The National Trails System Act Turns 50

Preserving Our Heritage, One Trail At a Time

Amid the tumultuous era of the Vietnam War, the civil rights movement, and a push for women’s liberation, a less controversial piece of legislation also appeared on the scene. In 1968, the National Trails System Act was passed by Congress and signed into law by President Johnson. However inconspicuous its passage may have been at the time, the Act’s legacy has grown in impact over time, spreading a network of hiking trails across vast parts on the United States. In honor of the Act’s 50th birthday, let’s take a look at where it started and what it means for all of us today.

In its own words, the purpose of the National Trails System Act was “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.” To this end, the Act established distinct trail categories: National Scenic Trails, National Recreation Trails, and connecting trails that would link up the major components of the budding system. A new category, National Historic Trails, was added in 1978. From the first two trails designated by the original act – the massive Appalachian and Pacific Crest Scenic Trails – the system has blossomed to include more than 1,300 new trails, with a total length of nearly 60,000 miles stretching from coast to coast.

But what do each of the trail categories established by the Act actually mean? Let’s take a closer look:

Scenic Trails

These trails are extended, continuous pathways of 100 miles or more, established by an Act of Congress. Their purpose is to provide “for the conservation and enjoyment of the nationally significant scenic, historic, natural, or cultural qualities of the areas through which such trails may pass.” In addition to the famous trails mentioned earlier, other prominent scenic trails include the Ice Age National Scenic Trail in Wisconsin and the New England National Scenic Trail, which wends its way from Long Island Sound up through Connecticut and Massachusetts.

Recreation Trails

Recreation trails are shorter local or regional trails that have been recognized by the Secretary of Agriculture or Interior. The vast majority of the trails in this system (over 1,200) belong to this category. These smaller trails are supported by an independent advocacy group, the National Recreation Trail Program, which provides technical assistance, a newsletter, networking, and access to funding opportunities.

Historic Trails

These trails are “extended trails which follow as closely as possible and practicable the original trails or routes of travel of national historic significance.” These include the Trail of Tears National Historic Trail, which retraces the forced removal of the Cherokee people from their homelands in 1838-1839; the Old Spanish National Historic Trail, which follows the routes of mule-pack trains through the old Southwest; and the Ala Kahakai National Historic Trail, which crosses ancient settlement sites in Hawaii.

None of this important preservation would have been possible without the National Trail Systems Act. Before 1968, the federal government’s participation in our nation’s trail network was limited to building and maintaining those that happened to pass through federal lands. The Act, however, made it federal policy to recognize and promote trails that were on – or passed through – other types of land as well. This is accomplished through funding, coordination with federal, state and non-profit agencies, and the dedicated work of volunteers such as those in the Student Conservation Association.

Thanks to the joint efforts of fifty years, America has a national trail system that truly reflects the interchange of human and natural history. Happy birthday, National Trail Systems Act! You’re looking better than ever! To get involved in the 50th anniversary celebration of this groundbreaking Act, visit the official website and share your experiences with the social media hashtag #FindYourTrail.