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National Trails System

"A national trail is a gateway into nature’s secret beauties, a portal to the past, a way into solitude and community. It is also an inroad to our national character. Our trails are both irresistible and indispensable."

—Stewart Udall, U.S. Secretary of the Interior (1961–69)

Establishment of National Trails
They National Trails System Act of 1968 codified a system of trails of national significance. The Act calls for "establishing trails in both urban and rural settings for people of all ages, interests, skills, and physical abilities." The purpose of the system is to promote the enjoyment and appreciation of trails and encourage public access. Although some of the trails were already in existence before 1968, the Act gave them special, national significance.

Headed by the National Park Service, the development, maintenance, and protection of trails relies heavily on the support of a nationwide trails community, composed of both private and public partners.

Three Trail Systems
The system includes three types of national trails: scenic, historic, and recreational.

National Scenic Trails are routes of outstanding recreation opportunity and showcase the unique natural resources and beauty within the U.S. These routes are primarily hikeable, non-motorized continuous trails that extend for hundreds of miles or more. The routes traverse wildlands, and connect communities, significant landmarks and public lands.

Examples include the Appalachian, Pacific Crest, Continental Divide, and North Country trails, among others.

Those who utilize the trails should note that some sections are still in the planning stage and are not yet complete.

National Historic Trails commemorate historic routes and promote their preservation and development for public use. They depict diverse and prominent past routes of exploration, migration, trade, communication, and military action that changed the history and character of the U.S.

National historic trails are long-distance routes that consist of remnant sites and trail segments, and thus are generally not contiguous and may not always represent physical, hikeable trails. But the route offers opportunities to visit surviving sites, trail segments, and defining places of history and learn about the diverse stories they tell. Land ownership along the trail may be in public or private hands.

Examples include the Oregon, Santa Fe, Pony Express, and Iditarod trails, as well as the Trail of Tears and Star Spangled Banner, to name a few.

National Recreation Trails are "existing land-based and water-based trails that provide close-to-home recreation opportunities on Federal, State and local lands." National Recreation Trails tend to be shorter than the scenic trails and are spread throughout the country. The purpose of the recreation trail designation is to promote high-caliber trails in order to provide recreation access to rural and urban communities, economic development through tourism, and healthy recreation opportunities. The National Water Trails System is a subset of the Recreation Trails. There are well over a thousand national recreation trails across the U.S., located within all 50 states, the District of Columbia, and Puerto Rico.

Examples include the Okefenokee Wilderness Canoe Trail, New York State Canalway Water Trail, Crater Rim National Recreation Trail, and Anna Ruby Falls National Recreational Trail are just a few.

Those who want to find trails in their own state of residence or elsewhere in the country can search the National Recreation Trail website, www.nps.gov/subjects/nationaltrailssystem/national-recreation-trails.htm.

Sources & Information
National Park Service: National Trail System. www.nps.gov/subjects/nationaltrailssystem


  • Appalachian National Scenic Trail - The Appalachian National Scenic Trail is a 2,174-mile footpath along the ridgecrests and across the major valleys of the Appalachian Mountains from Katahdin in Maine to Springer Mountain in northern G... Continue Reading
  • El Camino Real de Tierra Adentro National Historic Trail - El Camino Real de Tierra Adentro National Historic Trail was recognized as the primary route between the colonial Spanish capital of Mexico City and the Spanish provincial capitals at San Juan de Los ... Continue Reading
  • Santa Fe National Historic Trail - An overland trail from the eastern United States to the Southwest was first popularized by the trading venture of William Becknell in 1821.... Continue Reading
  • Trail of Tears National Historic Trail - The Trail of Tears was the journey of the eastern Cherokees to Indian Territory (now Oklahoma) during the Indian Removal of 1838.... Continue Reading
  • California National Historic Trail - The California Trail was the southern counterpart of the Oregon Trail.... Continue Reading
  • Oregon National Historic Trail - The Oregon Trail was an overland path to the West, taken by U.S. settlers in the mid-1800s. The trail originated in Missouri and eventually lead to the Columbia River and the Willamette Valley in Oreg... Continue Reading
  • Lewis & Clark Expedition and National Historic Trail - On January 18, 1803, President Thomas Jefferson requested ,500 from Congress for exploration of the trans-Mississippi west, which was approved on February 28.... Continue Reading
  • Under Review: Chisholm Trail - The Chisholm Trail was a cattle trail leading north from Texas, across Oklahoma to Abilene, Kansas. There is considerable controversy over the origin of the name, but if may have been derived from Jes... Continue Reading