The National Trails System includes over a thousand trails throughout the United States, and is administered by the federal government.The Act created a series of National trails “to promote the preservation of, public access to, travel within, and enjoyment and appreciation of the open-air, outdoor areas and historic resources of the Nation.” Specifically, the Act authorized three types of trails: the National Scenic Trails, National Recreation Trails and connecting-and-side trails. The 1968 Act also created two national scenic trails: the Appalachian and the Pacific Crest; and requested that an additional fourteen trail routes be studied for possible inclusion.
In 1978, as a result of the study of trails that were most significant for their historic associations, a fourth category of trail was added: the National Historic Trails. Since 1968, over forty trail routes have been studied for inclusion in the system. Of these studied trails, twenty-one have been established as part of the system. Today, the National Trails System consists of 30 National Scenic and Historic Trails and over 1,000 National Recreation Trail and two connecting-and-side trails, with a total length of more than 50,000 miles (80,000 km). These National Trails are more than just for hiking, many are also open for horseback riding, mountain biking, camping and/or scenic driving.
As Congressionally established long-distance trails, each one is administered by a federal agency, either the Bureau of Land Management, United States Forest Service, or National Park Service. Two of the trails are jointly administered by the BLM and the NPS. Occasionally, these agencies acquire lands to protect key sites, resources and viewsheds. More often than not, they work in partnership with the states, local units of government, land trusts and private landowners, to protect lands and structures along these trails, enabling them to be accessible to the public. National Recreation Trails and connecting-and-side trails do not require Congressional action, but are recognized by actions of the Secretary of the Interior or the Secretary of Agriculture. All of the National Trails are supported by private non-profit organizations that work with the various federal agencies under the Partnership for the National Trails System (PNTS).
Most of the National Scenic Trails and National Historic Trails are fairly long, and most visitors hike only a portion of the trail, or may take several years to finish, tackling it for a few days at a time. The trails may cover a combination of federal, state, and local land, and may go through private lands as well.
National Scenic Trails, National Historic Trails, and National Geologic Trails are designated by act of Congress, marking them among the best trails of the nation.
National Scenic Trails
National Scenic Trails are established to provide access to spectacular natural beauty and to allow the pursuit of healthy outdoor recreation. The National Scenic Trail system provides access to the crest of the Appalachian Mountains in the east, on the Appalachian Trail, to the Rocky Mountains of the west on the Continental Divide Trail. These provide access to viewing the subtle beauties of the southern wetlands and Gulf Coast on the Florida Trail, wandering the North Woods from New York to North Dakota on the North Country Trail, or experiencing the vast diversity of landscapes of the southwest on the Arizona National Scenic Trail. Of the eleven national scenic trails, Appalachian, Natchez Trace, and Potomac Heritage are official units of the NPS.
Appalachian National Scenic Trail — 2175 miles (3500 km), a Canadian trail continues 690 miles (1100 km) into New Brunswick & Quebec. It is being extended a further 1200 km along the west coast of the island of Newfoundland.
Arizona National Scenic Trail — 807 miles (1309 km)
Continental Divide National Scenic Trail — 3100 miles (4990 km)
Florida National Scenic Trail—1300 miles ( km)
Ice Age Trail — 1000 miles (1600 km)
Natchez Trace National Scenic Trail — 695 miles (1120 km)
New England National Scenic Trail — 220 miles (370 km); was recognized as a NST (National Scenic Trail) in March 2009
North Country National Scenic Trail — 3200 miles (5150 km)
Pacific Crest National Scenic Trail — 2638 miles (4245 km)
Pacific Northwest National Scenic Trail — 1200 miles (1520 km); was recognized as a NST (National Scenic Trail) in March 2009
Potomac Heritage National Scenic Trail — 700 miles (1120 km)
National Historic Trails
National Historic Trails are designated to protect the remains of significant overland or water routes to reflect the history of the nation. They represent the earliest travels across the continent on the Juan Bautista de Anza National Historic Trail; the nation’s struggle for independence on the Overmountain Victory National Historic Trail; epic migrations on the Mormon & Oregon Trails and the development of continental commerce on the Santa Fe Trail. They also commemorate the forced displacement and hardships of the Native Americans, on the Trail of Tears. There are 19 Historic Trails. Most of them are scenic routes instead of non-motorized trails.
National Historic Trails were authorized under the National Parks and Recreation Act of 1978 (Public Law 95-625), amending the National Trails System Act of 1968 (Public Law 90-543)
Following historic routes or themes, the National Historic Trails emphasize the history of the areas covered. They tend to be less demanding than the Scenic Trails. Some people follow these trails by car or bus, stopping at many of the same sites as hikers, but getting to some of the more remote historic gems requires hiking in.
Most of these trails have trail markers along the route, brochures and documentation leading you through the trail, and many enthusiastic supporters online who can help you make the most of your trip.
Ala Kahakai National Historic Trail—175 miles
California National Historic Trail—5665 miles
Captain John Smith Chesapeake National Historic Trail—3000 miles
El Camino Real de los Tejas National Historic Trail—2580 miles
El Camino Real de Tierra Adentro National Historic Trail—404 miles, US segment of the 1600-mile Mexico City-Santa Fe hiking trail following a colonial trade route.
Iditarod National Historic Trail—2350 miles
Juan Bautista de Anza National Historic Trail—1200 miles
Lewis and Clark National Historic Trail—3700 miles
Mormon Pioneer National Historic Trail—1300 miles
Nez Perce National Historic Trail—1170 miles
Old Spanish National Historic Trail—2700 miles
Oregon National Historic Trail—2170 miles
Overmountain Victory National Historic Trail—275 miles
Pony Express National Historic Trail—1966 miles
Santa Fe National Historic Trail—1203 miles
Selma To Montgomery National Historic Trail—54 miles
Star-Spangled Banner National Historic Trail—290 miles
Trail Of Tears National Historic Trail—2200 miles
Washington-Rochambeau Revolutionary Route National Historic Trail—in 2010, the route for this new trail was under development
National Connecting and Side Trails
The act also established a category of trails known as connecting and side trails. To date, only two national side trails have been designated, both in 1990: The Timms Hill Trail, which connects the Ice Age Trail to Wisconsin’s highest point, Timms Hill, and the 86-mile Anvik Connector, which joins the Iditarod Trail to the village of Anvik, Alaska.
Timms Hill Trail
National Geologic Trail
The first National Geologic Trail was established by the Omnibus Public Land Management Act of 2009.
Ice Age Floods National Geologic Trail
National Recreation Trails
There are over a thousand National Recreation Trails, spread across every state. These trails are designated by the Secretary of Agriculture or the Secretary of the Interior, and are generally managed by non-profit groups or state or local government. You will probably find several of these trails within an easy day’s travel from most cities in the U.S.
National Recreation Trails may be less than a mile long, or may be over a thousand miles. They may be tailored to various types of activities, such as archery, skeet shooting, dog mushing, mountain biking, horse riding, inline skating, cross-country skiing, kayaking, or simple hiking. Some are ADA-accessible.