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YMCA's Community Trailhead project promotes health through trails

The mission of Trails Forever is to restore and revitalize the trail system in the Golden Gate National Parks as well as provide the public with more knowledge about the trails.

From the Richmond District (San Francisco) YMCA

"We hope to inspire— and inform— all residents of the accessibility and importance of outdoor experiences to improve their health in a fun way."

The Community Trailhead project is part of the Trails Forever initiative, a partnership of the Golden Gate National Parks Conservancy, the National Park Service (NPS) and the Presidio Trust. The mission of Trails Forever is to restore and revitalize the trail system in the Golden Gate National Parks, protect and enhance the sensitive natural and cultural resources surrounding trails, and to engage the California Bay Area community in the enjoyment and long-term stewardship of the trails.

The Community Trailhead project was instituted to address the third part of our mission—engaging community. Our focus group studies confirmed what other studies have shown: a primary barrier to people’s use of park trails was lack of knowledge about the trails. Respondents stated that they thought there was probably good information at visitor centers or trailheads—if they knew how to get there or knew about the park sites.

Photo of ranger with sign

Unveiling Community Trailhead poster at the Richmond District YMCA (click to enlarge)

“Aha,” we thought, “why should trailhead information only be in the park? Let’s try taking the NPS trailheads out of the park and put them into communities where people unfamiliar with the park will see them.” Our first step was to identify a community partner and location.

The Richmond District (San Francisco) YMCA presented a perfect partnering opportunity since they have a large membership made up of groups we are interested in engaging and because they are within easy walking/transit distance of two major sites in the Golden Gate National Parks: The Presidio and Lands End. The YMCA also wanted to promote walking and outdoor activity as part of their health and physical activity programs and was interested in opportunities for the staff—particularly summer camp counselors and fitness instructors—to learn more about park trail resources.

This first Community Trailhead was funded with a grant from the Centers for Disease Control (CDC). After several meetings with the project partners (YMCA, NPS, CDC and Parks Conservancy), we determined that we would install an NPS-style trailhead kiosk on the outside wall at the entrance to the YMCA and would identify a space inside to set up an “information station” along the lines of what one might find in an NPS visitor center, with a brochure case and bulletin board where park events and activities could be posted.

Photo of kids on trail
Childrens' group hiking in the Presidio

We conducted surveys of Richmond District YMCA members and found that 42 percent of the 122 members surveyed did not walk or run on trails but 58 percent indicated they would be interested in using the nearby trails if they had information and/or were accompanied by a guide. Our objectives for the Community Trailhead were:

  • To increase awareness about “neighborhood” park sites Presidio and Lands End that contain 1,600 acres of open space with over 35 miles of trails offering a welcome respite from the rapid pace of city life.
  • To promote running/walking and volunteering in the parks as part of a physically active lifestyle and highlight the health benefits associated with such activities.
  • To offer community members—especially children and families—programs, activities, and information that can help improve personal health and fitness.
  • To increase park visitorship by underserved populations served by the Richmond District YMCA, which includes a large membership of Asian and Russian immigrant families from the surrounding community. From our initial evaluation, 35% of members were identified as Mandarin, Cantonese, or Russian speaking.
Photo of Chinese family walking

"Your Neighborhood Gateway to the Golden Gate National Parks" brochure in Chinese

With these goals in mind, we developed the content of the Community Trailhead. The trailhead features:

1) an aerial map photograph of the park sites, trails, and the adjacent neighborhoods with a “You Are Here” icon at the Richmond YMCA;

2) information on the “Five Reasons to Get Moving”;

3) descriptions of trail walks in the park sites that can be done starting from the YMCA; and

4) information on the time it would take to complete each hike if you started at the YMCA, how many calories would be burned, how many steps you would complete, and a “difficulty” rating. In addition, we printed brochure-sized copies of the trailhead kiosk panel in Chinese and Russian and made them available for free distribution inside the YMCA.

We also provided programming opportunities associated with the trailhead. For example, we organized guided tours and hikes with YMCA fitness staff, hosted a trailhead ribbon-cutting event day with hikes and information for community and YMCA members (see Image 2), and provided support to the YMCA’s fledgling hiking club.

The Results

Photo of people walking
A fitness walk on San Francisco streets

This project has heightened the awareness among residents and YMCA members of the park and trail resources that are part of their neighborhood. The fledgling hiking club has grown from a handful of members to 70 regular participants. The Parks Conservancy has started a “trail use training” program to introduce counselors to the Presidio trails and lead hikes from the YMCA to introduce members to the park’s history, natural resources, and restoration programs and highlight the health benefits of physical activities enjoyed outdoors. We have also strengthened our connection to the YMCA fitness facility and initiated joint programming efforts on walks and hikes for youth, adults, and families.

We have begun to use this as a model in other locations in San Francisco, including at a local public elementary school, a major downtown art institution, and an art gallery easily accessible for an underserved Latino/a community in the Mission District of the City. And the Richmond YMCA and has been contacted by another local YMCA that wants to replicate the Community Trailhead concept at their site.

Future Direction

Our goal is to use the Richmond District Community Trailhead Pilot Project as a model for the development of new community trailheads—deepening the connection between people and the national parks at their doorstep. The trailhead sign elevated awareness about park sites and promoted the health benefits of using park trails. We continue to work with the YMCA to offer programs that will transfer the members’ new health awareness into practice by developing a greater familiarity with trails in their neighborhood parks. We hope to inspire— and inform— all residents of the accessibility and importance of outdoor experiences to improve their health in a fun way and, perhaps, eventually engage them in the long-term stewardship of these community resources.

For more information:

Richmond District YMCA
360 18th Avenue (between Geary & Clement St)
San Francisco, CA 94121
(415) 666-9622

women hiking

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