Cover Image
close this bookTeaching Conservation in Developing Nations (Peace Corps)
close this folderAppendix B: Nature Trails
View the document(introduction...)
View the documentPurpose of a Natural Trail
View the documentCharacteristic of a Nature Trail
View the documentConstructing a nature trail
View the documentFeatures proposed for labeling and explanation along a nature trail in South East Asia
View the documentSource materials - Appendix B


A nature trail is a short planned walkway through a natural area in which interesting and important natural or historic features are pointed out to the visitor and explained by a guide or by interpretive signs.

The planning of a trail must include:

- an inventory of the land to find the most interesting features;
- concern for the public it is to serve, to give both beauty and safety;
- an understanding of the education it is to provide; what to label and why.

A conservation center can start with only one trail: a general conservation trail, which may include shorter specialized connected loop trails for soil study, forest study, wildlife study, etc. (see Fig. 16).

The self-guiding trail is one where the visitor is helped by labels which point out features of environmental interest, and which together cover the broad characteristics of the area.

Later, if it is possible, a second, informal trail for walking and hiking can be added (while future trails might be planned for special uses such as horses, bicycles, handicapped persons). The longer walking and hiking trail is for the visitor who wishes to go a longer distance without specific interpretive guidance.

Purpose of a Natural Trail

A nature trail is the basic teaching tool in outdoor education. Its purpose is to provide a controlled natural experience for visitors to enjoy, where they will be shown, by simple signs, the trees, smaller plants, geology, natural communities, the native animals that live in the area, and how these are related to people, to each other, and to other resources. The trail allows visitors to move through the natural area without disrupting the environment.

The trail objectives are:

- education - In an exciting setting the visitors can see, feel, smell and hear living examples of the natural history of their region.

- interpretation - Signs and labels help visitors to see interdependence between living things and their environment.

- conservation - The trail can show how conservation techniques and solutions to local problems.

Characteristic of a Nature Trail

1. A nature trail is short (700m to 1.3 km). it should take from 30 minutes to one hour to walk. Visitors will be walking slowly, reading the interpretive materials at each stop.

2. A nature trail is constructed in the general shape of a loop; that is, it begins and ends at the same place, usually at the conservation center building. It should have a one-way direction which follows the interpretive plan.

3. A nature trail has signs or labels that explain something about features of the trail. Sometimes these labels have all the information written directly on them; sometimes the information is printed in a guide with numbers that correspond to numbered posts along the trail.

4. A nature trail is inviting. There must be a clear beginning with a wide section of smooth trail and a large identifying sign which points the way. It should be wide enough for two people to walk side-by-side, and dense vegetation should not form a wall at the sides of the trail. A rest stop is desirable.

5. A nature trail is easy to walk. There should not be any steep climbs, muddy places, rocks to climb over, or other obstacles. Visitors in street clothes should be able to walk the trail.

6. A nature trail is clean. A litter can with a sign ("Place Litter Here") should be placed at the entrance of the trail and at rest stops, and the trail should be kept free from litter.

7. A nature trail is well-maintained. Signs of wear must be corrected immediately to avoid major repairs later. Vegetation may have to be cut back from the trail regularly, and the trail should be inspected frequently for damage.


Constructing a nature trail

Where to Put a Nature Trail

1. Study what the land is like for about one square kilometer or more around the conservation center. Walk through all the land and follow any paths or trails which may exist. Make a list of all the interesting natural or historic features. (See the list of suggested items to feature at the end of this section). Mark these features on a simple hand-drawn map and arrange the trail contour to coincide roughly with them.

2. Mark all features that might be included on the trail with strips of bright ribbon, yarn, cloth or plastic. Connect the items with string to create a rough trail design.

3. Walk this rough trail to see approximately how long it will take. Remember that the visitors will walk slowly and will spend time reading the labels at each stop. Re-arrange the way the string runs in order to get the best trail layout.

Note that nature trails are different from usual trails in that they go to places not normally visited by local residents. For this reason, it is generally best to cut an entirely new trail rather than to put together pieces of old trails. Having a separate nature trail eliminates confusion with old or unmarked trails.

