"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