Design Ideas for Your Cabin Path or Walkway
Replace your existing walkways of dirt or worn routes through the grass with an outdoor walkway that's good for the sole
Published: April 1, 2005
When you’re at the cabin, do you beat a path for the great outdoors? Whether you’re headed for the lake, the backwoods or just the barbeque, you follow a walkway of some kind to get there. Maybe you’re so intent on the destination that you don’t notice what’s underfoot. And that’s okay. A path is first and foremost a route of travel.
Photo by Victoria Pearson/picturearts/firstlight.ca
But the well-heeled path does more than provide access. A good walkway is as pleasing to the eye as it is to the sole.
The right design and materials complement your cabin’s architecture and anchor it in its setting. Paths are visual cues that show you how to interpret and enter into the landscape, says Vermont landscape designer and author Gordon Hayward. It doesn’t matter if your lot is one-third of an acre or 400 acres. Paths orient the walker and connect the cabin with features on the property.
Looking forward to summer, imagine friends are staying at the cabin for the first time. They wake early, eager to explore the surroundings. Will they find the right-of-way to the lake, the doe run edged with wild blueberries, the best vantage points for photos?
Photo by Dreamstime.com
Think of walkways as outdoor “hallways” linking functional, outdoor rooms: a dining area with table and grill; a space for entertaining with seating and a firepit; a play zone for the kids; a quiet oasis – perhaps with a hot tub or water feature – for relaxing and reading.
Not sure where to begin? Hayward suggests ambling the length and breadth of your property. (Bring a folding chair to decide where to place a bench.) Once you’ve identified the best spots for walkways, rank them in importance. Primary paths typically lead from the driveway to the front door and from the back door into the yard. Secondary paths meander from primary ones to the side of the cabin and around to the back, or perhaps from the deck to the garden. Tertiary paths veer off from secondary paths to, say, a gazebo overlooking the creek, a berry patch in the woods, or even the compost pile.
Use your hierarchy to decide on walkway width and materials. Primary paths in frequent usage should be welcoming, wide – 3 to 6 feet – and direct. (Why lug gear any farther from the car than you have to?) Make them easy to walk on and as even as possible so users don’t need to, literally, watch their step. Stone offers good traction and can be set firmly in place; stay away from gravel and crushed stone that will inevitably be tracked inside. However, loose materials are a good choice for narrower secondary or tertiary paths. These ribbon paths – allow 2 feet for a secondary, a foot or 18 inches for a tertiary – slow the pace to a stroll.
“We have been building walkways for many years and the most common request from our customers is they want it to look natural and inviting,” says Joe Dover, president of Georgia-based Classic Pool and Landscape. “The lakeside or mountain homeowners prefer flagstone generally, but sometimes they want pavers. We recommend flagstone for most walkways because it simply looks great in any setting.”
The flowing, rounded corners of the flagstone walkway complement the setting. Leave the straight routes to city sidewalks.
Photo by Roger Wade/Sisson Company
Follow the lay of the land to determine how a path should unfold. Straight paths are easiest to build and navigate. But meandering paths invite a walker to slow down and enjoy the surroundings.
Rounded corners are more in keeping with a country place than the right angles of city sidewalks; they also reduce the temptation to blaze shortcuts. But sometimes the site necessitates a zigzag approach. Are there boulders or a pond to skirt? Wind the path around them. Curving paths are intriguing, especially when a tree partially obscures the view ahead. Dover strongly suggests curves to his customers. “Curves in a walkway give character and a natural look and feel.”
Is your cabin on a hillside? Tame a steep slope with retaining walls, terraces and steps.
When possible, create a loop so people don’t have to backtrack. Because if they pass your blueberry patch twice, they may eat all your berries, leaving you with none for pie. And wouldn’t that be a shame?
Materials . . .
Wood chips, pine needles, or dirt are fine surfaces for secondary or tertiary walkways.