How to Build the Nature Trail

1. Clear the walking area of all obstacles on the trail (roots, stumps, rocks, etc.) and cut back over-hanging branches to a height of 2.5m. Leave any cleared items which could have interpretive use alongside the trail.

How to Build the Nature Trail - Example 1

2. Cut the trail wide enough for two people to walk side-by-side. (This should be about 1.3m). Be sure visitors will have safe footing. Where clearing exposes erosion problems, control measures should be taken such as planting a ground cover, or filling a depression with gravel.

3. Make the trail with curves. The purpose is not to reach the next stop as quickly as possible, but to learn about the area. A winding trail gives visitors a sense of discovery. A straight stretch in the trail should not be more than 25 meters.

4. Plan each stop so it is out of sight of the others. If visitors see the next stop, they tend to hurry to it rather than observing their surroundings.

5. Clear an area around each label or numbered marker so that visitors can gather around if a teacher or guide has comments to make.

6. Avoid trails that double back. While curves are good, do not make them so sharp that they double back on themselves in a sharp "5" pattern. Visitors will cut new paths that destroy natural vegetation and contribute to erosion.

7. Avoid steep and tiring trails in hilly or mountainous areas; careful planning is necessary so as not to discourage walkers. If there are short sections of steep trails, a series of steps can make walking easier.

How to Build the Nature Trail - Example 2

8. The trail must drain well. In places where the ground is hilly, the trail should slope a little to the downhill side so that water will run off, rather than down, the trail.


Place drains across the trails where water collects or crosses the trail during a rain. (Dig a shallow trench and line it with small stones, or use small logs a few inches apart to make a water channel, and fasten them down with wooden pegs).

9. In damp areas such as near a marsh, or stream bed, raise the trail with additional soil or build a raised walkway. A split log or bamboo crossing may be used for a small wet spot. Stepping stones are not good because they become slippery. Building a raised trail is extra work, but a wet, muddy trail will probably not be used at all.

Shallow trench

10. In sandy or marshy situations, to avoid disturbing the area, a raised wooden or bamboo walkway should be provided.


11. Where the trail may erode, or where walking would be difficult, you can cover the trail surface with any of the following, if available: pine needles, wood chips, sawdust, shredded bark, sand. These make good walking surfaces and will not cut shoes.

12. Where there is a nice view, a beautiful tree, or other special feature, clear a rest spot for a simple bench.

Simple bench

Public Facilities (See Appendix E for instructions)

The public facilities you provide at a Nature Trail depend on your budget, the numbers of visitors you expect, and the facilities that exist near-by. You may only need one or two rest stops, or you may need to provide a picnic area or a public toilet near the nature trail.

To give visitors a place to enjoy the beauties of the trail, try to provide a rest stop where there is a view, an ancient tree, or an interesting rock formation, for example. A bench of native stone or wood, or a seat cut into a rock, can provide a place to admire these things and rest for a tired walker.

Rest stop

If you are going to provide picnic facilities at a nature trail, it is a good idea to place them in an attractive area near the entrance to the trail. This way food and waste can be kept in one easy-to-clean place. The picnic area can be very simple: just cleared ground, shaded by trees or woven branches; it can include logs or rocks to sit on; or it can have tables with benches. This depends on the natural materials available and the cultural habits of the visitors. If they are likely to make a fire, provide a safe place for one. In every case, provide enough garbage cans, each one with a sign ("Please put garbage here"), and empty them frequently to avoid odors and animal and insect scavengers.


Allow 8 picas
Margin to bind

When there are no other near-by latrine facilities and visitor use is heavy, a latrine should be provided so that pollution of the site does not occur. It should be located near, but not at, the trail entrance. Building materials for the latrine shelter should blend with the surroundings. (See Appendix E, Public Facilities).

Trail Signs, Labels and Guides (See Appendix D for instructions)

1. The trail will need a trail entrance sign to give the visitor an idea of what is ahead. It could indicate:

- a map of the trail with its length in meters or kilometers;
- the location of special attractions on the trail;
- regulations ("please stay on the trail´', "do not disturb plants or animals").

