Designing Paths Through the Woods – Paths or Trails – Tomato Tomahto


Gravel Path

When thinking of navigating the woodlands, do you envision the path that makes its way through them? Often, a forest has rudimentary paths that seem to flow from place to place. Sometimes animals make these paths, other times weather and wind cut a path through trees. But as a designer yourself, you might want to forge ahead and make your own way.


Compacted soil

When cutting back brush in your woodland, you can think about how paths travel through the wooded areas and how to plan for their construction.


In addition to making circulation routes, keeping your feet dry and avoiding wet or thorny vegetation make the paths very functional. Paths also reduce damage to the native plants and delicate forest soils by protecting the rest of the forest from traffic compaction.


Path materials differ, but the most natural are compressed earth, but many like wood chips or compacted gravel to further delineate the path visually. Gravel is great at percolating away water, and is a more substantial surface.

Some paths in sunnier areas are grass, also very soft on the feet. Grass needs mowing on paths used infrequently though.

Grass Path

Grass Path



Some in shady areas are moss. Paths that have poor drainage become pathways for erosion of forest soils.


From paths, the plantings can be planned as well as sitting areas, and features. Organic mulch like wood chips and bark make soft paths that harmonize well with natural settings, but they decompose over time and need to be refreshed. When using them on paths, make sure your drainage is adequate, otherwise you might have a soggy path instead. These organic paths will suppress vegetation growth, and slightly raise the tread elevation in wet areas.

Asphalt paths drain and direct water like vehicular roadways. Even edging and curbing can delineate path edges, yet become a pleasant visual features as well.

Walled Path

Walled Path


Compacted gravel

The best paths are simple to navigate and lead one back to where one started. Off-shoot paths weave through and connect to main paths. The main path should be generous in width to accommodate more than one traveler. If the main path encourages looking at scenes from different perspectives by having the visitor double back, that is also a plus. Having resting zones to sit also makes the viewer see a different view, even of something they just saw while walking along the path.

Many times paths are designed with how they will be used in mind. This also determines path width and material used.


Paths often have destinations, such as a clearing to stop, pause and take in the view. These openings of light in turn allow sunshine onto the woodland floor, creating a sunny habitat for a greater variety of plants than what you might find in your forest. Siting grasses and blooming plants along the edge of the forest or clearings will attract insects and butterflies.  And that attracts birds. Joy is seeing these creatures in habitats that they prefer.

Asphalt Biking Path

Asphalt Biking Path

Paths are best created on contour like above, keeping walking easy and leisurely. Plus if you are working the gardens along a path, the wheelbarrow moves efficiently. Paths in residentially designed woodlands are very often dug out as shallow swales then filled with wood chips. Why? To aid in direction of water movement and drainage if pitched to one side or sloped. They can release excess water back into the surrounding soils or existing retaining ponds or ditches like above.


These spur paths help form areas to landscape too, a wild tulip patch, bluets, Mayapple, or trout lilies make lovely carpeted spots in your woods.


The path below is the most rustic and was formed organically by constant pedestrian use of that path traveling between rocks. This path is a leaf mulch path. Paths used this way tell you where to form paths. Often they go somewhere interesting or get there the fastest.

Oak-Hill-4But getting there fast is usually not a designer’s intent. They want a visitor to take their time and enjoy the experience, so they curve paths to slow down travel.


Curving a path around something of interest, like a special planting, rock (like above), or other obstacle makes a journey much more enjoyable too.


Creativity makes the path one of discovery, yet nature has something interesting around every corner.

Like mentioned above, paths are designed by function. If it needs to span water, a bridge is constructed to connect paths on either side. Water is a very powerful design element and if one is lucky enough to have it through the woodland, paths should cross or run adjacent.

Destinations often are ponds and lakes, but these are also shared by the wildlife. Keep the brush areas near the water so wildlife has a safe place to hide when necessary.


This is a beautiful break in the woodland above. Below the path follows, then crosses the stream. A dry stream bed can be a nice addition to a residential wooded design if water is unavailable. Dry stream beds can be used as drainage away from the property in downpours too.


The gravel path below is punctuated with small boulders as a means to slow down the traveler. Punctuations like this usually make the viewer stop and look around. That is a place to have something to discover. Curving a path slows down this movement too.


Usually in well designed landscapes, before entering a woodland, the path goes from bright light into leaf dappled light. This too is a design trick, to control mood change through the experience. Often one will find meadow clearings on these type of pathways.


There is a downside to paths in the woods.

One of three negatives to wooded landscaping is ticks and Lyme disease. As one that got bit twice this season, ticks seem to be a problem this year. But don’t let them discourage you from making those woodland walks. Setting back vegetation on paths avoids brushing against plants and that will reduce your exposure. Make the paths generous in width too.

Since woods are moist, you can also have mosquito problems in areas with standing water. Natural landscapes take advantage of the native plants’ ability to match plant’s water needs of rainfall with absorbent and well draining soils, helping to keep standing water at a minimum. But, forested areas also encourage mosquito predators, like birds.

