National Forests Technology

How to Add Hiking Trails to Google Earth

Hiking down a trail in the woods is one of the most freeing feelings in the world. Knowing that, let’s see how we can use technology to find great hiking opportunities on our public lands.

How can you add hiking trails to Google Earth? Google Earth comes equipped with trail maps for the National Park System by default. Other organizations like the U.S. Forest Service allow for their trail data to be downloaded as a KML file, which can then be uploaded to Google Earth.

So, how exactly are we going to do that? Keep reading and we’ll go over step-by-step instructions on everything you need to know about adding hiking trails into Google Earth.

Enabling the Default Trails in Google Earth

Before we start exploring open data sets, it would probably help to first check the features that come with Google Earth straight out of the box.

So, what kind of hiking trails can we get with Google Earth? From what I can tell, the only trails available are those that belong to National Parks in the United States. Furthermore, there seems to be very little data associated with the trails that are present. If you happen to be lucky, you can expect to find the name of the trail once you are zoomed in close, but that’s about it.

With that being said, many people will be more than content to roll with this default option, as it appears to do a good job covering the trails in the National Parks.

Finding the Trails Option in the Menu

As you can expect, turning on this layer is dead simple: all you have to do is find it in the Layers menu and then check the box. You’ll looking for the menu in the path of More –> Parks/Recreation Areas –> US National Parks –> Trails, as you can see below:

The ‘More’ group is at the bottom of the Layers menu, so don’t be surprised if you overlook it at first. Enabling the Trails button will end up enabling two features: Trails and Trail Junctions.

The Trails feature is obviously the layer that contains the outline of the trail itself, so that layer is necessary. You’ll often find the name of the trail when you zoom in far enough, as you can see below. Clicking on the trail never appears to do anything based on my experience, but it’s possible that some trails might have additional info.

The Trail Junctions feature is represented on the map with small red circles located along the trail. This information may be useful for some, but I wouldn’t consider it necessary. The small circles are clickable, but I’ve found no junctions that provide a window with additional information. Everything has simply shown a window indicating that I was viewing a ‘Trail Junction,’ as you can see below:

Not the most helpful of stuff, but it is convenient to see the locations of the trail junctions. You’ll see later that while the data direct from the National Park System does have more fields available, it doesn’t often extend beyond the name of the trail. Many of the additional fields are either strictly bureaucratic or they are missing values.

Most people interested in finding trails for National Parks would therefore be best off by sticking to the default trails that come with Google Earth.

Importing Trails Downloaded From the U.S. National Park Service

If you’re looking for more information on the trails in a National Park and you don’t mind searching a little bit, you’re just in luck. The National Park Service maintains an open data hub on the ArcGIS website, which you can find at this link. This data hub covers a wide variety of applications, but they very conveniently provide a Trails category.

The KML files (the type of file we’ll need to upload into Google Earth) are dedicated to a specific National Park, so you’ll have to find the file for your specific park. Feel free to start your search by opening this link, which has a few filters already applied in order to weed out the stuff we don’t need. Once you open that link you should see a page that looks something like this:

We’re mostly interested in the search bar that you can see at the top of the screenshot.

Downloads Organized by National Park in the ArcGiS Data Hub

Your fastest and most reliable option will be to directly search for the trails file associated with the National Park of your interest. So give it a go and search for the trails dataset for your park. Not every park is available and the naming conventions aren’t super consistent, so you may have to try a few different options.

If you can’t find a file dedicated to your park, then you’ll have to use the a filtered dataset of the layer associated with the entire department. Here is the link to that dataset.

Download Your Specific Park Then Upload to Google Earth

Now that you have your KML layer with the trails for your park of choice, you’ll wan to upload it to Google Earth. This is easy enough, just find the Open option in the File menu.

This will add the file to your Temporary Places section, and you’ll want to move it over to the My Places in order to keep it around.

Unfortunately, there’s not much to say about the trail data available from the National Park Service. There are a variety of data fields available with this file, but it turns out that the vast majority of trails don’t have values present.