Nature trail


You will also need signs where two trails meet, to give distances or the direction to follow.

2. Features on the trail need labels to tell names, characteristics, relationships, habitat, or historical background. Labels must be:

- accurate
- interesting
- short
- easy to read and understand

The lettered label should be mounted on simple stakes at the trailside. A label could also be tied to a branch, with raffia or string, of a tree, shrub, or vine being identified. Care must be taken not to damage the surroundings with labels, Nailing a label directly to a tree, for example, would allow insects or bacteria to enter the tree through the nail holes.

Visitors can immediately spot the feature which is being identified if you mark both the feature and its label with a dot of colored paint.

Wild Grape

3. You may choose a printed guide to interpret the trail rather than labels. Make these guides available at the start of the trail in a covered box, to be returned to the box when visitors have finished walking the trail. The items described in the guide would be numbered to correspond in sequence with numbered markers on the trail. Pictures, drawings or diagrams can accompany the text, to help the visitor. About 15 to 20 items are enough for interpretation.

One or more sheets of letter paper can be mimeographed, folded or stapled to make booklets.


Sample guides are included in this Appendix and in Appendix D.

4. Trails may include some of the following features for identification and labelling:

- historic features such as an abandoned mill or farm building, a bridge, dam, mine or site of earlier civilization;
- a grassy area - the way plants are adapted to sun;
- a brush area - new plants moving into area that was open;
- a sandy area - how poor soil has few plants, how plants hold sand in place;
- deep forest - layers of vegetation, young and old trees;
- a rotting log - making new soil, home for insects, animals and fungi;
- a rock with lichens - breaking rock down into new soil;
- leaves rotting on forest floor -making new soil, homes for insects and animals;
- the favorite plant of one insect -eating plant's leaves, laying eggs on plant;
- vines - how they climb, how animals use them;
- a cave - how it was formed, home for animal, earlier humans;
- a salt lick - value to animals, use to poachers;
- a rock outcrop - animal homes, kind of rock, how it was formed;
- stream bed - water life: plants, insects, fish, erosion;
- bee, wasp, ant or termite nest - how it is made, community work;
- desert plants - who lives on them, who eats them;
- feeding areas - do footprints tell which animals come?
- a road or trail cut - the soil profile can be seen;
- nests in trees - animal or bird?
- a hole in the ground - is it a home?
- roots around an exposed rock - how the plant seed grew there;
- roots in loose soil - how they hold the soil together;
- spring - how water collects underground;
- a bump on a tree (burl) - why did it form? its effect on the tree;
- a bent tree trunk - how sunlight forms growth;
- a hollow tree - what happened? Who uses it?
- leaf size - adaptation to light;
- a parasite plant - how it kills;
- buttress roots - how tree adapts to shallow soil;
- thorns on bushes and seeds- protection, transportation;
- ferns and mosses - where they grow and why;
- air plants/orchids - where they grow and why;
- cacti - where they grow and why.

Features proposed for labeling and explanation along a nature trail in South East Asia

Main Trail

(open field) In sun-filled areas like this, the plants have to deal with special problems: too much light, periods with too little water and, often, poor soil. Pick a blade of grass. Examine it. The size of the leaf is small so moisture will evaporate out slowly. The roots are a thick mass of fibers that can grip the hard soil, but they don't go very deep. They get their moisture mostly from rain and dew.

(beginning of forest) Bigger plants like trees will slowly invade a field of bushes. They grow taller and make shade. This means that plants which love sunlight must slowly die and new plants that like more shade move in.

(any place with good view of different layer in forest) Look around you and up in the air. Notice how the forest is made of several different layers. High above, the branches of the big trees weave together to form a canopy. Beneath these, we see a sparse layer of trees trying to grow up through the canopy. Lower down there is a layer of shrubs and small trees. Below that is a layer of small plants like ferns and seedlings.

(strangler fig thee) This is a fig tree. It grows around another tree. its leaves shade out the sun until finally the other tree dies. Sometimes the original tree will rot away and the "trunk" of the fig tree will then be hollow.