The third problem is allergens from pollen produced by trees, and there is not a lot that can be done about that I am guessing.  But, many perennial native plants do not produce wind-borne, allergenic pollen. Making these native plants the primary component of your woodland just might allow you to enjoy this wonderful habitat.

About Garden Walk Garden Talk

I love to photograph, paint, draw, design, garden, travel the world, and pass on a few tips and ideas that I learned through experience as a Master Gardener and architect. I am highly trained in my field and enjoy my work each and every day. I garden in Niagara Falls, NY in zone 6-B. Find me at:
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38 Responses to Designing Paths Through the Woods – Paths or Trails – Tomato Tomahto

  1. Beautiful Captures 🙂 I love taking pictures of trails too. Happy Week!

  2. milliontrees says:

    You a lucky girl, to have walked those lovely paths.

  3. swo8 says:

    Hi Donna,
    I do love those paths. Especially the natural ones made by both people and animals that often lead to the water.

  4. Enjoyed my walk through the woods! Wonderful information here. The bridges were beautiful, too. Thanks for sharing with us.

  5. alesiablogs says:

    Lyme disease is such a serious condition and has been missed by doctors a lot. I don’t think I have ever seen a tick out here in the Pacific NW, but I have seen my share of spiders!

    • I so hope those ticks that bit me did not pass on Lyme. It was early in Spring and I thought it was too cold for them, but I guess not as the little babies dropped on me from above. Three of them I saw right away, the other two, not until I got home and by them they were latched on.

  6. Barbara says:

    This is such an excellent explanation of paths. Thank for all of the work in both writing about and assembling the pictures! Very helpful!

  7. Debra says:

    Such beautiful images. Thank you. I like what you said about paths being functional. I used to love following deer trails thorugh the woods. They often led to water and pretty meadows.

  8. Nell Jean says:

    What a beautiful woodland walk you shared.

    The downsides to our woods this time of year are poison ivy — the woods are full of it — and poisonous snakes. We mostly mow paths through the meadows and leave the dense woods to critters.

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  10. Beautiful trails and paths to walk…
    As for the mosquito and tick problem, I would baptize myself in a combination of citronella and cinnamon oil before going out there!
    Gorgeous pictures! 🙂

  11. Your captures make every path seem so inviting, Donna; makes me want to walk further and explore each one. P. x

  12. Very useful explanation of design issues regarding woodland paths. You mention water several times, and I have noticed that paths that are not well thought out often have standing water, sometimes because the path has terrain at higher elevation on both sides.

  13. Patty says:

    I am thoroughly enjoying your walk in the woods series. We have an area we try to maintain as ‘natural’ but it is hard work. Garlic mustard is now under control but never gone, and creeping charlie has somehow arrived last year and making headway fast. We have seen pinks come and go and white violets are losing ground to the purple ones. Some types of grass are definitely difficult to eradicate and swallow up precious native perennials when you are not looking. And then you find a small area of newly seeded ferns you did not plant, and pagoda dogwoods near the creek you also did not plant and you know that it is worth the effort.

    • Oh creeping charlie. It is in my garden and tough to get rid of it since it travels all over. Too many places it roots along the way too. You made a good point, that some woodland plants just happen and become such beautiful occurrences. I love a stand of fern that no one planted and the dogwoods too. I miss the dogwoods of PA in spring. We have them here, but not in such numbers.

  14. Annette says:

    Very inspirational blog post with good comments and lovely images – beautiful blog to follow, cheers 🙂

  15. Hope you have my link now but this post is very timely for me as on my return to Spain I will probably found any paths overgrown with bracken and maybe brambles but I am working on how to set up some trails around our little valley which is quite diverse and lovely rocks too. Some good ideas thank you for sharing your expertise. Oh yes, ticks too, but if paths are well cut back hopefully visitors won’t be caught. I now make sure I wear socks !

    • I do have your link, but others might visit your blog if you make navasolanature a clickable link next time. I fixed it here. Make sure to add the web address when signing in to comment. That was not your web address. I guess those ticks get around. Paths are such fun to travel, but keeping them clear, not so much.

  16. A.M.B. says:

    Ugh, Lyme Disease. I had it last year (caught at the bulls eye rash stage), and my husband had it a few years ago. He didn’t get a diagnosis until after the ridiculously high fever and Bell’s palsy set in. It was terrible. I have to admit that our experience with ticks really does make me think twice about spending time outside, but I can’t help myself. I love being outdoors.

  17. My Heartsong says:

    if not too undulating, I like the natural earth beneath my feet, like getting a soothing massage but enjoy all kinds of pathways as well as their symbolic nature.You have a lovely array of settings here.

  18. Beautiful photos of paths including some we saw together. I often find curving paths the most interesting and intriguing parts of a garden.

  19. Fabulous views of woodland paths and vistas. I have always wished I had acres of woods to explore and preserve.

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