A fragile ecosystem sign in front of a social trail.

Why social trails are damaging to provincial parks

Park-lovers are natural explorers, and we love our visitors’ passion for adventure.

Sometimes, we see our visitors create their own shortcuts by cutting through sensitive habitat. This is otherwise known as creating a social trail.

Social trails can have a wide range of damaging effects on protected areas, and we’d like to ask our visitors to always stay on designated trails.

What is a social trail?

A trail made around a fence.
A trail that skirts around a fence or gate (like this one at Bronte Creek Provincial Park) often damages a sensitive ecosystem

Put simply: it’s a shortcut.

Have you ever made your own direct route to access a beach or lookout, disregarding the designated trail? You just created a social trail.

It may seem innocent to you, but other visitors will likely follow your lead. When many visitors do this over time, an unintended new trail is born.

Social trails are created very easily in some areas, such as anywhere with sandy soils, or in wet conditions.

The effect on the environment

Social trails have a huge effect on the area they’re made in.

Human foot traffic damages plants and eventually leads to erosion, the loss of topsoil needed for healthy plant communities, and results in lower water quality in local streams.

It also creates compacted soil, which makes it harder for plant roots to grow, and decreases the amount of water soil can hold for living things.

Aerial show of social trail network
Aerial photographs of Pinery Provincial Park show the extent of their social trail network. Dune plants are easily killed by trampling, which means social trails directly impact dune ecosystem health

They increase habitat fragmentation. Narrow footpaths may not be a problem for larger animals such as squirrels and White-tailed Deer, but it can be a big problem for smaller animals like insects, frogs, and salamanders that have to traverse a wide (to them) open expanse where they’re vulnerable to predators.

Social trails decrease the habitat available for nesting birds. Animals have what scientists call a “Flight Initiation Distance.” This is how close a perceived threat (such as a hiker) can be before an animal flees.

More trails means less space for a bird to nest, and a network of trails may mean that a bird can’t successfully nest there at all.

A social trail created in the sand at Presqu'ile.

By stepping off trail, you could accidentally trample rare plants, mosses, or lichens. Parks protect some of the rarest habitats and species in Ontario; some of the species we protect only occur in one or two locations province-wide. Their loss can have a big impact on the provincial population.

Anywhere humans tread, invasive species come along for the ride. Small seeds hide in the mud and twigs caked in the treads of your shoes. Park staff already spend a lot of time removing invasive species from alongside official parks trails.

Social trails spread the seeds of invasive plants throughout protected areas, which creates an unmanageable problem for staff. To reduce the spread of invasive species, stick to the trails, keep your dog on leash, and clean your footwear after every hike.

The effect on our visitors

Social trails can be risky for hikers as well.

A boardwalk through a sandy grassy area.
Many designated trails like this one have constructed boardwalks, limestone screenings, small signs or markers showing you the way

Social trails are not  included in the official trail system, but our visitors frequently mistake them for official, park-maintained trails. You could get lost, or you could contribute to someone else getting lost! This can result in dangerous situations.

Social trails are not maintained by the park. Staff do not remove hazardous trees, they are not patrolled, and park staff have not designed the trail to follow a safe route.

If you are lost or injured, it may take a long time for someone to find you. We always recommend that you stick to trails that are well-marked and included on park maps.

Trail map of Twin Bridges trail.

Stepping off designated trails increases your risk of encountering species with unfortunate effects on humans. You could increase your exposure to ticks, as ticks settle in grass and brushy areas. You may also encounter Poison Ivy. Yikes!

What you can do

Research and planning goes into the creation of every designated trail at Ontario Parks.

Please always stay on designated trails within the park, and let your friends know to do the same.