How to Add U.S. Forest Service Trails to Google Earth

While the U.S. Forest Service does have some great information available, the unfortunate part is that their download file for their trails is nationwide, and therefore is much too large for Google Earth to handle.

No Easy Option for Downloading the U.S. Forest Service Trails

Much like the national parks, information for the U.S. Forest Service can be found at an online hub called the Geospatial Data Discovery. There’s a lot of really cool information here, but the hiking .kml file is simply too large to upload into Google Earth.

This leaves us with a few options:

  • We can download a filtered dataset on a small group of trails (does work, but it is quite slow)
  • We set up an Image Overlay using the WMS Server (slowly updates in Google Earth and looks sub-optimal)

I think most people will be best off by going with the first option. While it is quite slow to process the download, it’s not quite glacial. Also, the download is slow on the ArcGIS end of things, so you’ll be able to let it run in the background without any issue.

How slow are we talking? I downloaded a filtered dataset that contained approximately 300 records in the U.S. Forest Service hiking trail dataset, and it took about 8 minutes to complete. The final file was only 3.8 MB in size, so you can see that this download is slow only because ArcGIS is literally building your filtered dataset before they can send it over to you.

If you’re interested in setting up the Image Overlay, you can check out this post that covers this process is detail. The biggest thing to keep in mind is that your going to be setting up a different WMS server than the one specified in that post. This should be your server for the U.S. Forest Service hiking trails:

Zoom Into Your Region of Interest on the Geospatial Data Discovery Site

You’ll first want to open the link to the data layer for the trails of the U.S. Forest Service. When you open this link you should see something like this:

We’re going to be downloading a filtered dataset, so the first thing we’ll have to do is zoom into our desired location. It may take quite awhile for the trails to appear on the map, as I wasn’t able to see them until the county boundaries appeared.

If you click on the Data tab that you can see in the lower-left corner of the above screenshot, you’ll be able to see the quantity of trails left. Try to keep this number on the lower end (less than a few thousand, ideally), as larger datasets will require additional processing.

Initialize the Download and Let ArcGIS Process it in the Background

Once you are content with the download area you’ve zoomed to, it’s time to initialize the download. As we’re going to use this data in Google Earth, we’re going to need a file format called KML. The button we want is the Download button on the right side of the screen, and in the bottom part of the menu you’ll want to click the KML option, like so:

Clicking that will initiate the processing of your request, and it might take a little while. Your results may vary, but you can probably expect to wait about ten minutes for a file with a thousand or so records.

So, start that download and then take a break. Your download will be hopefully be ready once you get back.

Add Your Filtered Dataset Into Google Earth and Explore

Now that you’ve downloaded your trails into a KML file, it’s time to upload it into Google Earth. This is straightforward enough. Just open Google Earth and then find the Open option in the File menu in the top-left corner of the screen.

You’ll be presented with a file directory that only shows KML and KMZ files by default, so it should be easy enough to find the KML file you just downloaded. After opening this file you should see your screen update to something like this:

The red lines represent the U.S. Forest Service trails that you just downloaded. If you zoom in closer you’ll be able to pull up details for a trail by clicking on it. You’ll see a menu like this:

Admittedly, this table is a bit of an eyesore, but there’s some good information here. First, you’ll notice at the bottom that they list the seasons in which a trail is open to the various modes of use. Second, you’ll find interesting info on the characteristics of the trail in the red box in the middle. There you’ll find info on the trail surface, grade, and approximate width.

The last thing to note is the following: the trails you just uploaded are currently in your Temporary Places part of your Google Earth profile. If you’d like to reference them the next time you come back, it’s easiest just to add them to your My Places panel. This can easily be done by right-clicking on your trails layer and then selecting the ‘Save to My Places’ menu item.

Final Thoughts

Thank you for taking the team to read this post, and I hope you managed to find the answer to your question.

Feel free to check out any of these articles on similar topics:

By Drew Meulemans

I've long admired forests and devote much energy to learning about them and exploring. I enjoy sharing what I learn and wish to inspire others to do the same.