Jason Hall, Recreation Chief, Bureau of Forestry, Department of Conservation and Natural Resources (DCNR), provides answers to some questions about color-specific trail blazing.
Q: We know of trails that are blazed red for shared use but are really unsuitable for horses or mountain bikes. Sometimes these trails are unsuitable because they have steep sections, other times because they have narrow sidehill treadways that make them impractical, if not unsafe, for horses and bikes. The red blazing seems to be particularly harmful for horseback riders and trail bikers; if they see (perhaps on a map) that a trail is blazed red, they may go there expecting to ride or create a nice loop but find the trail unsuitable, so their plan for the day falls apart. Sometimes, too, there is damage from horses on trails that are more suitable for hikers only.
A: Red blazes indicate permitted shared uses and aren’t intended to promote any specific use other than nonmotorized. However, your concern is not without merit. Recognizing the benefits to our user groups, the Bureau of Forestry is working to improve our state forest maps to provide better information on equestrian and biking opportunities. Many of these opportunities occur on shared-use trails, and we feel we can help identify shared-use trails where certain activities may be better suited than others. That said, unless we have a good reason to prohibit a certain activity on a shared-use trail, that trail should be considered open for that type of activity.
Q: Is it true that forest districts are required to have a certain quota of shared-use trails and, for that reason, sometimes blaze trails red to meet these quotas even when those trails aren’t suited for shared use?
A: There is no such requirement, and no such quotas exist.
Q: Is there a default blaze color—meaning all trails are blazed red unless there’s a reason to blaze them yellow (hiking-only trails) or all trails are blazed yellow unless there’s a reason to blaze them red?
A: All nonmotorized trails are, by default, open to all nonmotorized uses unless posted as closed to specific uses. Red may seem to be the default blaze color because, overall, there are more shared-use than hiking-only trail miles. In any given forest district, red blazes will likely outnumber yellow. Red blazing is chosen most often because it allows a variety of trail uses compared with the more restrictive, hiking-only yellow blazing.
Q: How do recreation foresters assess the best use of a trail (and the resulting blaze color)? Are they encouraged to assess treadway characteristics such as width, steep ascents and descents, sidehill aspects, rockiness, and muddy or wet sections? Do their assessments vary by forest district?
A: Recreation foresters are encouraged to use our trail assessment form when evaluating their trails. This form helps them identify trail maintenance needs and is intended as a tool to help them prioritize which trails they should focus on first. The form does have them look at trail width and trail surface condition but doesn’t specifically ask for evaluation of grade changes. These assessment factors are not used exclusively in determining the proper blaze color; they can be more beneficial in evaluating the trail’s difficulty rating. A forest district that identifies large trail segments it believes are inappropriate for a certain use can prohibit that use. These decisions are made at the local level and vary within each forest district as well as across all forest districts.
Q: Can you elaborate on trails blazed in different colors? Many hiking trails, both loops and linears, are made up of linked trail sections. Some sections may be appropriate for shared use; others may be appropriate for hikers only. Also, trails sometimes converge, run together for a distance, and then diverge. One trail might be blazed red; the other, yellow. Many trail sections we know of are blazed in 2 colors (such as both red and yellow) or even in 3 colors (such as red, yellow, and blue). (Similarly, highway sections sometimes run together and then separate; where they run together, they’re labeled with both route numbers—even 3 route numbers, sometimes.)
One forest district is telling us that 2 colors of blazes cannot be used on the same trail section because horseback riders have been told to stay off a trail with yellow blazes (hiking-only trail). Therefore, a concurrent trail section (a section that is part of both a longer hiking trail and a shared-use trail) can be blazed only red (for horses, bikes, and hikers) and cannot be dual-blazed in red and yellow (for the hiking trail) because yellow blazes force the horseback riders off.
A: Two colors may be used to blaze overlapping trail sections. For these sections, we encourage forest districts to split single blazes in half with 1 color on top of the other (for example, red on top and yellow at the bottom). Doing so lets users know that, at least for those trail sections, there may be other users. On trails with split red and yellow blazes, for example, horseback riders would be permitted because red is also on the blazes. Forest districts need to do a good job of clearly identifying where the shared-use portions of the trails separate so horseback riders avoid riding on hiking-only trails. As for 3 colors being blazed, these trails are likely to also serve as a cross-country ski trails. We recommend that 1 of the 3 colors be a separate blaze. We endorse minimizing the use of blazes because too many blazes can mar the primitive character of the trail. (Our recommendation is placing blazes at approximately every 5 minutes of hiking or roughly every 800 to 1,000 feet.)
Q: Are there any known DCNR/Bureau of Forestry official policies against blazing in both red and yellow?
A: No, although we try to minimize this kind of blazing to help prevent confusion. In 1 area, we have a couple of hiking trails with shared-use sections as well as hiker-only sections. The trails are advertised and promoted as hiking trails, but hikers are asked to go from red blazes to yellow blazes (or vice versa) as they follow the trails.
Q: What if trails are blazed with 2 colors in 2 different ways. Some trails might have 2” x 6” red blazes and 2” x 6” yellow blazes, which may be on the same tree or on different trees along the trail. Other trails might use split-color blazes—for example, a 2” x 6” blaze that is yellow at the top 3 inches and red at the bottom 3 inches. Is there a preferred method for 2 colors of blazes? Or is the method up to the individual forest district or whoever blazes any given trail or trail section?
A: As mentioned previously, forest districts are encouraged to split a single blaze into 2 colors. But if they choose to use separately colored blazes, they’re encouraged to place the blazes on the same tree.
More on Blazing:
Guidelines for Marking Recreational Trails (pdf)
Keystone Trails Association