Editor’s note: This post was written by 2023 MISG summer undergraduate intern Tyler Bush

My name is Tyler Bush and I am a rising senior at the University of Michigan, studying Earth and Environmental Sciences. After graduating, I plan on pursuing a master’s of science in geology, with a focus on volcanology. My research interests include both coastal geology as well as volcanology, and I hope to find a way to combine these two interests in my graduate studies.

This summer, I had the opportunity to partner with the Michigan Department of Natural Resources (MDNR) to look into the extent of user-created trails in seven Michigan State Parks located along Lake Michigan. Our goal was to understand not only how many informal trails are present, but also to understand how they are impacting coastal dune environments and what we can do to prevent and reverse any damage they are doing.

Wooded and grassy dunes with Lake Michigan in the background.

Social trails webbing through an open area in Grand Mere State Park. Photo: Tyler Bush

User-created trails (also known as social trails or informal trails) are paths created by users in a park that are not officially designated or recognized by park officials. These trails are usually created and spread out of ignorance, by people either not aware they are creating a new path, or unaware that they are no longer on an official trail. They are troublesome for the dunes because they remove dune grass, a necessary plant to maintain dune structure and size. Without dune grass rooted in place, sand is able to blow freely, leading to erosion. Over time, dunes form blowouts and lose their shape.

Wooded and grassy dune area with portion of exposed sand

Dunes at PJ Hoffmaster State Park exhibiting the beginning of a dune blowout. Photo: Tyler Bush

My project aimed to help park supervisors map out where the most troublesome trails are so they can take appropriate action. I used ArcGIS Fieldmaps, a mobile app that allowed me to combine aerial imagery with GPS in order to get an accurate map of my findings. At home, I used aerial images (similar to what you might see in satellite view of Google Maps or Google Earth) to document where I saw trails. Then, I went into each park itself and physically walked all of these trails, ground truthing and verifying that these in fact existed. I also mapped trails not visible from imagery, such as those hidden by trees and other foliage.

Once I had all of the trails mapped, I analyzed my findings and looked into where the trails were the most critical and had the largest impact on dunes. I did some research into how to prevent social trails from forming, as well as how to reverse damage caused by them. I then met with each park supervisor individually to discuss my findings.

Many of the supervisors were surprised by how many informal trails were present. On average, each park had over 16 miles of informal trails. Between the seven parks I visited, there were over 116 miles of trails.

An additional part of each meeting was a discussion of next steps and potential solutions. I found four main methods to mitigate and remedy dune erosion and the spread of social trails: informative signs, restrictive signs, trail markers, and replanting dune grass.

Informative signs are signs that provide information to hikers and other park users about the flora and fauna in the area, the different kinds of dunes, good trail practices, and the importance of staying on trails. It’s best to place these around trailheads where more people will see them. Restrictive signs tell users where not to go, and are best when they include a small graphic so they are easy to understand. Placing these at the entrance to social trails helps prevent hikers from taking these paths. Trail markers help guide users by keeping them on the right path and helping them know where to go. These can range from full on maps to simple arrows pointing the right direction in confusing locations.

Sign partially buried in sand reading Please Stay on Trail

A sign buried in sand at Ludington State Park asking users to remain on the trail. Photo: Tyler Bush

The last solution is transplanting dune grass. Marram grass, the primary beach grass in West Michigan, can easily be spread via transplantation. By taking grass from areas that are more stable and replanting them in areas that are unstable, dunes can be rebuilt over time.

The lakeshore at Warren Dunes State Park covered in beach grass. Photo: Tyler Bush

My research, though arduous and extensive, is only the first step in the fight to protect our dunes. Using the data I collected and the solutions I shared, the MDNR is now working to identify how to carry out actions that will protect our natural resources as well as allow visitors to continue to enjoy the natural beauty of Michigan state parks.

Wooded and grassy dunes with Lake Michigan in the background.

Dunes in Warren Dunes State Park with some small trails visible in the background. Photo: Tyler Bush


Wooded and grassy dune

The dunes at Muskegon State Park reach some big heights. Photo: Tyler Bush


Unpaved trail running along a fence through the woods

A wooded trail at PJ Hoffmaster State Park. Photo: Tyler Bush