Photo by Cabin Life, Cabin Living
For materials, there’s a vast array from which to choose. Try to visualize how different textures will look, feel, sound and wear. For a seamless transition from indoors to outdoors, consider running indoor flooring – tile, terra cotta, wood, stone – right over the threshold. Or use the same or similar materials on the cabin’s exterior. (Just make sure the materials are appropriate for your climate. Where the ground freezes, terra cotta will crumble, concrete may crack, slate will be slippery. In hot summer areas, tile may absorb too much heat.)
A small property looks more cohesive when all walkways have the same surface. If your lot is big, vary materials to match the setting and add interest. For example, fieldstone leading from the cabin door can morph to crushed stone as it passes by a rock outcropping, then segue to pine needles through a woodland. Incorporate a second material to signal a transition ahead.
Here are our picks for cabin-worthy paths:
STONE lasts forever and is maintenance free. Types vary by region, including limestone, sandstone, bluestone and granite. Keep in mind that indigenous stone will blend into your site better than imported. And it will cost less too.
When is grass an inviting walkway and not just “lawn”? When it meanders between flowerbeds and leads you to a stairway among the trees.
Photo by Tim Street-Porter/picturearts/firstlight.ca
• Flagstone. Flat stone of random shape and thickness, it is ideal for a rustic retreat. It makes a beautiful stepping stone path when large stones are laid down single file or a patchwork carpet when stones are fitted together like a jigsaw puzzle. (The wider the gaps between stones, the more casual the effect.) You may be able to unearth enough stone on your own property; quarried stone yields a cleaner, less weathered look. Flagstone can follow the contours of the landscape, enabling you to extend the path around a nearby tree or swing it around a boulder. Note: Stones with concave surfaces will collect water or ice.
• Crushed stone and gravel. Makes flexible, colorful walkways that crunch underfoot. Vary the grade and texture from fine to rough to suit the mood and destination of the path. Offers good traction on slopes; needs little maintenance if laid 3 to 4 inches deep. Note: Requires edging to prevent migrating into surrounding areas; may require weeding.
• Cut stone. Flat, uniform squares or rectangles measuring up to 4 square feet – looks formal when fitted closely together. But stone slabs can make an informal stepping stone path when staggered across grass or gravel. Combined with small fieldstones, they create a Zen garden effect. The predictable size and shape make planning easy. Note: Cut stone is relatively expensive; slabs are heavy to lay; may crack in harsh winter zones.
• River rock. Smooth from tumbling and water erosion, ranges from 3/8-inch pea stone to 10 inches in diameter. These rounded stones are not as easy to step on as flat surfaces. Set larger rocks in a bed of crushed gravel or use as edging; confine smaller pebbles to decorative insets or mosaics set in concrete.
GRASS is soft and cool to bare feet. Best for secondary paths not subject to heavy traffic, it’s inexpensive and fluid in shape. Grass walkways can flow around island flowerbeds and between beds and borders before merging back into the lawn. Or weave a green path through a meadow for a “little house on the prairie” effect. Most grasses do best in full sun; red fescue fares well in partial shade. Note: The dew will soak your sneakers; grass requires watering, mowing and, perhaps, edging. As always, be careful not to fertilize if your grass walkway is near the lake.
A wood walkway can link multi-level decks.
Photo by John de Visser
WOOD is warm and well suited to both coastal cottages and woodland retreats. It can link multi-level decks with the yard, span a creek, or serve as a boardwalk through dunes or marshes. Use only pressure-treated lumber for outdoors. Stain it, if you prefer, or for a natural look, choose lumber treated with colorless preservatives. Concrete block footings reduce the risk of rot. Note: Weather can have a dulling effect. Slippery when wet; in shady areas, you may need to scrub regularly to keep it free of moss and algae.
BARK/ WOOD CHIPS make a rustic, earthy walkway that’s best in shade. Before you tote home bags from a garden center, check if your town or county offers free mulch for the carting. Lumber mills are another good source of bulk mulch. Note: Needs replenishing as it decomposes.
