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trailbuilding hiking trails near max patch in hot springs NC

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Let’s go beyond conventional trail building and focus on how to construct a trail system in steep elevations such as where my property sits, within the Blue Ridge Mountains of Western North Carolina. My approach is tailored for those of you who are seeking to navigate steep, challenging slopes. I want to help you create truly awe-inspiring paths that ascend your rugged landscape so both you and other hikers can take in the scenery from every elevation of your property, which you know is worthy.

Whether you’re a seasoned trail builder or a novice, you can learn from the tools, strategies, and techniques I’ve personally used to great success. So let’s get started into the extraordinary world of steep incline trail construction – you can do this it’s not impossible.

1. Tools and Equipment you’ll Need for your Trail Building

You may be surprised by what I’m about to tell you but take this leap of faith – you don’t need much in terms of capital investment to build even the longest of trail systems. Minus a pair or two of very rugged and sturdy weatherproof boots and a supply of leather work gloves, your equipment costs will be relatively minor compared to the tremendous gains you’ll create for yourself and your property’s value. Let’s get into the two essentials.

Mattock and Chainsaw; tools needed to build a trail

The 3 essentials: leather gloves, a mattock and a chainsaw


Other than your leather gloves, here’s the only tool you truly need is a good, old fashioned Mattock. I personally am enamored with Lowe’s brand, Kobalt, because it’s always the most rock-solid in terms of build quality relative to price. It’s equipped with a pick on one end and an adze on the other, and it becomes your number one go-to ally and your very best friend start to finish for your trail building.

Go ahead and forget your shovel entirely because you’ll find yourself working infinitely harder than you’ll need as compared with the mattock. A mattock breaks through tough soil and rocky surfaces with ease and efficiency. You swing it like an axe so you’ll be saving yourself the back pains a shovel gives you time and time again. It truly simplifies trail building, especially on hilly terrains. Then with the length of the tool after you’ve excavated enough dirt, you can smooth and level your trail bed to make sure it’s a stable and comfortable walking surface. It truly is one hell of an indestructible tool and is thus THE vital implement for your trail construction.


trail building with a chainsawA chainsaw, while not entirely necessary – is still something you’ll both want and need if you don’t want hikers to have to step over fallen trees. It’s so efficient when clearing obstacles, yes from fallen trees but also to thick vegetation, especially the thorny kind. I’d suggest opting for a smaller one. I’ve used both small and enormous chainsaws, and I’ve found other than for those trees with massive diameters, smaller chainsaws are simply easier and lighter to carry to and from your toolshed and up steep inclines.

Imagine having to walk your magnum back to refuel and add chain oil to then climb back up your mountain – you’ll feel tired before you once again pull the cord.

2. When to Dig

trail building in the cold months

The house below the trails in January

Build Your Trails in the Colder Months

The advantages of laboring during the colder months become ultra-apparent. First, the cooler temps in the winter offer a stark contrast to the heat and humidity of summer. Summer conditions induce profuse sweating and increased fatigue when you’re efforting. The colder months allow for more extended and comfortable laboring, optimizing your energy. Even in sub-freezing temperatures you’ll be amazed when you find yourself taking off layer after layer to the point you’re down to a t-shirt. AND you feel comfortable all the while.

Second, reduced vegetation in winter stands in stark contrast to the lush greenery of spring and summer. Fewer weeds, plants, and no poison ivy? Winter gives you a less obstructed canvas for excavation and simplifies your digging. Imagine smoother progress compared to the challenges posed by dense vegetation in warmer seasons. And let’s not even talk about gnats and mosquitos.

Also, consider root dormancy during colder months. Roots are far more pliable and less resistant to excavate in winter or cooler months. This is a truly significant advantage over the tougher and more resilient roots you can encounter in warmer times. Reduced physical effort is your friend during trail building times. Who needs stubborn, tough roots when you can catch them while they’re napping?

Moreover, think about this on a personal level — we’re typically more dormant during the winter season anyway as there’s a natural slowdown. It’s nice to find a good reason to be outside in the winter. The colder season will give you the opportunity to dedicate more focused time to trail building without the need to balance competing interests; you’ve got better things to do when the weather’s begging you to do other things.

