site signs or keyed to a trail guide brochure. Stops should be out of sight of each if possible (difficult in the desert). On a half-mile trail there should be a maximum of about fifteen stops. Most stops should be in the first half of the trail.
5. Three trail forms: Loop - one-way traffic, returning to start point.
Figure-eight - offers the option to return at the intersection. Offers an interpretive alternative on the second loop.
Linear - two-way traffic makes the trail seem more crowded and reduces the interpretive effectiveness of the return trip.
Linear trails may be necessary in some settings, or the trail may have been designed for some purpose other than interpretation.
6. Mark the trail clearly and appropriately. Use small arrow signs or other markers.
7. Use thematic interpretation. The trail should have a theme and each stop should relate to that theme. The introduction, body, and conclusion carry out the theme.
Introduction - generates interest, introduces the theme of the trail, and provides information about the trail - length and
Body - stops develop the theme with specific information.
Conclusion - reinforces the theme. Provides orientation if necessary.
The introduction and conclusion can be signs or sections of the trail brochure.
Checklist for an Effective Thematic Stop
Has a theme-title (not just a topic title)
Focuses immediately on an observable feature (s) of interest
Explains the feature quickly and interestingly
Connects the stop's theme to the overall theme of the trail
Contains fewer than sixty words
Has short sentences (less than twenty words each)
Uses simple, active verbs whenever possible
Contains no unfamiliar language or technical terms
Encourages audience involvement if possible (by asking questions or suggesting visitors do something or look for something)
Uses visuals to explain and illustrate the message
(Ham 1992, p. 324)
Sources and References
Ham, Sam, 1992. Environmental Interpretation: A Practical Guide for People with Big Ideas and Small Budgets. Golden, Colorado: North American Press.
Knudson, Douglas, Ted Cable, and Larry Beck. 1995. Interpretation of Cultural and Natural Resources. State College,
Pennsylvania: Venture Publishing, Inc.
Trapp, Suzanne, Michael Gross, and Ron Zimmerman. 1994. Signs, Trails, and Wayside Exhibits. 2nd Edition. Interpreter's Handbook Series. Stevens Point, Wisconsin: UW-SP Foundation Press, Inc., University of Wisconsin, Stevens Point.