It’s a first step for Alabama State Parks and a potential giant leap for trail lovers in the Southeast. With the creation of the State Parks Trails Coordinator position, the parks system is reaffirming its commitment to the number one user activity within its parks, trail use. The trail coordinator will oversee the revitalization of the parks system’s trail program among other duties.
 
“In my 27 years of experience, I can easily say a huge majority of our guests are going to use a trail in some form or fashion,” said Ken Thomas, DeSoto State Park Superintendent and newly appointed State Parks Trails Coordinator. “It might be 15-20 minutes on a boardwalk or a hike from sunup to sundown, but visitors value this staple of our parks system.”
 
The numbers support Thomas’s observations. According to the nonprofit research group The Outdoor Foundation, the number of Americans who use multi-use trails has grown steadily over the last decade. In the past three years alone, hiking, trail running, and mountain biking participation increased to more than 100 million Americans aged 6 and up.
 
Parks Director Greg Lein, who grew up hiking the trails at Monte Sano State Park in north Alabama, said the trails coordinator position was created to address the significance of the state’s growing trail system and public interest in that system.
 
“Historically, volunteer groups were instrumental in building and maintaining trails in our parks,” Lein said. “However, the growing use of our existing trails and demand for new trails is outpacing the support that volunteers can provide. In the future we hope to add a dedicated trail crew that is responsible for building and maintaining trails throughout the parks system. The trail coordinator will supervise that crew and conduct outreach to the various volunteer trail groups.”
 
In the coming months, Thomas will begin that task through a series of commonsense approaches aimed at setting priorities for existing trail maintenance and the development of new trails including equestrian and Off Highway Vehicle (OHV) trails in select locations.
 
“Alabama has never had a professionally managed state parks trail system,” Thomas said. “We’ll begin that process with a thorough survey of our trails to determine where we should focus our efforts. We’ll also be surveying our trail users to better understand what their interests are, and studying the best trail-building techniques and technologies in order to build trails that will last a lifetime.”
 
One of the potential challenges facing the parks system’s revitalized trails program will be funding. Parks is addressing that challenge through a robust grant-writing program and other funding sources.
 
“We are currently working on about 12 grants and all of them deal with trails in some way,” Lein said. “Since the last budget crisis, people have flooded us with questions about how they can help. Not everyone can volunteer so we are developing a way for them to help financially. We’ll be announcing that program later this spring.”
 
Additionally, voters will have the opportunity to vote in November on an amendment to the state constitution that protects state park funding from legislative transfers that have plagued recent budgets. With its funding more secure, Alabama State Parks can continue to provide its visitors with improved recreational opportunities including trails.
 
Alabama State Parks is hopeful that its new trail program will augment the work already being done by several volunteer groups in the state. Groups like the Birmingham Urban Mountain Pedalers, Central Alabama Mountain Pedalers, and many others have been creating and maintaining several trails within the parks for years. Those trails also benefit trail runners and traditional day hikers.
 
“We couldn’t do half the stuff we’ve been able to achieve without these partnerships,” Thomas said. “They don’t just give their time in the form of labor, they also give their expertise and career skills. That is a tremendous service as well as a cost savings for Parks. Our new trails program will take some of the workload off these volunteers and allow them more time to enjoy the trails.”
 
Since the opening of the first state parks in Alabama, trails have been a fundamental part of the park system’s mission to provide and maintain outdoor recreational opportunities. In addition to promoting a variety of health benefits, one of the best ways to protect and preserve state parks is to have visitors engaging with the trails.
 
“Trail use improves quality of life and serves as a gateway activity to the outdoors,” Lein said. “We’ll always be dedicated to this user group.”
 
While the new trails program is in development, Alabama State Parks encourages new and experienced trail users to explore its existing 285-plus miles of trails highlighted on the park system’s website. Many of those trails can also be found on the newly launched Alabama Recreation Trails website, alabamarecreationtrails.org.
 
To kick off summer, consider visiting an Alabama state park on June 4 for the American Hiking Society’s National Trails Day. In the coming weeks, visit alapark.com for National Trails Day related events and for state park trail options near you.
 
The Alabama State Parks Division relies on visitor fees and the support of other partners like local communities to fund the majority of their operations. To learn more about Alabama State Parks, visit www.alapark.com.
 
###

Hiking Trail at DeSoto State Park
Trail use offers many benefits including improved quality of life and stress reduction. To discover an Alabama State Parks trail near you, visit alapark.com.