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Trail Heroes: The Critical Role of Volunteers

September 04, 2019 12:00 AM

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​Pennsylvania is home to thousands of miles of trails. Every year, hikers, bikers, paddlers, and more flock to parks, forests, and rivers to enjoy the great outdoors.

With so many miles of trails for so many activities, it would be a lifelong adventure to see them all.

However, with the abundance of trails across the commonwealth, things like maintenance and upkeep can become challenging. Keeping Pennsylvania’s trails open and accessible is a difficult task, and it couldn’t be done without the help of volunteers.

Behind many parks, forests, and trail systems is an army of volunteers who work tirelessly to help keep our trails in good shape and for all to enjoy.

Pennsylvania Trails are as Diverse as its Landscape


As Pennsylvanians, we are fortunate to have access to an amazing trail system. From riding your bike on a rail trail, to exploring ATV trail systems, or through-hiking a long-distance trail, Pennsylvania’s trails offer many different types of experiences.

Hiking in both state parks and forests can lead to beautiful vistas and waterfalls, with a wide range of trails covering all types of terrain at various difficulty levels.

There are more than 100 rail trails in Pennsylvania, each offering unique opportunities to explore small towns or discover a part of history. The bikeable trails found in state parks also feature a variety of sizes, terrain, and scenic views.

Pennsylvania also has more than 2,000 miles for paddling, and many different water trail systems to help you navigate creeks and rivers at different skill levels.

In addition, Pennsylvania has 908 miles for ATV riding enthusiasts to enjoy -- many of which can be found within state forests.

Many of the trails in Pennsylvania are ‘multi-use’ meaning they can be utilized by hikers, bikers, and horseback riders.

DCNR’s goal is to have a trail within 15 minutes of every Pennsylvanian. Today, Pennsylvania has more than 12,000 miles of trails, and each year our trail system continues to grow.

Volunteers are an Integral Part of Keeping Trails Open


Often, general upkeep of facilities, like bathrooms and sewer lines, take time and resources away from trail maintenance. Most places, like Michaux State Forest, depend on volunteers to ensure trail systems can operate.

“On the Michaux (State Forest), our trail system is made up of a network of both formally designated and informal trails. Coordinated trail volunteer efforts are critical to developing and sustaining a high-quality trail system that meets stakeholder expectations, while minimizing conflicts with other forest management objectives and ecological habitat concerns,” said Roy Brubaker, District Forester, Michaux State Forest.

Many people who volunteer are trail users themselves, and often want to give back to the community resources they have benefited from. To others, simply being outside and working collectively for the benefit of the greater good is an attraction.

Difficult Tasks, Rewarding Experiences


Manual labor is definitely a part of trail volunteering. Trail maintenance can be a demanding, albeit rewarding, experience. However, the variety and location of the work often makes for a great day outdoors.

No matter what an individual’s physical capabilities are, there is always something for everyone to accomplish. Sign and blaze painting are relatively easy tasks that always need done. Cutting branches with scissor-like loppers or spreading mulch and gravel on the trail are other undemanding jobs.

Other tasks, like placing stone steps and even building bridges over scenic creeks are out there for those who would like more of a challenge.

“Volunteers are always needed to help maintain the hundreds of miles of Pennsylvania’s extensive system of hiking trails,” explains Mid State Trail Association President Ed Lawrence.

“Clearing a trail corridor with loppers, repainting a blaze, digging sidehill to rebench the treadway; all of these ‘hands-on’ activities give the maintainer a deeper sense of connection and partnership with the trail, along with a feeling of quiet satisfaction that they are contributing to the quality of the outdoor experience of future hikers. This is the path all hikers should follow.”

How to Get Involved in Trail Maintenance


There are many ways to get involved with DCNR and others to help support, maintain, and care for Pennsylvania’s natural resources. By volunteering at Pennsylvania state parks and forests, you can help with conservation projects and efforts, including:

  • Trails/wildlife habitat
  • Maintenance
  • Campground assistance
  • Interpretation/environmental education
  • Technical and engineering
  • Forest fire prevention and protection
  • Research

To get involved in DCNR conservation work, you can look for volunteer opportunities at state parks and forests near you. You also can contact your local state park or state forest directly to ask about opportunities to support their work.

Keystone Trails Association

The Keystone Trails Association (KTA) is a volunteer organization dedicated to providing, preserving, protecting, and promoting hiking trails and hiking opportunities in Pennsylvania. The KTA supports more than 40 local trail clubs across Pennsylvania, and organizes guided hikes, events, trainings, and volunteer efforts.

Pennsylvania Parks and Forests Foundation

The Pennsylvania Parks and Forests Foundation (PPFF) is a DCNR partner and statewide nonprofit organization that provides a voice for state parks and forests across the commonwealth.

PPFF provides citizens the opportunity to become active and involved volunteers in the park and forest system.

Join a Friends Group

Friends groups are made of people who enjoy volunteering their time, services, and support to Pennsylvania state parks and forests. Chapters form for a variety of reasons, but all understand the value of their state park or forest, and share a common goal to make that park or forest the best in the commonwealth.

Friends groups connect people to the natural places of Pennsylvania while enhancing the role of public lands in local communities.

Check PPFF’s map of friends groups to find out if one already exists at your state park or forest.

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