Lastly, snow is not necessarily a deterrence from progress. Assuming you’re not trying to dig through a snowdrift, light accumulation shouldn’t be any impediment. You’ll appreciate the deep, dark contrast your trail shows amidst a wonderland of white powder. And believe me, you’ll still be warm with all of your exertion generating body heat.

Give it a Go During or Just After it Rains

trail construction in the mountains

Slightly wet earth is the easiest to dig of all conditions

This may sound silly but don’t let the rain get you down unless it’s pouring. While you may feel like taking the day off, moist (not muddy, just wet) soil is generally easier to dig through so your trail building goes far more smoothly and is more manageable than say if the ground was, “dry as dirt.” I’ve done both and there’s no comparison – wet soil wins every time. There’s such increased pliability and it allows for much quicker progress. It also reduces your physical strain; faster and easier wins the day for me.

Additionally, consider that wet conditions can unveil to you potential drainage issues too. Identifying and addressing water flow ensures better water management for the trail, minimizing erosion risks and improving the overall sustainability. Water always needs to find its way downhill you can count on it.

3. Planning Your Proposed Trail by Increments

Locate Your Starting Point

Choosing where to begin is no small decision. So start by finding a spot where the path is relatively easy, especially if you want a smooth start leading to your first switchback. It’s nice to give hikers a gentle beginning before tackling more challenging hills. It’s about making the trail accessible to all kinds of hikers, whether they’re beginners or seasoned pros.

trail entrance

This is the 2nd of 4 entrances, and the one with the easiest incline to ease my guests into the trail system

Consider the location too. Aim for a starting point close to where people would usually approach from. Easy access makes it more likely that folks will jump on the trail right away. Sometimes an interesting landmark can help guide you. For example, if you come across two trees that kind of looks like a starting gate, that’s a great visual choice. A unique starting point sets the tone for the entire trail.

On a personal note, I didn’t take my own advice before my own trail building. I chose my starting point long before I drafted this article and as they say, with age comes wisdom. I naturally chose a location directly behind my house which at first blush was brilliant because of its easy accessibility. However, getting to a reasonable elevation from there made me create three to four immediate switchbacks aided by a series of steps and stairs. But, I learned and later added three more trail entrances/exits so my guests can choose to begin with an even ascent and end more steeply on their return trip down.

Locate the Right Place for Your First switchback Using the Longest and Flattest Inclines

In choreographing your trail, your placement of switchbacks are pivotal decisions. So at this very early juncture you’re on this quest for the perfect spot for your trail’s initial switchback; you have to thoughtfully examine the terrain that lays ahead with an emphasis on identifying the longest and gentlest incline.

While the ideal scenario includes a long, flat segment, sometimes nature simply has other plans and you’re just going to have to accommodate them. Fear not, as we’ll delve into the art of diverting your direction or constructing steps to navigate more challenging sections in a later segment. But for now, I recommend pinpointing that optimal spot for your first switchback, where the soft inclines are most extended, and the approach to that turn is obvious.

Incorporate Interesting Natural Features Considering Rock Outcroppings and Great Views

rock cropping on trail

Of course I purposefully angled for this granite rock outcropping for hikers to pause and marvel

This trail design is YOUR canvas, and the inclusion of captivating natural features transforms a mere path into a captivating journey. Go ahead and direct your hikers to weave their way through trees, beside rock outcroppings, unique and special wonders of nature, as well as scenic vistas. Given enough trail there’s an array of delights that engage and delight hikers.

natural, interesting feature on hiking trail

Naturally hollowed out trunk at its base which conjures a sweet little Hobbit home

Let’s say, for argument’s sake, you are blessed with some of these interesting features to highlight. By strategically incorporating some geological markers you not only infuse character into the landscape but also give hikers a tactile connection to the earth. Let them touch and feel. Don’t forget to also designate resting spots or scenic overlooks around these choice spots because they invite moments of contemplation and turn the hike into a holistic experience that goes way beyond just the physical. I personally make live edge benches and while I haven’t hauled one or two up yet, I most certainly will given the time. I have ideas.

