How do I find trailheads?
February 21, 2010 4:56 PM   Subscribe

I know the park exists. I know the trail exists. I have my hiking shoes, my camera, and a car. Now where the heck is the trailhead?

I grew up in semi-rural areas where hiking was plentiful and easy to find (go to your backyard). Now in my adulthood I'm living in city and suburban areas where hiking is much more difficult and the outdoors consists of a paved trail around a park.

Now, I haven't had any trouble finding hiking trails and state parks despite this. But I'm having a devil of a time finding out where to actually go to start my hike. I can find the park--it's a big green blob on Google--I know the trails exist from what the Internet tells me--but finding the trailhead, and where to go that's not a park or playground, that's been a different matter. I just spent two hours driving around Northern Philadelphia because I wanted to go hiking in the Wissahickon Gorge Valley.

So how do you find the start of your hiking trails? Is there a good website (that does not require pay like where I can find directions on where good trails are and if they will be actual dirt hiking trails or paved pathways? What am I missing here?
posted by schroedinger to Science & Nature (22 answers total) 9 users marked this as a favorite
Goecaching. Even if you aren't interested in caching you can find a lot of the info you are looking for.
posted by D_I at 5:03 PM on February 21, 2010

Get yourself topographical maps of the area you want to visit. Trails are marked on there and if you're relying on the internet for maps in the backcountry, you're doing it wrong.
posted by thewestinggame at 5:03 PM on February 21, 2010 [1 favorite]

Have you tried looking at the website of whatever government or nonprofit entity is responsible for the park? Many counties and states, at least, have trail maps of their parks online. Also, for places in central New Jersey, try New Jersey Trails Association.
posted by mollweide at 5:07 PM on February 21, 2010 [1 favorite]

2nding the topo maps. Other places to check:

- local outfitters are great resources
- decent guidebooks for the trails in the area ought to have instructions for locating
the trailhead.
- If there are rangers in (or near) the park, they should be able to point you in the right direction as well. A lot of times there'll be some sort of information station in the park itself (sometimes no more than a little kiosk in a shelter) with trail information on it.
posted by jquinby at 5:09 PM on February 21, 2010

I had the same trouble when I started doing a lot of local hiking on poorly-marked or just-barely-there trails. I often Google the trail name and a word like "trailhead" You are definitely not crazy, this is a problem. I think a lot of people just pay for or get topo maps [which are *all free* incidentally, though sometimes a little out of date] or luck into some good trails at places like Backpacker magazine's destinations site [crappy interface but decent information] or sometimes I have luck searching Flickr for information. After you've managed to do this, you can do what I do and docmuent better for the next folks who come through.
posted by jessamyn at 5:10 PM on February 21, 2010 [2 favorites]

It's hard to tell from your question if you've already exhausted local websites...

For example, on the Friends of the Wissahickon site, there's a pdf map, and then on the map it directs you to their office for more detailed information.

My answer is generally to visit the state parks or National Park Service website and go from there. You may also find guidebooks at your local bookstore for "great hikes" or somesuch (I can't vouch for that book, though.)
posted by cabingirl at 5:12 PM on February 21, 2010

There's a website called for the San Francisco Bay area, and it has good stuff about trailheads ("park in the north side if the road and walk left about 50 yards for the trailhead"). I stumbled across it by googling a local park. Maybe your area has something similar?

In my experience, state/county parks will have trailheads starting in the main parking lot. Are the parks you're going to without parking areas?
posted by rtha at 5:13 PM on February 21, 2010

In general, the Internets are not a great source for free trailmaps, because compiling trail information is a labor-intensive activity with a limited audience willing to pay for it. So for good info you need to spend a bit on and printed hiking maps and books. That said, there seem to be good interactive maps online for Wissahickon trails, here. (Check trails in left nav and zoom in.)
posted by beagle at 5:15 PM on February 21, 2010

I highly recommend trying to find a book written specifically about hiking in your area, something recently published and well-recommended by experienced hikers. I would hit your local outdoors store and just start asking people about what resources are available. If the store is any good, they'll be able to point you in the right direction right away.

Most of the information I find online tends to be in the vein of "the trailhead is somewhere between X and Y on highway Z". My favourite hiking book gives me information like "turn onto highway X and reset your odometer. Travel Y kilometers, and park at the gravel turnoff. Walk Z paces south to find the trailhead."

Good luck, and happy hiking.
posted by threetoed at 5:20 PM on February 21, 2010

Local hiking guides (check local bookstores, outdoor, and travel shops) have pretty detailed where-the-heck-is-the-trailhead (go past the hairpin turn, park in that tiny little turnout, backtrack on the highway 200ft) type of info for their recommended hikes (often with trail maps as well). Just one example is the "60 hikes in 60 miles" series, for which Philadelphia has an edition.

