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How to Plan a Heritage Trail in 7 Steps

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By Emily Potter

Great heritage trails are more than just a list of stops at historic places along a mapped route. They can be a journey through time.

It's also a journey all its own to create a heritage trail from start to finish -- from deciding what story to tell to selecting the sites that illustrate the area's history. To help you plan an engaging, fun, and informative trail, we've laid out seven steps that start you on the right path (literally!).

1. Set goals. Start by thinking about what you want your heritage trail to do. Do you want to connect a number of sites together? Encourage preservation and conservation of resources? Generate economic impact through tourism? Cultivate community pride?

Then, figure out what kind of trail you want to create. A basic heritage trail provides itineraries or listings of sites to see on a website or in a printed guide. An interpreted trail goes one step further with guidebooks, audio tours, and interpretive signs. A full service trail offers wayfinding signage along the route, visitor centers, special events, and tours.

2. Identify compelling stories. Think about what your community or region has to offer in terms of cultural, heritage, and natural resources. Some examples could include museums, historic landmarks, historic neighborhoods, or significant landscapes. What stories do these places tell that you want to share with your visitors?

Consider stories based on places -- buildings and landscapes that reflect the region's culture. Stories around people might encompass interesting individuals or groups who have made an impact on the area's development. And stories about events can include milestones that have shaped your community's history.

blog_photo_B.B. King Dedication
The interpretive marker honoring Blues legend B.B. King is one of more than 175 markers on the Mississippi Blues Trail that tell the stories of people and places connected to the Blues.

3. Determine themes. Once you've developed a list of stories you want your heritage trail to tell, look to see if there is an overarching theme, or even a variety of themes. One theme, or several, will help ensure the trail is cohesive from beginning to end. It might also help you come up with a name.

4. Map your stops along the trail. Stops should tell the stories you have identified, contribute to the theme of your trail, and create a fluid pathway from beginning to end. Some questions to consider when selecting the stops include: Are the areas already visitor-friendly? Is there lodging, dining, or shopping nearby? Are they easily accessible? Will visitors have access to parking, restrooms, or gas stations nearby?

5. Decide how you will tell the stories. Each stop should tell its own story in a way that engages the visitors and challenges them to think about the area's people, places, and events in new ways. Start planning for the materials you want to produce that will enhance the visitor experience. From printed materials to audio to special events, these will be determined in part by what kind of trail you decide to create (see Step 1).

Make sure to research your information thoroughly and fact-check all guidebooks, brochures, maps, and other pieces. Train your tour guides, if you have them. Ensure that the resources at each stop will be preserved -- for example, don't let people walk over and wear down areas that should be protected.

"Explaining history from a variety of angles makes it not only more interesting, but also more true." John Hope Franklin, Historian and Author

blog_photo_Denton Visitor Center
Services such as this visitor information center in Denton, Maryland, on the Michener's Chesapeake Country Scenic byway are essential to a good experience for visitors.

6. Create a plan to develop and manage the trail. Reach out to local organizations or other potential partners who may have a unique perspective on the area and be interested in collaborating. Decide if you'll have public meetings to involve residents in the planning of the trail. Designate someone, or a group, to be responsible for the long-term management of the trail.

7. Market your trail to visitors. Develop a list of ways you want to promote your heritage trail. Advertise in local newspapers; connect with friends and followers over social media or services such as Groupon; look to your partners or other local organizations and businesses who may be open to promoting the new trail; and work with your local and state tourism bureaus to reach new visitor markets. Get creative!

[Case Study] The Roots of American Music Trail will encourage visitors to explore and experience places throughout the Muscle Shoals region in Alabama where hundreds of rock 'n roll, soul, pop, and R&B songs were recorded from the 1960s to today.
  • The Muscle Shoals National Heritage Area is developing the trail with funding from a National Scenic Byway grant and technical assistance from the National Trust.
  • The stories of Muscle Shoals will be told in a variety of ways, including a special website, cell phone tour, guided tours, and a collectors' CD featuring songs recorded in Muscle Shoals by Aretha Franklin, Bob Dylan, and others. One of the most important sites along the route, Muscle Shoals Sound Studio, is currently being restored and will include a new interpretive center.
  • The trail will be marketed throughout the Muscle Shoals National Heritage Area, local convention and visitors bureaus, and the Alabama Office of Tourism. Promotional materials will include a brochure, Facebook page, media announcements, and television advertisements.
blog_photo_Bob Dylan Muscle Shoals Sound Studio in Sheffield, Ala., is one of the stops on the Roots of American Music Trail. This site helps tell the story of the many superstar singers, including Bob Dylan, who recorded there.

For more information on the Roots of American Music Trail, contact Judy Sizemore, director, Muscle Shoals National Heritage Area, jsizemore@una.edu.

This toolkit was produced in collaboration with Carolyn Brackett, a Senior Field Officer of the National Trust for Historic Preservation.

Have you had experience creating a heritage trail? Tell us about it! And if you haven't planned a trail but love to travel them, we want to know which one is your favorite!