Landscaping the trail system in St. George

In addition to bond money, St. George tapped state and federal governments for trail bridges funding.
Photos by Don Dale.

A trail system does a lot more than provide a place for people to walk. It provides an alternative means of transportation, scenic viewpoints, a way to physically connect city parks and a cause that will bring a community together.

That’s what has happened in St. George, Utah. This desert city of 72,000 has 33 miles of trails and is planning 70 more miles.

The trails are not that difficult to maintain, according to Kent Perkins, director of St. George’s Leisure Services Department. Perkins explains that the St. George trails are a result of a bond issue that raised money specifically for that purpose. It all began in the mid-1980s when a critical area plan was created for the city, which lies at the confluence of the Virgin River and the Santa Clara River. At the time, only a couple of short dirt trails existed. In 1989, a local dam broke and served notice for homeowners and businesses to retreat from the floodplain, and the first trail came about. This segment from Bloomington to Dixie Center was 3 miles long, and the city placed suggestion boxes at both ends to elicit comments.

“We could see there was growing interest,” says Perkins, who was the director through this entire history. A follow-up survey on park needs verified this, with trails being the number one interest. A 1996 master plan and community survey gave the city council the impetus to beginning planning.

Trails connect many city parks, with turf in the parks providing a spot to picnic or relax.

In all, $18 million in bonds were passed, with some of the money destined for parks and some for trails. The city started acquiring land for the trails, especially along the rivers. Construction was steady over the years, and some trails connected with other trails from nearby communities and public lands where they remain natural surface. Their own funds were used as leverage to acquire state and federal grants for features such as hiking bridges over rivers. Donations were also solicited.

One great benefit, Perkins says, is that now the city’s parks are tied together with trails. In addition, in any new housing developments, developers are required to tie their subdivision into the trail system. Any new city developments, such as sewer access roads, are also analyzed for possible inclusion into the system, and many trail extensions are created along them. Where financing or access isn’t yet available for the trail itself, trailheads may be constructed first and the trail will follow later.

Larry Shane, the city’s parks and facilities manager, says that the asphalt trail surfaces are a blessing because they hold up for many years and can be utilized year-round. He says that a recent 3-mile segment of asphalt, with lines painted, cost $25,000. The asphalt is laid 10 feet wide where possible to accommodate bicyclists and hikers with room to travel in opposite directions or pass safely. Narrower trails didn’t work as well for public purposes, and in one spot soil cement is used in an area that floods. The asphalt mix is similar to highway asphalt, but a smaller aggregate is used so that the surface is smoother.

“We have several microclimates here,” Shane says, which requires a lot of thought in designing the landscaping for the trails. Fortunately, since they pass through several parks, some areas come with pre-existing landscaping. Other areas are designed with a natural look, meaning primarily drought-tolerant trees such as mesquites and pistash, but along rivers, riparian trees, such as cottonwoods and sycamores, are planted.

Larry Shane and Kent Perkins, with the city of St. George, discuss trail maintenance.

Over 500 trees were planted in 2009 utilizing volunteer labor, such as from the Boy Scouts. The city helps organize and supervise these volunteer plantings, and one is carried out every year on Arbor Day. To lower the cost of plant materials, the city has established its own 3-acre plant nursery and often buys bare-root trees and raises them in containers for future use along trails and in parks.

“We’re working on expanding the nursery to grow some 2 to 5-gallon shrubs,” Shane says. Many of those will be native species that will be planted along natural stretches and at trailheads. Turfgrass is planted only at certain trailheads, but there is plenty of turf in the parks for people who wish to picnic. With so many miles of trails, it is difficult to keep up with the landscaping. Drip irrigation is the primary means of watering these long segments, though bubblers may be used, although they require heavier pipe. The bubblers hold up better in areas where wild animals may chew on them.

Water supply is a problem, so the city utilizes a lot of new pumping stations, often tying into existing water systems in housing developments. A lot of recycled water is used, but some isolated trail segments may never get trees because of the unavailability of a water supply. In those cases, the parks they connect will act as oases between segments.

Part of the expense for far-flung trails is for signage and new trees.

Trail maintenance has evolved since the system was initiated. At first, a separate three-man trail maintenance crew was utilized for the whole city, Shane says, but it became obvious that it was more efficient to use the city’s existing area-type crew system. Now, trails in each area are overseen by the regular landscape crew in that area, which has the added benefit of allowing the foreman to concentrate a large force on a trail problem such as a washout from a flood. It also gives crews a sense of responsibility and ownership of the trails in their areas. Because the trees are allowed to go a little wild, not a lot of time is spent pruning, other than for access and hazards.

Water for new trees along trails is provided by drip irrigation or bubblers, like this one.
St. George, Utah’s, famous trail system is an asphalt link to communities and local scenery.

Rules of the road and other trail information are displayed at three-sided kiosks prominently placed at trailheads, and among the other amenities are restrooms, drinking fountains and parking lots. The city is now upgrading all signs along the trails as well, with the addition of signage announcing trail mileage, directions and other information, such as yield signs. Some mile markers are now being painted on the asphalt, which saves money.

The trail system is still popular in the city, and planners are always thinking of ways to improve access. For example, boardwalks are being planned for an environmentally sensitive area, and floating bridges for flood-prone rivers and washes. Mayor Daniel McArthur has a hike every Wednesday and invites the public to join in. Marathons and other events keep the trails’ profile high. When gas prices shot up last year, there was a marked rise in the use of bicycles on the trails.

“People are starting to become more bike-conscious,” Perkins says. In an area prone to thunderstorms and road closures, trails provide a good emergency connection between communities. One trail even crosses under I-15.

One of the greatest benefits is to the image of St. George as a destination for recreationists. Many famous destinations, such as Zion and Bryce Canyon National Parks, are nearby, and tourists who come to the area as a hub for hiking and camping like the image of a city with a lot of trails.

Don Dale resides in Altadena, Calif., and is a frequent contributor to Turf. He has covered the green industry for more than 10 years.