(rest stop) (Any pretty place about halfway through the trail, especially good on top of a hill where people will want to stop anyway. Provide a log or a bench to sit on.) This is a good place to rest a minute. Sit and be absolutely quiet. Can you hear nature around you? The birds singing? The insects buzzing? The wind blowing?

(a bent tree) As the tree grows, it twists and turns to reach as much light as possible. This tree may have started growing toward a hole in the forest canopy. At some point a new hole with more light opened up and the tree changed directions. Why might a hole in the canopy occur?

(a bump on a tree) The lump on this tree is called a burl. It is caused by a virus infection. It does not kill the tree but it results in a malformation. The growth rings of the tree take on interesting shapes and the wood is used in tables, bowls and pipes.

(treetops) High above your head, the branches of the tallest trees lace together to form another world. Trees bloom and fruit there, and animals live out their lives without touching the earth. Can you catch a glimpse of the happenings in that other world?

(thee stump) This tree stump is decaying. It is becoming soil again. This process returns the energy that it used as a growing tree. Mosses and fungi are breaking it down on the outside. Ants, beetles and other insects are doing the same thing on the inside.

(young trees in a clearing) As the old trees die, holes develop in the forest canopy and new spots of sunlight reach the forest floor. Here seeds sprout and new trees begin to take the old ones' places. The forest will regenerate itself, but if people destroy it, a tropical forest like this takes hundreds of years to grow again. The forestry department is protecting this land for your children.

(shady area with big-leaved plants) Plants are adapted to where they live. Usually big, thin or lacy leaves are for shady places because they allow the plant to catch as much sun as possible. They will not dry out because their environment is cool and moist. A fern is an example.

(patch of abandoned farmland) The soil was too thin for good farming here and the land was abandoned. The forest is returning in stages. First grasses, then thick brush, third low, thin jungle, and after many years, there will be tall, thick jungle.

(buttress roots) Wide roots like these help to balance the tree. The roots cannot go deeply into the ground because it is hard clay just under the surface and all the nutrients are in the top two inches. The wide flanges give the trunk a wider base of support. Otherwise the weight of the trunk would tip and the roots would be pulled out of the ground.

(cave) This cave may have been formed many years ago when water slowly dissolved away some of the limestone in the earth. Some time later the surface of the earth changed, causing the cave to dry out and be revealed. Now it is a home for bats, snakes and other creatures.

(a very tangled, dense area of vegetation) More kinds of plants and animals live in a tropical jungle than any place else in the world. Notice how dense the plant life is. A mixture of many things living together makes a stable environment, because of the natural control all the species have on one another.

(rattan palm) This rattan palm sends out long runners covered with thorns. They hook on to passing animals. They pull the runner to a new place where it can touch the earth and start another plant far away from the competition of the first.

Soil Loop:

(clump of pretty bushes) Good soil allows plants to grow plentifully. It is a thin layer, however, and easily destroyed. Plants like these would soon die in a hot dry soil without water.

(rotting log) As this tree trunk rots, it builds up a soft, spongy layer of soil, called humus. This holds rainwater and provides food for other plants and insects. How does the rotting log feel? How does the ground nearby feel?

(rock with lichens) What looks like drops of paint on this rock is actually a combination of plants called lichens. They can live under very severe conditions, like on bare rock. They help to make soil by dissolving some of the rock into fine sand. Feel the rock around the lichen. Car you feel a sandy texture?

(place with many leaves on the forest floor) Leaves collect and rot, making new soil, just as the tree trunk did. Animal droppings and dead animals also add to the soil.

(a water spring) Rain soaks into the ground until it reaches a layer of rock which holds it. That water slowly moves underground until it comes out at springs or into rivers. If the soft topsoil is missing, the rain is not soaked up, but runs off. The water table underground is not replenished if the rain doesn't soak through the soil. The springs will then dry up.

