Arlington’s Natural Surface Trails Study



Inventory and assessment have been completed. Results will be published in late January 2024. Consultant team will begin the second round of fieldwork in Winter of 2023/4.

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About the Project

The overarching aim of this project is to ensure the County’s trail system remains sustainable and provides high-quality access to nature for all park users.


Project Goals

  • Inventory and assess the County’s existing natural surface trail system, 
  • Analyze best practices for trail sustainability and community needs, and 
  • Develop a management framework to support the County’s natural surface trails into the future.

Because of the value of trails for our community, the Public Spaces Master Plan (PSMP) includes several recommendations to enhance the County’s natural surface trail system, and the Forestry and Natural Resources Plan’s (FNRP) recommends adopting best management practices for sustainable natural surface trails as a conservation measure. This project developed from these policy recommendations. 

Arlington’s trail system evolved organically over the decades, through County action, volunteer projects, and use. Until this project was initiated, a full database of these trails and their condition did not exist. Because of this, many of the trails in the system are not sustainable.

This project is designed to assess these sustainability challenges, engage the community, and recommend trail improvements and management changes, that will ensure Arlington’s natural surface trails minimize their environmental impacts while providing a high-quality recreational opportunity for residents and visitors. To meet this goal, the project will consider interventions like erosion control measures, reroutes, closures, new trail infrastructure, recommended uses, and best management practices for trail design and maintenance.


Project Terms:

Natural Surface Trails

Trails made by clearing and grading the native soil, free from surfacing materials like pavement or asphalt. In Arlington, the majority of our natural surface trails are in forested park areas, such as Glencarlyn and Gulf Branch Parks, and the community consistently ranks them as high priorities in parks needs assessment surveys.

Trail Sustainability

Trail sustainability is ability to easily maintain a trail or trail system over time and meet a community’s needs without causing undue harm to the environment.  

Trail sustainability consists of four aspects: 

  • Ecological Sustainability: Reducing and mitigating impacts on natural resources. 
  • Physical Sustainability: Ensuring longevity, minimizing erosion, and facilitating ease of maintenance of the trail itself. 
  • Social Sustainability: Meeting community need, minimizing user conflict, and developing stewards to support the trail system.
  • Managerial Sustainability: Providing adequate resources to maintain and program the trail system.  

Hiking Trails

The Public Spaces Master Plan defines Hiking Trails as trails located primarily along streams, stream valleys and other natural areas. Hiking trails are unpaved and should include trail markings, signage and seating areas. These trails are used primarily by pedestrians and hikers. In the context of this study, hiking trails are a specific type of natural surface trail, with a defined use pattern and basic design guidance. Natural surface trail is a broader term that refers to all trails free of surfacing materials, regardless of their uses.  

Social Trails

Social trails are unofficial, user-created routes that form over time, as visitors take detours off designated trails. With enough traffic, these trails erode, become established, and can look like official trails. Because they evolve without proper planning or design, social trails can have negative impacts on both the environment and the experience of trail users.



About the Process

Click to explore a graphic timeline of the process here.

Engagement #1 - January 2024

January - February 2024: Initial community feedback was gathered from nearly 800 respondents for the first engagement through an online questionnaire. The questionnaire opened on January 25, 2024 before closing on February 22, 2024. Results from the final engagement are detailed in this overview and raw engagement data.




The inventory and assessment work are funded by Parks and Natural Resources (PNR) operating funds (50%) and Parks Maintenance Capital Feasibility Studies project funds (50%).