Chattahoochee National Forest: 770-297-3061 or www.fs.fed.us/conf
With about 800 miles of trails in North Georgia’s Chattahoochee National Forest, it’s not surprising that people sometimes aren’t sure which trail they’re on.
They may even be on a "fake" trail, created illegally by someone not affiliated with the U.S. Forest Service.
"We’ve had issues with people painting their own blazes," said Jimmy Gaudry, trails manager for the Chattahoochee-Oconee National Forest. "I consider that vandalism."
The Forest Service has conducted an inventory of all the designated trails and recently finished marking each of them with signage and blazes.
Gaudry said the methods for marking trails had varied across the forest, and the lack of consistency was confusing.
Now, a uniform system applies to every trail. Each is blazed with a color specific to its use: orange for all-terrain vehicles, yellow for bicycles, forest green for horses, and lime green for hikers.
At the trailhead and at trail intersections, there are "blazers," small plastic signs nailed to trees. These use the same color scheme as the painted blazes, and they also feature a symbol, such as a silhouette of a horse.
If it’s a multiuse trail, there may be several of these signs at the trailhead.
Gaudry said he prefers the plastic markers to painted blazes because the markers clearly designate Forest Service property, whereas anyone with a paintbrush can create counterfeit blazes.
He acknowledged, however, that it’s easier for someone to pull a nailed sign off a tree than to remove a painted blaze.
Gaudry said visitors shouldn’t use trails that don’t have markers, because they can’t be sure it’s an official trail.
"If you think it’s a designated trail but the markers are missing, you need to notify the Forest Service," he said.
Much of the trail-marking work was done by volunteer groups who help maintain the forest’s trails. Beckie Hilton, president of the Clarkesville-based N.E. Georgia Mountain Hiking Club, was one of the volunteers who re-blazed the Ladyslipper Trail in the Lake Russell Recreation Area.
Ladyslipper was originally marked with blue blazes. The Forest Service has stopped using that color, because blue usually indicates an approach path to the Appalachian Trail.
"So we ‘unblazed’ the trail by scraping off the bark," Hilton said. "The Ladyslipper Trail is multiuse, so we put up markers for biking, hiking and horses."
Though Hilton said the markers make it clear what the trail is for, she prefers the old-fashioned blazes.
"I feel like the painted ones are more permanent," she said. "I’ve already seen some of the plastic ones curling up. If you had a controlled burn (in the forest), it seems like the heat would damage them."
Hilton added that she’s not sure the Forest Service chose the most effective colors for blazes.
"The lime green (for hiking) is very bright and easy to see," she said. "But the forest green (for horses) is so dark it almost disappears once you put it on a tree."
Gaudry said the Forest Service was limited in its selection of colors, because certain colors are already used to designate established, long-distance trails. The famed Appalachian Trail, for example, is always blazed in white.
"That system is not going to change, so we’ve avoided using white blazes on our own trails," he said.