PINE NEEDLES are a natural for a woodland path. Don’t let them kill your lawn – rake ’em up and toss on top of bark mulch for a springy path. Note: Slippery on slopes.
DIRT paths remind us of childhood days at the cabin. Nothing wrong with trodden earth for racing down to the lake or over to the neighbor’s. Just rake or tamp crushed gravel onto the dirt to prevent mud puddles. Note: Dirt can be, well … dirty; erosion can be a problem on slopes.
It is especially critical to provide drainage when laying a walkway on a slope, like this fieldstone path. Excavate to about a foot and backfill with six inches of 1-inch gravel. If drainage is a major concern, add drain tile.
Photo by Roger Wade/Original Lincoln Logs
For some pathway materials you’ll need to lay a foundation. Climate, terrain and drainage also dictate whether a foundation is needed. A flagstone path can be laid directly on dirt or sand. But a foundation of crushed gravel will improve drainage. If you live in the northern half of the country, a foundation is helpful to keep a path level and to resist heaving in winter.
To lay a crushed gravel foundation, first pound stakes into the ground and tie strings between them to determine the width and length of the path. If you’re laying cut stone or fieldstone, Vermont landscape designer and author Gordon Hayward recommends excavating to about a foot and backfilling with six inches of 1-inch gravel. (If you’re cursed with especially poor drainage, add a perforated four-inch drain tile.) Rake the crushed stone level, then cover with landscape cloth. Next, add 2 inches of finely crushed gravel. Top with 2 to 4 inches of sand, depending on the thickness of the surface material. (Ask for crusher dust; it holds small fieldstone in place better than sand.)
On the other hand, a path of crushed stone or gravel should be laid on a 3- to 4-inch base of coarser stone. Add drain tile if necessary. The final path should be about one inch below the grade of the surrounding surface.
For a path of bark mulch, spread the mulch directly on the ground if the soil drains freely, or fill a 3- or 4-inch trench. If the soil is slow-draining, excavate 6 to 8 inches, backfill with 4 inches of gravel, and lay the mulch on top. Pine needle paths will stay springy if they’re laid over bark mulch (which retains moisture).
Photo by Evan Sklar/picturearts/firstlight.ca
Landscaping can further define a walkway and create a pleasant atmosphere for those who use it. Some tips:
• Walkways can suggest places for trees, shrubs, and flowers.
• A tree along a path provides shade and a natural place for seating.
• Hedges on either side will enclose a path or screen undesirable views.
• Match plants to the landscape: Irises, lamb’s ears, catmint, hostas and ferns soften hard edges of paths in northern climes; mesquite, sage, cacti and juniper echo the canyons and deserts of the Southwest.
• Tuck moss, serpentine thyme, chamomile, ajuga or other low growing plants in gaps between stones.
• Stage containers of annuals or kitchen herbs at the corners.
• If a path borders wetlands, a buffer of native grasses and reeds will look natural and provide shelter for native waterfowl.
• Arbors, arches, gateways and trellises can enhance the walkway, serve as points of entry into a garden, or frame a view.
Photo by Dreamstime.com
If a path is going to be used regularly at night, it should be lit. Inexpensive, easily installed 12-volt fixtures will suffice, but improvements in solar technology make sun-powered lighting an attractive option too. (For winter in northern climates, though, short days and a covering of snow can render solar lights near the ground useless). Place a variety of soft lights along or around the walkway to show the way, including:
• Bollard or post-shaped lamps to cast 180- or 360-degree light.
• Hanging lamps for tree branches, gazebo roofs or trellises.
• Deck lights that mount on wooden posts or steps.
• Well lights that mount in the ground and light trees and structures from underneath.
• Shielded spotlights to illuminate a specific area.
• The best fixtures also are focal points during the day – a Japanese lantern, a pagoda, a curved metal flower with leaves – and beacons for romantic evening promenades.
Whatever your lighting choice, select shielded lights so you don’t interfere with your star gazing or ruin your neighbor’s romantic evening. Ask your lighting store salesperson for lights that limit light pollution.
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