An educational trail (or sometimes educational path), nature trail or nature walk is a specially developed hiking trail or footpath that runs through the countryside, along which there are marked stations or stops next to points of natural, technological or cultural interest. These may convey information about, for example, flora and fauna, soil science, geology, mining, ecology or cultural history. Longer trails, that link more widely spaced natural phenomena or structures together, may be referred to as themed trails or paths.
In order to give a clearer explanation of the objects located at each station, display boards or other exhibits are usually erected, in keeping with the purpose of the trail. These may include: information boards, photographs and pictures, maps or plans, display cases and models, slides, sound or multimedia devices, facilities to enable experimentation and so on. The routes are regularly maintained.
Educational trails with a strong thematic content may also be called "theme paths", "theme trails" or "theme routes", or may be specially named after their subject matter, for example the Welsh Mountain Zoo Trail, Anglezarke Woodland Trail, Cheshire Lines Railway Path, Great Harwood Nature Trail, Irwell Sculpture Trail, Salthill Quarry Geology Trail and Wildlife Conservation Trail.
The purpose of such trails is to increase knowledge, sometimes this is linked to tourism and recreation or the raising of environmental awareness. Often, the stations provide imaginative and interactive ways to experience nature. Occasionally, guided tours with expert guides are available.
The first official educational trail was created in 1925 on the initiative of a museum director in the Palisades Interstate Park in New York and New Jersey in the United States. In 1930 the first nature trail was laid in Germany. In the 1950s there was a sudden increase in nature trails in Germany, as growing urbanization led to a growth in the demand for recreation and an increase in car use led to greater mobility. From the 1960s in Germany nature trails were established primarily as forest trails to guide visitors. Most of them were signed paths that portrayed the forest ecosystem as worthy of protection in order to restrict the flood of urban drivers seeking recreation in natural areas. For this reason, circular nature trails were attached, initially, especially to large car parks on the edge of forests. In 1970 after the "European Nature Conservation Year" in Germany, the first Swiss educational trails were also established. At the beginning of the 1980s in Germany, educational trails were not just laid out as ordinary signed paths in which knowledge was conveyed by the written word only, but as trails where the perception and experience of nature with the senses was made more central. In 1998 it was estimated that the number of educational trails in Germany was around 1,000. Of these, 85% were forest and nature trails, and only 3% were nature experience trails. Since 2000 new media have increasingly been integrated into educational trails.