I always have paranoia that I miss great hikes by relying on guides like that, but once you start getting to know the particular parks and areas well you quickly come to recognize what other trails interconnect and stumble onto other trailheads.
posted by rafter at 5:21 PM on February 21, 2010 has free maps. That link is to the map of Wissahickon Valley.
posted by Deflagro at 5:25 PM on February 21, 2010

Is this the specific park in question? If so, simply click on the "trails" and "parking" overlays on map to find out where the trails are, and where to park for them.

Which leads to the general answer to your question: go to the web site for the government agency that manages the park in question and hunt around for any maps you can find. If there's not enough details on the type of trail, you can always make a phone call or pop off an e-mail asking for more information. Pay a visit to the visitor's office, if the park in question has one--they may have printed maps.

In other words, go to the source. Their raison d'etre is to encourage people to use their facilities!
posted by drlith at 5:34 PM on February 21, 2010

Duder, next time call me and I'll tell you where it's at.

Ridley Creek State Park in Delco is another good one, also the Northern Delaware Greenway/Brandywine State Park, too. If you head up to French Creek State Park about another 40 minutes north of the city you start to get a little more Serious Business, trails that take most of a day to finish instead of like an hour or two.
posted by The Straightener at 5:38 PM on February 21, 2010

Although it seems weird to have to do so in 2010, buying printed books with trail info in them is usually your best bet. Choosing and finding trails can be tough and trailguides exist to solve this problem. Even if you only make a few hikes from a particular book you buy, the cost ends up being pretty minor per hike. Think of the cost as insurance that helps you to avoid experiences like the one that prompted this question (but don't get me started on inaccurate directions in trailguides). lets you access info from such books, but check to see if they have enough of what you want before you shell out as buying actual books may be a better value. Alternately, some parks provide pretty good information so check websites or call. Trailpeak is a free-ish option, but might not have much info for your area.
posted by ssg at 5:42 PM on February 21, 2010

Oh, and all the state parks in PA have free trail maps in boxes at the main office so you can grab them even if the office is closed and that will tell you how to get to the trailheads and get on the trails.
posted by The Straightener at 5:48 PM on February 21, 2010

Response by poster: Yeah, I saw the options for contacting the parks or organizations directly, but honestly thought that there was just a website or source of information online I was missing that would eliminate the middleman.

That Philadelphia City Maps thing is excellent.

Straightener, next time I'll give you a call, thanks!
posted by schroedinger at 5:50 PM on February 21, 2010

rtha: "In my experience, state/county parks will have trailheads starting in the main parking lot. Are the parks you're going to without parking areas?"

This has always been my experience too (that the Trailhead is clearly visible from the parking lot)... however I'm in Colorado.. so that might vary from state to state. (although I've hiked quite a bit in Utah, Wyoming, etc.. and I believe it was true there too.
posted by jmnugent at 6:13 PM on February 21, 2010

This is the start of a nice set of trails.

posted by Lizsterr at 6:40 PM on February 21, 2010

Try this for Pennsylvania. Its in progress, but it is coordinated through the PA DCNR.
posted by buttercup at 7:21 PM on February 21, 2010

Are the parks you're going to without parking areas?

Around here in CT, a lot of trails are on land trusts or land conservancies, which have bad access and parking, iffy trail markings, and maps that are only on paper.
posted by smackfu at 6:39 AM on February 22, 2010

Seconding hiking guides for your specific locale, and urging you to check your library, which is likely to have a collection of them.
posted by kristi at 9:18 AM on February 24, 2010

I do a decent amount of hiking and backpacking in PA (but on the other end of the state).

I've found this book to be a really good resource for backpacking in PA; its geographical information (including trailhead location, water abundance, and campsites) has been rock-solid for all the trail systems I've hiked in the book (however, that number is only three, so YMMV).

BTW, if you're after woodland solitude and nature-exploring more than you're after the best views in the state, I would check out the state forests. The backcountry camping restrictions are a lot more lax than in the state parks, you can take your (leashed) dog if you have one, and there tend to be way less people. We went backpacking in a state forest over July 4th weekend -- a state park would be totally packed over a 3-day weekend in midsummer. I think we saw maybe 3 other groups during our 3-day visit, and we were totally out of sight of every other group for both nights that we camped (though one night, there was another group about 1/10 mile down the trail from us.)
posted by kataclysm at 12:42 PM on February 26, 2010

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