(erosion site on a trail or hillside) Water is a powerful force. Can you see what it has done to the soil here? Compare this place to a protected place with plants. In a place with forest cover, the grid of roots holds the soft topsoil while the leaves slow the speed of the raindrops' fall. Shade keeps the ground from getting dry and hard.

(deep cut into a hillside where a trail or road was built, where soil levels are visible) Soil is found in layers. The top one is rich with plant food, the others are not. In the tropics the hot, wet weather makes things decay quickly, but topsoil does not build up because the food is utilized again by plants almost immediately.

Forest Loop:

(very large tree) Trees are the oldest living things on earth. Some can be over 4000 years old. They give many good things besides lumber - like good soil, clean air, and homes for wildlife.

(a clearing oh break in the forest where the sky is visible) Look at the leaves of the trees above. Each one is helping you. Leaves produce oxygen which you breathe. They also take away carbon dioxide (which you breathe out) and other poisonous gases. Where does it smell the best -in the middle of the city or here? The leaves release moisture into the air, helping to form new clouds; they shade the ground and air, keeping them cool and comfortable. Think for a moment. Where is it cooler? Here or in the city?

(roots on a rock) Just as the roots of this tree have encircled this rock, so they are holding the soil below it. Small roots weave a mat that traps the soil in tiny pockets. This protects the topsoil which is light, from the force of rainwater. If the forest is cut or burned, the roots no longer hold the soil, and in a short time the rich topsoil is washed away by rain.

(tiny stream) Forests help with the water supply. The leaves release moisture into the air, helping to form new rain clouds, while water in the spongy ground moves downhill slowly to emerge in springs and streams.

(leaves on the ground) Leaves fall all the time, but especially in the dry season when the trees don't want to lose moisture through their leaves. These leaves rot quickly in the rainy season, and help make new soil.

(tree with hole in trunk) Trees provide a nesting place for animals to raise their young, to store their food, and to escape from their enemies.

Wildlife Loop:

(rock ledge with animal hole) Under the large rock in front of you is a former animal home. The occupant may have moved away because so many people looked into it. See what a dry place he chose.

(tangled mass of bushes on edge of large clearing) The edges of forests often produce as much or more food and shelter for wildlife as the deep forest itself.

(dead tree on ground) A dead tree is a home for a great variety of things as it decomposes. Under the bark there are beetles and termites. Millipedes eat the decaying wood; centipedes hunt for other insects to eat. inside, perhaps a mouse, a weasel or a porcupine has dug out a den. The home territory of a wild animal is usually a place where it can easily find food and shelter - perhaps a patch of grass, a whole pond, or a fallen tree like this.

(a salt lick) Just as you like salt on your food, so animals like and need certain minerals in their diet. Water deep in the ground rises to the surface carrying dissolved minerals which are deposited there. Look in the mud around you and see how many kinds of animal tracks you can identify.

(clear streamside) The water here is cool and clear. You may see some fish. Compare this to any of the streams outside the park. Is the color the same? Just as some animals need a forest where the canopy is complete, so certain fish, snails and insects need streams where the water is clean. The forest and its soil filter the water and keep it clean.

(large tree that has food for animals in month when most visitors come) In the month of _______ this tree has much fruit which is eaten by (name some animals, birds). This also attracts animals which eat the fruit-eaters. All these animals help the tree in return by spreading the seeds and fertilizing the soil.

Source materials - Appendix B

The fox path: nature trail guide
National Wildlife Federation
Laurel Ridge Conservation Education Center
8925 Leesburg Pike
Vienna, Virginia 22180, USA

Manual of outdoor interpretation
National Audubon Society
Nature Center Planning Division
950 3rd Ave.
New York, N.Y. 10022, USA

Quail quarters: self-guiding trail booklet
National Wildlife Federation
Laurel Ridge Conservation Education Center
8925 Leesburg Pike
Vienna, Virginia 22180, USA

*Rapidos del Chanleufu: Sendero de historia natural (Chilean trail guide)
Washington, D.C. 20525, USA

Trail planning & layout
National Audubon Society
Nature Center Planning Division
950 3rd Ave.
New York, N.Y. 10022, USA

*Single copies available to Peace Corps volunteers