As you guide your trail, also consider the allure of interesting trees and plants. What if you find along the way a small shallow cave or a natural spring? These unexpected gems add a touch of mystery and tranquility and they invite hikers to pause, explore, and appreciate. You may not even recognize them until you’re veritably on top of them, too, which adds a thrill to your own day. So be prepared to change your plans at any moment of your trail building to contemplate them as they appear. Your well-designed trail becomes a sensory delight, engaging in both sight and touch.

Remember, crafting your trail is not about reaching the destination; it’s about curating an experience. By investing that extra time to incorporate the extraordinary—whether it be unique trees, a small cave, a patch of moss—you create trails that speak to the senses and leave a lasting imprint on a hiker’s memory. After all, if you’re taking all this time building the trail, why not make it an extraordinary? Go the extra mile it lasts forever.

trail building

Photo taken AFTER i finished digging the entire trail system

Don’t Fret Over Fallen Trees

Encountering a fallen tree is not a roadblock but rather an opportunity to exercise what’s always been deemed a bad trait, and that’s procrastination. Yes, you’ve heard me correctly — embrace it. “You’ll get to it later.”

The first rule of thumb when facing a fallen tree blocking the trail is to resist the temptation to dive into immediate action. It’s easy to get distracted and inefficiently shift gears, grabbing a chainsaw, ensuring it’s fueled up and has enough bar chain oil, and making sure the chain’s sharp. In the beginning I’ve done this. And I found it an impulsive response and led to unnecessary time loss and fatigue.

The more effective strategy is to just treat that fallen tree as a temporary inconvenience. Rather than halting the entire digging process to clear the path, just keep going as if it wasn’t there. Your rhythm will remain uninterrupted and you’ll stay focused on the path in front of you. The fallen tree can and will be revisited at a later time. Stay tuned.

Try to Give as Much Buffer Between Your Trail and Large Trees

building a trail on hills

In many cases, building your trail too close to large trees can prove difficult

It’s natural to want to strategically place your trail near large trees. Towering giants add such beauty and character to your trail, so it’s not a terrible idea to leave a buffer between your route and their expansive root systems. Extensive root networks often extend close to the surface at the base of the trunk, right? Attempting to dig or excavate near these trees can be really challenging at times and give you less dirt to work with to build out your ledges, depending on whether they’re crossing your proposed path. In addition, while it’s unlikely you’ll truly cause any harm, you could inadvertently damage the the tree, which surely isn’t your intention.

4. Prepping your Proposed Route Increment by Increment

As you craft your route, the key lies in a balanced approach—neither planning too far ahead to avoid potential pitfalls, nor risking snafus by failing to anticipate the twists and turns of the terrain. In this section, I’ll explore the art of prepping your route during your trail building process with a methodical focus, increment by increment, ensuring a thoughtful and adaptable trail plan that harmonizes with the natural landscape while avoiding undue challenges.

Create Flat Trail Line of Leaves, Connecting Your Starting Point with the Location of Your First Switchback

You’re now going to create a flat trail line of leaves to guide your way from the starting point to the first switchback based on the vision you laid out earlier. So begin by laying your mattock flat on the ground and systematically, yard by yard, dragging leaves down and towards you. Repeat the process over and over again until you see you’ve begun to form a continuous line of accumulated leaves on the ground. This method serves as a guide for your going to dig. It also has the added bonus of adding girth to the foundation for the ledge on the hill you’re about to create. Remember, dead leaves are just waiting to be decomposed into fresh, nutritious soil, anyway.

Circumvent Serious Obstacles Whenever You Uncover Them

Things don’t always unfold as planned. As you pull down leaves with your mattock surprises may lurk beneath the surface, like sizable rocks that refuse to yield.

Don’t fret.

Fairness and predictability are rare commodities in life. When confronted with an obstacle too large to budge, adapt. We get thrown curveballs, and you have to navigate these hurdles with flexibility. The good news is, you haven’t even started digging yet and you can divert your path if needed before you’ve invested much of your time.

5. Start Trail Building!

It is now time to get dirty. Pick up your mattock and start breaking ground. You will need patience, but trust you will revel in your progress. As the saying goes, put one foot in front of the other, and witness your trail materialize step by step. When the journey is complete, it might just be a forever kind of accomplishment – a legacy that will owe its very existence to you and your unwavering commitment to this project. Don’t lose sight. Dig in and watch your trail take shape.

