How much do trails cost?

Cost comparison for building paved paths versus simple rugged dirt surface trails.

Dirt trails are cheap. This is one of those few times where you can have your cake and eat it to. EDH lacks enough dirt trails that appeal to hikers, runners, and mountain bikers AND we could have many more miles of trails without the high costs of other “trail” types.

Trail work by volunteers on the Deer Creek Hills Preserve near Rancho Murieta.

Trail work by volunteers on the Deer Creek Hills Preserve near Rancho Murieta.

If you ignore costs that would be for any trail regardless of its type or use, such as land acquisition or rights of way, and just focus on build and maintenance costs, there are some interesting facts.

  • $150-300,000 per mile = cost to build class 1 paths
  • $1,000 – $50,000 per mile = cost to build dirt trails

“Class 1” paths are those nice wide smooth graded paved pathways like you see in parts of Serrano or in the American River Parkway. Lots of planning, design, engineering, expensive materials, heavy equipment, and skilled labor are required. These are built for anybody and everybody to enjoy. But with that luxury come costs measured in dollars and level of effort.

Rugged dirt trails on the other hand, at least the kind I write about in this blog and photograph, are at the opposite end of the spectrum in every regard. They are simple to design for the terrain common in this area. A volunteer or unskilled work party can usually build the trail with simple hand tools. And much of the trail around here only requires scraping the grass off the top and light grading. The way you get to that low-end of the cost spectrum is by keeping it simple and marshaling a good group of volunteers. Case in point, you don’t have to look any further than Rancho Murieta to our south. The stewardship there has built 14 miles of excellent quality trail on a very small budget but with a very motivated group of volunteers. Hats off!

Incidently, the high-end ($50k) of the dirt trail cost spectrum is for professional builders on challenging terrain. Most if not all of the trail alignments I’ve mapped so far are on easy terrain.

Cost comparison for building paved paths versus simple rugged dirt surface trails.

Cost comparison for building paved paths versus simple rugged dirt surface trails. The graph shows 9 miles of paved and graveled paths costing $1.35M as compared to $14,000 estimated cost for building simple dirt trails.

The graph visualizes my main point – that is simple dirt trails are cheap by comparison. In an earlier posting I unveiled the beginnings of vision for more dirt trails in El Dorado Hills. The initial mapping represents about 9 miles of existing paved or graveled paths and approximately 14 miles of new dirt trails. The vision addresses many of the trail issues by adding 14 miles of new trail to compliment the existing infrastructure. And it does so with relatively few dollars. The key ingredient being volunteers who feel empowered enough to make personal sacrifices.

(sources :: I’ve gathered my numbers from a variety of sources and applied a little bit of my own judgement. At the high-end of class 1 paths is a reference in the El Dorado County master plan for parks and trails that cites $300k for a single mile. Interviews with IMBA and local trail builders provide most of my other data points. At the low-end of the dirt trail spectrum is an optimistic estimation that relies heavily on a strong volunteer effort. In all cases, the ranges are wide because there are many variables depending on site-specific circumstances.)

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  1. […] can range from beginner to expert (think “black diamond”, to use a skier reference). When I wrote earlier about trail building costs, these were the type of simple dirt trails that can be at the extreme low end of the trail cost […]

  2. […] only beef with it is the cost. So often things are held up as worthy causes without weighing the costs.  I’m not […]

  3. […] $5 per foot = $26,400 per mile <– just a reference point for cost comparisons […]



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