The National Scenic Trail system consists of 11 hiking trails, authorized by Congress. They are meant to showcase locations of national significance in diverse landscapes throughout the United States. In 1968, the National Trails Act was signed into law by President Lyndon Johnson.
The National Trails Act created three categories of trails, National Scenic Trails, National Historic Trails, and National Recreation Trails. The first two categories can only have trails added by an act of Congress, while trails may apply for National Recreation Trail (NRT) status.
There are currently over 1000 trails in the NRT system, including at least one in every state. These are less likely to be widely known, because the focus is on local pathways of quality. An example is the Sheltowee Trace, in Kentucky, a 268-mile trail with portions open to horseback riding, bicycling, and motorized uses. The entire trail can be hiked.
National Historic Trails (NHT) must have national value. They typically follow an historic transportation route. Recent additions have brought the total number to 19. Probably the best known is the Lewis and Clark Trail, but newer transportation routes may be honored, such as the Selma-Montgomery Trail commemorating the civil rights march of 1965. These “trails” are collections of locations associated with the theme, and one can drive from place to place. These trails are not pathways on the ground which can still be walked.
However, National Scenic Trails (NST) are trails in the common sense. They consist of treadway which can be hiked. Not all the trails are completed off-road, but the goal for all of them is that they would be able to be walked from end-to-end without ever using a motorized pathway. (Small exceptions to use bridges over major waterways may be included.)
The year that the National Trails Act was put into place, two trails were authorized, the Appalachian Trail and the Pacific Crest Trail. These two long-distance trails were well-established, and were deemed appropriate trails to begin the classification.
The Appalachian Trail (AT) is, undoubtedly, the most familiar. Each year, hundreds of people leave Springer Mountain, Georgia with the goal of hiking to Mount Katahdin, Maine, 2167 miles away. Many of them succeed. The trail was conceived in 1921, and completed in 1937 (although their last miles were just taken off-road only a very few years ago). It takes a long time to build long trails! It follows the ridge of the Appalachian Mountains. There are dozens of books written by hikers of the AT.
The Pacific Crest Trail is 2650 miles long and follows the ridge of the western mountains from Mexico to Canada. The route was first explored in the 1930s by young men involved with the YMCA. It is also a popular trail for thru-hikes (which means that the trail is hiked continuously, in one “season”).
In 1978, the Continental Divide Trail was added to the list of NSTs. Now there were three trails which spanned the country in a north-south orientation, as this one follows the ridge of the Rocky Mountains. This trail was scouted in the 1960s by members of the Rocky Mountain Trail Association. This trail is about 3100 miles long. Each of these first three trails lends itself to a thru-hike, because one can begin in the south and hike north with the warmer weather.
These first three trails are often referred to as the “Triple Crown, ” and a handful of people have succeeded in hiking all three, with a smaller handful completing all three in one year’s time.
The North Country NST was authorized in 1980. This was, and still remains, the longest of the NSTs. In fact, it is the longest hiking trail in the country. The authorized length was 3200 miles, but the estimated completed length is 4600 miles. The few people who have hiked its entire length (end-to-end hiker number 10 completed the trail in 2010), record distances closer to 4400 miles. However, there are yet many miles to take off-road. The trail travels east-west, and attempts to take in many of the scenic landscapes of the northeast. It spans seven states from New York to North Dakota.
Also established in 1980, the Ice Age Trail was the first of the NSTs to be located completely within a single state, Wisconsin. This trail is about 1100 miles long, and it follows the line which is the southernmost reach of the most recent glaciation. Raymond Zillmer is credited with conceiving the idea for the trail in the 1950s.
1983 saw the addition of three more trails to the system. The Florida Trail is also entirely within one state. It begins at the southern tip, heads north around Lake Okeechobee, and turns west to traverse the entire Florida panhandle. It’s current length is about 1500 miles. The trail was established in the 1960s, and already had an active organization behind it before its national recognition.
The Potomoc Heritage NST includes the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal Towpath, the Laural Highland Trail, and the Mount Vernon Trail. On the PHT, one can walk 704 miles from Washington, DC to near Ohiopyle, Pennsylvania and see the riches of the Potomac River Basin.
In the south, the Natchez Trace NST seems to be a misfit. Currently most of this trail remains unbuilt. The plan is that it will parallel the Natchez Trace Parkway, which can be driven- a trip through history from Mississippi, through Alabama, to Tennessee. It is the second shortest of the NSTs at 440 miles. Only 62 miles of the hiking trail have been completed.
These eight trails remained the core of the system until last year, 2009, when three more trails were added.
The Arizona Trail was conceived in 1985 by Dale Shewalter of Flagstaff, and runs from Mexico to Utah, making the third of the NSTs to be within only one state. It is about 800 miles long, and its promoters have had great success at completing off road trail, making it quickly popular with hikers.
The Pacific Northwest Trail was scouted as a route in 1970 by Ron Strickland. It connects the Continental Divide Trail in Montana to the Pacific Ocean. Along with portions of the AT, and the entire North Country Trail, it completes what is becoming known as the Sea-to-Sea route, a hike which traverses the United States from ocean to ocean. The length of the PNT is about 1200 miles.
Finally, the New England Trail showcases the New England landscape. This trail follows the pre-existing 3-M system, the Metacomet-Monadnock Trail, Mattabesett Trail and Metacomet Trails. It is unusual in that its conception came from Congress before it was established. In 2000 the National Park Service was asked to look into the possibility of combining these trails into one NST. Its length is about 200 miles, making it the shortest.
Most of these trails have a non-profit organization which promotes and helps build the trail. These organizations work with the governmental agency assigned to the trail. This is either the National Park Service, the National Forest Service, or the Bureau of Land Management.
With the current push by trail advocates to connect trails, the National Trail System is moving towards becoming a network, more than a collection of disconnected strings. But these trails should remain as outstanding examples of what hiking trails should be.
I have been a volunteer for almost 20 years with one of these NSTs, and have had the privilege of attending several conferences of the Partnership for the National Trail System. The Partnership seeks to help all National Scenic and Historic Trails solve problems, develop constituencies, raise funds, and generally promote the trails.
Pacific Crest Trail
Continental Divide Trail
North Country Trail
Ice Age Trail
Potomac Heritage Trail
Natchez Trace Trail (has no non-profit supporting organization- link goes to report of hike by Bart Smith)
Pacific Northwest Trail
New England Trail