Dig Your Heels In it Can Get Steep

steep hill trail digging

The incline of much of the terrain i dug on was steeper than 60° and sometimes was even more daunting

Consider this an uphill challenge. No pun intended, but it’s fitting. Working on a hill adds a layer of complexity to digging. You have to ensure you’re equipped with a sturdy pair of boots that offers ample ankle support, especially considering the potential steepness of the terrain. Waterproof boots are wise choice too, so don’t overlook this essential feature. If you prioritize the comfort of your feet you won’t regret your decision. It takes no time for traditional boots to saturate.

Now position yourself strategically to minimize the risk of imbalance.

Start Your Ledge; Begin Perforating the Ground Just Above Your Freshly Created Line of Leaves

Now that ALL the preparation has been done, it’s time to “Start Your Ledge.” Begin by targeting the ground just above your freshly created line of leaves. Puncture the earth along your designated path line. With each perforation, you’re crafting the beginnings of a ledge that will essentially define the character of the terrain. Your mattock is now a precision tool and every puncture follows the trail’s intended path. Gauge your comfort and continue this rhythmic process along the line.

Reverse and Fortify Your Ledge

Shift your focus to extracting dirt from above your already perforated line, gradually forming the ledge. Remember, the higher you aim your mattock, the more dirt you’re going to pull out, and you’ll want to maintain consistency in this process as you work your way back down to where you started. Keep going back and forth at increments you feel comfortable with.

When there’s enough dirt with which to work, pull and push the dirt with the flat side of your mattock to begin creating an even walkway that extends and widens the ledge. You’re not only going to shape your trail but also give it a stable foundation. As excess dirt tumbles down over the ledge, it gradually adds to its foundation for better strength. Ever wonder how roads and highways were constructed on the side of a steep hill or mountain before? Now you know. 

Maintain a rhythm of reversing and fortifying, always expanding the ledge with each ascent and descent. This intentional back-and-forth movement will give you a balanced and structurally sound trail in the end. Continue until the ledge reaches a width capable of supporting the weight of a person or accommodating side-by-side passage. It’s your call – I decided based on how much dirt I could extract from the hill. Sometimes the root systems were too entangled for me to widen much further and I stuck with a single lane in those cases.

Ignore Fallen Trees in Your Way

Remember, you’re coming back to deal with these later so just do your best to get as close on both sides of the tree so all that awaits you later is the amount of dirt that sits under the tree, itself.

Collect all rocks and Stones

Try to save every rock and stone that emerges from the earth as you dig – they are invaluable resources for enhancing both functionality and aesthetics. In my opinion, don’t let a single, sizable stone go to waste throughout the entire trail building process. Larger, flatter rocks become the keystones for constructing steps along your trail. On the other hand, smaller rocks are ideal for delineating the trail’s edges, serving as obvious borders that persuade hikers to stay close to the hill and thus maintain the integrity of the path. Recycle, reuse, repurpose all rocks.

Decide on which Roots to Sever, and which to save

You’ll inevitably encounter a web of roots beneath the surface. Root systems, akin to a tree’s arteries, crisscross the soil, presenting a unique challenge in determining their impact on the tree’s health.

It’s a delicate task of discernment, distinguishing between major arteries and those that play a less critical role. The decision-making process rests in your hands as you weigh the necessity of each root for the tree’s survival against the imperative of trail progress.

In my opinion, trees possess a remarkable ability to adapt – I haven’t killed a tree yet to my knowledge. While severing roots may cause them a headache, I think the tree has the resilience to sprout new roots and compensate for the ones removed. The key lies in a judicious approach.

Pack Down Loose Dirt

As you stand back, survey the segment of trail you’ve just created. If your experience is anything like mine, a sense of satisfaction will wash over you. Now it’s time to level and pack down what you’ve done.

Concentrate your efforts on the ledges, using the flat of your mattock to compress the loose dirt. Refine the trail’s surface to withstand the weight of hikers and maintain its integrity. Pay special attention to the edges, where stability is key to prevent any accidental tumbles.

The goal is to create a trail that won’t give way under the weight of those venturing too close to the edge. If any weak spots surface during this packing process, consider it a signal to reinforce. Dig into the hill even further so you can generate more dirt to pull out and fortify the edges until the trail’s width and sturdiness is complete.

