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Hiking Trails of Great Falls Maryland: Mapping for Visitor Safety

Chesapeake and Ohio Canal NHP
Marie Sauter
The Great Falls area of the Chesapeake & Ohio Canal National Historical Park receives the greatest park visitation, nearly 1 million visitors annually. It is not only one of the most scenic sites along the middle Potomac River, protecting outstanding natural resources and canal-related historic features, but it contains over 15 miles of hiking trails and other recreational opportunities all within minutes of the Nations capital. The Billy Goat Trail Section A (1.7 miles long) is the most difficult and heavily used of the hiking trails in the park and is popular with park visitors because of its challenging character (rock scrambling), spectacular views of Mather Gorge below the Great Falls, and the opportunity to enjoy diverse natural resources. The Billy Goat Trail Section A spans the length of Bear Island, which is jointly owned and managed by The Nature Conservancy and the National Park Service and is one of the most significant natural sites in the National Capital Region.

Park management determined that due to the rising number of visitor injuries and lost visitor incidents along the Billy Goat Trail Section A during the late 1990s, new safety projects would be developed and implemented to provide for a safer visitor experience along the trail. At the same time, significant natural areas would be reviewed to identify and minimize human caused impacts. Funding was acquired for trail safety improvements, trail sign upgrades and installations, and production of a new hiking trail map brochure, all designed with visitor safety as the key focus. The park began on a two year long journey of producing such an integrated map publication and safety education tool, known as the ‘Hiking Trails of Great Falls Maryland’, which was published by GPO and released to the public in the spring of 2003.

Because need for the map arose out of visitor safety concerns and issues, the process required a highly integrated team for map and layout review and content development. The team included C&O Canal NHP staff on the Central Safety Committee, the GIS Coordinator, law enforcement and interpretive rangers, natural resources specialists, and park maintenance staff; volunteer trail overseers from the Potomac Appalachian Trail Conference and members of The Nature Conservancy. A cooperative agreement between The Nature Conservancy (TNC) and the National Park Service (NPS) specifies that the NPS and TNC work together to manage the visitor use on the island and TNC was consulted on the process and content as well. The map product is a two sided brochure. The front is the area hiking trails map and the back is text with informational details. The text content includes specifics on visitor safety, trail descriptions, trail safety recommendations, NPS regulations and emergency contact information, trail access and alternatives for less strenuous hiking trail options. Resource protection is also emphasized with a ‘lessen your impact’ message.

Existing, up-to-date GIS data developed and produced by EarthData International, Inc. at a scale of 1:1200 was used for base mapping. Additional trail data was collected with Trimble ProXL sub-meter Global Positioning System (GPS) units. GPS data was differentially corrected, exported to ESRI Arcview3.2a and edited over aerial photography (1:1200). A map layout was created in Arcview3.2a, which was then used as a template for the final publication document. Park Interpretive staff ensured that the NPS Identity Project format was followed, and the NPS Graphics Identity fonts, the new arrowhead and other layout components were used. (This template map brochure was produced for a year at the park and distributed widely to visitors to the C&O Canal NHP until it was replaced by the final product. Doing so allowed for visitor feedback and improvements on the brochure.)

The Arcview GIS data was then imported into Adobe Illustrator 9.0.2 via the Map Publisher (Avenza) plug-in and the layout was reconstructed in a ready for publication format. The final map product was professionally printed on water resistant paper for longer use by park visitors in most weather conditions and as a park brochure keepsake.

The ‘Hiking Trails of Great Falls Maryland’ brochure was a project ultimately achievable with the technology available through Geographic Information Systems, Global Positioning Systems, and publication software, but the project was made possible through the interest and concern of park staff and partnering organizations for the safety of C&O Canal NHP visitors.
April 08, 2004