Park Structures and Facilties
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DESIRABLE AS STEPS ARE at many points in many trails, by no means are they ever to be created for their own sake. It is perhaps not generally sensed that if as much study were given to trail planning as to modern road planning, lesser grades and consequently fewer trail steps would result. In any case, only an unavoidably sharp grade not readily negotiable as such, with no reasonable alternative of an easier grade, will justify resorting to steps at all.

That the first purpose in providing steps along steep trails is to facilitate walking is undeniable. Less obvious perhaps, but not less important is another consideration. This is the safeguarding of the aspect of naturalness in every detail of the construction of trail steps.

Trail steps, to justify their presence in natural areas, must facilitate walking to just such extent as will not corrupt this natural quality. Conversely, trail steps must strive to emulate nature only to a degree that will not make them extremely hazardous in use. Either approach should result in approximately the same satisfying compromise. The facilitation of walking along trails in natural areas can hardly lay claim to all the considerations of uniformity of rise and tread, and relationship between these, that may be demanded of steps in almost every other location. It is not unreasonable to assume that nature trails are created for the use of hardy hikers entitled to acquaintance with nature unarrayed with safety treads and handrails.

There are admittedly within most parks, limited areas of concentration used by persons of all ages and of differing capacities for physical activity. Obviously, for steps within such areas the claim of easy and safe walking should rank in importance above the claim of complete naturalness, and the time-proved principles and practices in satisfaction of the former are applicable at such locations in greater degree. But for the trails into areas of less intensive use, and with these we are here principally concerned, steps will not demand of the natural setting unreasonable and discordant compromise in adaptation to human use.

In park reservations where there are rock outcroppings, and especially where these are of ledge rock, the very background goes far to contribute naturalness to man-made trail steps. Yet even with the most sympathetic collaboration of nature, the execution of steps requires considerable skill for wholly satisfying results. The characteristics of the stratifications of ledge rock can often be utilized or reproduced in the creation of steps to such results that they are almost without trace of the artificial. Where rock outcroppings do not exist to provide liaison with the landscape, the naturalizing of rock steps requires a sculptor's skill and sense of form, if an anomalous creation is to be avoided. Even here the effort should be to give the constructed steps the appearance of natural ledges. To create such aspect it is most important that the width of treads vary. Rocks forming cheeks at either side of the steps should vary in horizontal alignment, as well as in height, and should be tied and blended into the setting by being occasionally and irregularly extended some distance into the vegetation to either side. No mortar should be evident,—greater naturalness will result from dry construction. Width of treads and height of risers will be governed by the natural slope. Treads should be as wide as possible and risers, except under unusual conditions, should not exceed six inches in height. Rock ledges may naturally exist in the trail where the grade is not so steep as actually to require step forms, yet because the rock is present, steps with risers lower and treads deeper than usual become a logical treatment.

For trails where rock is not an indicated characteristic of the environment, and where the attempt to naturalize it will evidence much of struggle, the steep grades of trails can be made more negotiable by forming risers of timbers, and providing treads by filling in with gravel or earth. There are various techniques in the fashioning of the timbers, and in methods of anchorage, which achieve different degrees of practical and artistic attainment, as the illustrations suggest. Trail steps of this construction cannot be termed naturalistic with accuracy, but it should be possible to claim them harmonious with environment and not hazardous in use. As with all use of logs in park construction, the timber risers should be stripped of bark, not only because this will in time naturally occur, but because in the certain process of loosening, bark will constantly be a source both of hazard and of litter. Sometimes timber risers are roughly squared or carefully hand hewn. Such, while not "going native" to the extent of timbers left in the round, probably boast a higher safety rating in the sprain and fracture statistics. Timber risers should be staked in place to insure against loosening and shift in position. Exposed stakes should be driven well below the tread surfaces so there is no projection in which a heel might catch. Better still are methods that admit of anchorage by invisible stakes.

There are numerous examples of unusual methods or solutions in provision of trail steps. Often the abruptness of grade makes necessary a veritable stairway steeper than the easy rise and tread we know to be ideal. Often a ladder must be built when the grade is precipitous. In a land of giant trees, one that has fallen across a gorge or ravine will provide a picturesque foot bridge which, when out of level beyond a certain degree, can be notched to form steps and equipped with rustic handrail.

A handrail is often a necessary safeguard in connection with trail steps narrowly confined between a rising cliff on the one hand and a precipitous drop on the other. It is vital that a handrail be thoroughly substantial in character and in fact, inviting as it does the reliance of adventurous recreation seekers. Better no handrail in any location, than one that cannot be trusted both in use and abuse. Far too many handrails are probably structurally adequate and safe, but are an offense by reason of flimsy appearance.

Trail Steps of Logs

Here grouped for comparative study are shown logs in provision of steps in trails. The practical and aesthetic merits of square timbers and logs in the round, contrived to this purpose, are here on parade. The picturesqueness of the several examples illustrated is apparent at a glance.

Plate D-1 (click on image for a PDF version)

Mt. Penn Park, Reading, Pennsylvania

Palmetto State Park, Texas

Taugnannock Falls State Park, New York

Starved Rock State Park, Illinois

Variety in Grade Negotiation

Above are log risers and treads paved with random flagging; below are simple trail steps of stone well naturalized by means of skillful planting of the trailside.

To the left are illustrated means for negotiating grades too steep for an easy rise and tread. A trail ladder requires careful maintenance, and is a hazard in use. The inclined log serving as foot trail bridge, although something of a "stunt," surely is permissible in parks where huge trees are present. Its picturesqueness, as well as its practicability, recommend it.

Plate D-2 (click on image for a PDF version)

Deception Pass State Park, Washington

Allegheny State Park, New York

Humboldt-Redwoods State Park, California

Bronx River Parkway, Westchester County, New York

Trail Step Sculpturing

The surrounding illustrations prove the truth of the assertion that the naturalizing of artificial trail steps of rock requires a sculptor's sense of form. Here is ample evidence of accomplishment that must have been so approached. The blending to trailside, the variations in height of riser and depth of tread, the sparing use of mortar, are important factors recommended for observation and mental note.

Plate D-3 (click on image for a PDF version)

Wintersmith Metropolitan Park, Ada, Oklahoma

Petit Jean State Park, Arkansas

Wintersmith Metropolitan Park, Ada, Oklahoma

Perry Lake Metropolitan Park, Oklahoma

Trail Stairways of Stone

In all the subjects framing this comment will be sensed a departure from the imitation of nature in the direction of the more frankly man-made. Steeper grades are the problem here encountered, and more uniform steps the solution very properly arrived at. Notwithstanding this serving of practical requirement, the results are certainly not unpleasantly conventional and not too mathematically exact.

Plate D-4 (click on image for a PDF version)

Turner Falls State Park, Oklahoma

Wheeler Dam Reservation, Tennessee Valley Authority

Taughannock Falls State Park, New York

Palo Duro State Park, Texas

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Last Updated: 5-Dec-2011