Repeat this process, packing down and reinforcing, until you feel confident that the trail is not only wide but also tough. This attention to detail will ensure your trail stands the test of time and is safe and enjoyable.

6. Plan and Prepare the Next Leg

It’s time to shift your focus to the next segment. Just harken back to how you planned and prepared your first leg. While the switchback may be on the brain because, well, it’s staring right at you, for the moment set these thoughts aside. It’s now time to lay prep the next and upcoming trail section. Assess the terrain where you want for your trail to climb, identify potential challenges, and strategize each step you’re going to take as you did before.

Once again, start drawing down the leaves with your mattock and create the next line. 

7. Connect Both Legs with a Switchback

switchback trail building

Just pick the best spot and reverse direction as you climb the hill

This is the juncture of trail building where each leg intertwines with the next through the artful design of a switchback. While the process may feel novel at first, its repetitiveness simplifies it so you’re harmonizing the distinct trail segments into a cohesive and interconnected path.

Pull Down Loose Dirt and Create Stairs if Needed

As the switchback takes shape you want to create a smooth transition at the intersection of your two trail segments. If the natural curve is complicated by steep terrain you’ll need to help the hiker along with a stair or two.

With the mattock in hand, delicately pull down soil from the upper segment, sculpting a foundation for a step, or steps depending on the steepness and rigidity of the switchback. Then select a flat stone you previously unearthed and saved that is still sitting exactly where you left it earlier. Ensure the stone fits snugly into the carved out space and embed the rock with some loose soil from atop and sides. Using both your mattock and your feet, clamp down the surrounding soil to fortify the stone from all sides, especially below. Ensure the stability not just for the rock but for the hiker who will be adding his or her weight.

8. Build Connecting Trails Between Levels

Obviously. With each trail layer in place, you may just want to link them to one another. Introducing connecting trails between levels enhances accessibility and invites exploration. (“oh, look — what’s up there?”) And for this you are entering the realm of steps and stairs which will be addressed next. I added connector trails to bridge my three levels in several places so hikers don’t need to reach either end of the property just to change their elevation. They also serve to create a dynamic network, transforming your trail system into a cohesive tapestry of shoots and ladders.

9. Create Permanent Stairs

Harvesting Logs from Fallen Trees

harvesting logs

Slice and gravity will help you pull down the log to slice another. So on and so forth

Now, it’s time to wield that chainsaw of yours. Post-excavation, you’ve likely realized during your own trail building there are more trees to contend with than initially anticipated. Some lie flat on the ground, while others are elevated but not high enough to walk under. The dividends from your efforts to clear these obstacles are significant. While logs may not last forever like stones, they are still long-lasting and much easier to move and shape to size. So, go ahead and create as many logs as possible from these fallen heroes, as you’ll likely find uses for them all.

A couple of tips: Firstly, cut as many logs as possible from each fallen tree in your path, especially if they’re not too large in diameter. Smaller to medium-sized logs are manageable to cut, carry, and position. If you encounter a long segment that aligns with the contour of your pathway, consider positioning it as a guardrail.

Enhancing Stairs with Logs for Length and Flattened Design

using logs to build a trail staircase max patch

Prepping the stairs to insert the logs I cut using felled trees found along the way

Opting for logs over stones comes with its benefits, particularly when creating a lengthy staircase on an elongated climb or descent. Begin by digging a divot where you plan to place your freshly cut log, leaving an ample amount of dirt in front. This front dirt is to ensure the log remains securely in place and doesn’t roll forward with pressure. After it’s securely in place, cut a slowly sloping length of path before you require another stair.

Then carve out another divot, place the next log and repeating the process until you’re at the top, or bottom, depending on which direction you’re going. The key difference between a logs and stone lies in the log’s thickness and width, providing the necessary support to withstand the earth behind it.

By leaving enough dirt in front and packing it in with your mattock, the log will securely endure all the pressure hikers can apply going in either direction, providing excellent support for your staircase. There may be a moment in time when you need to cut in a new fresh stair, but my guess is, unless you chose an already rotted tree, you’ve got ample time.

Use Larger Segments as Railings

fallen tree makes great reinforcement in trail building

Fallen trees can make for great ledge reinforcement

At certain points, reinforcing your ledge for safety becomes essential. Simply bring over one of these fallen trees, and voila!

10. Add Erosion Control

Relocate Ferns to the Edges of the Trail

At least in the Blue Ridge Mountains, ferns are growing everywhere you look, and they are resilient to relocation. They have a root ball that sits on or just below the surface and network their roots laterally across the ground.

Locate a position just above the roots and strike down with your mattock and slowly peel back the entire root system if you can. Go ahead and drop the mattock at this point and with your hands try to gather up as much of the root system possible. As for me, I preferred going after all the fern above the trail because after I remove them from the ground I tossed them to the trail and as flat as possible. They’re built to last and will survive, don’t worry about harming them.

After you’ve collected as many ferns as you can, return to your trail and begin transplanting them into your freshly created ledge. Making sure to cover their edges with loose soil. Hammer down the edges with your hands or mattock to ensure they’re securely fastened. Not only should they anchor in nicely, but grow in size and create some erosion control for the edges of your trail. Plus, it acts as a beautiful, natural trail marker from below that will make your trail system sing.

Hikers aren’t accustomed to seeing that sort of thing, right? Also, it’s a rarity to find a fern die even in dead winter – they’re survivors.

Preserve Moss and Relocate to Flat Segments

If you’re fortunate to have moss growing all around you, you can relocate it too. It may not be advantageous to remove a gorgeous swatch of moss from a rock or boulder visible from your trail, but how about moss that’s hidden from view or laying unseen beneath a patch of leaves on the ground? If you find such a treasure trove, go ahead – moss finds a way to grow back anyway. Treat yourself to some – get as much as you can and place pieces strategically on some of your flat sections and make sure they’re securely in the ground.

Navigating Water Features: Streams and Springs

Discovering a natural water source along the slope of your mountain is a stroke of luck. However, with this fortune comes the challenge of enabling hikers to cross drainage areas without ending up excessively muddy or with soaked shoes. The key while trail building is to plan crossings at the least intrusive points. I recommend finding a nearby fallen tree segment, which can be dragged over to create a lower guardrail. Position one or both ends just above a standing tree for good, long-lasting support. Next, leverage those stones and logs you’ve collected along the way but never used to fill in the crossing area, especially where the water might create some mud. Larger stones, in particular are ideal because they fix in nicely by just dropping them in the wet, muddy areas. Hikers can then walk above the mush, regardless of the water flow, until they reach drier ground.

Bonus: Crafting and Installing Directional Signs

trail signs for building trailsFor an extra personal touch, consider creating directional signs if you have the materials and tools at your disposal. In my case, I found myself with surplus wood that seemed to have no purpose elsewhere. Armed with a jigsaw I opted for a free-flowing style, carving out a series of arrows. The result? Signs that exude a charming, shire-like aesthetic.

Taking it a step further, I invested in a $15 wood-burning tool from Amazon. With it I added instructions to the signs. To complete the process, all that’s needed is a handy battery powered drill/screwdriver, along with some long deck screws to drill into nearby trees. Voila. You’ve now successfully crafted and installed your own set of directional signs to enhance the trail experience. signage for trail building near asheville

Conclusion: Transforming Steep Terrain into Valuable Assets

Trail building on steep terrain on your property is a dual investment—expanding your usable land and elevating your property value. Turning challenging slopes into accessible pathways not only enhances personal enjoyment but opens up opportunities for others to explore otherwise neglected landscapes.

For you, the trail builder, it’s truly a transformative journey where you spend veritably zero cash to create a truly lasting legacy. The strategic placement of trails showcases your property’s hidden beauty, all the while attracting like-minded hikers, and of course, ultimately homebuyers when the time comes. As these trails wind through your slopes, they offer exercise, adventure, and breathtaking views, making the steep ascent worthwhile for both trail builders and hikers.


  • Steel Pick Mattock
  • Chainsaw
  • Leather Work Gloves
  • Optional: Reciprocating Saw
  • Optional: Burning Tool
  • Optional: Battery Powered Drill


  • Optional: Scrap Wood

Gallery: The Trail System at Windows Over Waterfalls


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