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The first Saturday of every June more than 3,000 trail organizations, agencies, and businesses across the country host a variety of events as part of National Trails Day. The annual celebration includes a variety of activities, including new trail dedications, workshops, educational exhibits, equestrian and mountain bike rides, trail maintenance projects, and hikes on backcountry trails. 

To coincide with this year's National Trails Day (June 5th), I contacted Steve Elkinton, who is Program Leader for the National Trails System. I asked him about the national trails program, including its history, objectives, and operations.

This interview is offered in two parts. Part I (which appears below) covers the the background and history of our national trails system, how they are managed, and some of the unique maintenance challenges they present. Part II covers how the trails are promoted, details on some of the unique trails being built across the country, and how to become involved in trails programs.


Q.  Steve, how long have you been with the National Park Service and how did you become involved in the National Trails Program?

I joined NPS in 1978 as a landscape architect. I have served in the National Capital Region and at Cuyahoga Valley NRA in Ohio. At Cuyahoga I became particularly interested in trail layout, design, and construction -- and we had there some wonderful cooperation among many kinds of trail user groups.

In 1989 a job was advertised in the National Park Service (NPS) Washington Office to provide program oversight for the National Trails System, I applied, and here I am. I started at the bottom of the learning curve, having only experienced national trails as a hiker on the Appalachian and Pacific Crest National Scenic Trails -- but that was invaluable experience to be able to see the trails from a visitor's point of view.

Q.  Why was there a need for the National Trails System?

Creation of the National Trails System was driven by threats to the Appalachian Trail. The Appalachian Trail had been created in the 1920s, and was walkable from end to end by 1938 -- by the 1960s vacation homes, pipelines, highways, and other land use changes threatened its integrity as a wilderness-like experience. The Appalachian Trail Conference skillfully appealed to Congress for both recreational and environmental reasons to help protect this nationally significant linear resource by having the Federal Government acquire threatened segments. In 1965 President Johnson launched the idea of spreading volunteer-based trails nationwide, using ideas from the seminal recreation study from 1962 called "The Outdoor Recreation Resources Review Commission."

In 1966 the Department of Interior issued the seminal "Trails for America," providing a vision for what a national system of trails might look like. By the time the legislative hearings and deliberations were over in 1967-1968, and in order to get votes from across the country, the authorities for getting the Federal Government involved with the Appalachian Trail were wrapped into an act creating a national system of trails.

The Pony Express ran from April, 1860 to November, 1861. Today it is preserved as a National Historic Trail (NHT).
courtesy of the National Pony Express Association

Q.  What is the relationship between the National Trail System and the National Park System?

When national trails are established by Congress they are assigned to either the Secretary of Agriculture or the Secretary of the Interior. Most that come to Interior are then assigned to the National Park Service. Of the 20 national scenic and historic trails which today make up the National Trails System, 15 have been assigned to the National Park Service. Once in the Service, we try to treat each trail as a long, skinny park, often calling the trail manager a "superintendent" and listing the trail's budget as an operational line-item in the Service budget. Three of the national scenic trails -- the Appalachian, Potomac Heritage, and Natchez Trace -- have been determined to be NPS "units" -- we are working to get the same status for the others. (This recognition would have no effect on the underlying ownership or jurisdiction of trail lands.)

Q.  Would you briefly explain the different categories of national trails and their purposes.

The original National Trails System Act created three categories of trails: national scenic, national recreation, and side-and-connecting. National scenic trails (NSTs) are to be long-distance (over 100 miles) trails which link superb resources in a continuous corridor for non motorized recreation (usually hiking and sometimes horseback). They must be created through act of Congress. To date, eight of these have been created, with dates given:

President Clinton and Vice President Gore celebrate Earth Day 1998  assisting volunteers on the Appalachian National Scenic Trail.
courtesy of the Appalachian Trail Conference

Appalachian National Scenic Trail -- 1968
Pacific Crest National Scenic Trail -- 1968
Continental Divide National Scenic Trail -- 1978
North Country National Scenic Trail -- 1980
Ice Age National Scenic Trail -- 1980
Florida National Scenic Trail -- 1980
Potomac Heritage National Scenic Trail -- 1983
Natchez Trace National Scenic Trail -- 1983

National recreation trails are more local trails which reflect the full diversity of trail types from touring motor routes to back country water trails. They do not require Congressional action, but formal recognition by either the secretary of Agriculture or the secretary of the Interior. To day there are more than 800 of these (over 400 in national forests), but no accurate list that is currently available to the public. This program is being revamped and will be launched, open for new applications, in the next year or two.

Side and connecting trails can link to any of the other types of trail created in the National Trails System -- and to date two have been created, both in 1990. One is the 86-mile Anvik Connector in Alaska which links to the Iditarod NHT and the other is the 14-mile Timm's Hill Trail in Wisconsin which connects to the Ice Age NST.

In 1978, Congress added a fourth category -- national historic trails (NHTs) -- in response to pressure to find ways to commemorate major routes of historic (and pre-historic) travel throughout the United States. These trails do not have to be continuous, but have to satisfy three criteria: be nationally significant, have a documented route (usually through maps or journals), and provide for significant outdoor recreation. To date, 12 have been created (although many more have been studied):

This 3,700-mile National Historic Trail begins near Wood River, Illinois, and passes through portions of 10 other states.
courtesy of the National Park Service


Oregon National Historic Trail -- 1978
Mormon Pioneer National Historic Trail -- 1978
Lewis and Clark National Historic Trail -- 1978
Iditarod National Historic Trail -- 1978
Overmountain Victory National Historic Trail -- 1980
Nez Perce (Nee-Me-Poo) National Historic Trail-- 1986
Santa Fe National Historic Trail -- 1987
Trail of Tears National Historic Trail -- 1987
Juan Bautista de Anza National Historic Trail -- 1990
California National Historic Trail -- 1992
Pony Express National Historic Trail -- 1992
Selma to Montgomery National Historic Trail -- 1996.


Q.  When the National Park Service was established through the Organic Act of 1916, one of its primary purposes was "to conserve the scenery and the natural and historic objects and the wildlife therein and to provide for the enjoyment of the same in such manner and by such means as will leave them unimpaired for the enjoyment of future generations." This statement is sometimes taken to mean promoting both resource protection and public use -- two objectives that may appear to be in conflict with one another. Was the National Trails System Act enacted with same goals in mind, and if so, how do you strive to maintain a balance between resource protection and public use?

Balancing resource protection and visitor access is as much a challenge for trail managers as it is for national park areas. Although the National Trails System Act puts it in different words from the NPS Organic Act, the intent is the same. Obviously, a trail whose resources are diminished is not as enjoyable or outstanding for visitors to experience. The Appalachian NST has worked hard to provide a challenging back country hiking experience -- evoking wilderness values where possible -- while inventorying, monitoring, and restoring natural and cultural resources to improve the trail experience. This is a good model for all the other trails. Most, however, are not there yet -- they do not yet have (due to skimpy funding) mechanisms to assess visitor satisfaction, resource conditions, or resource restoration.

One difference between the NSTs and NHTs to keep in mind is that along an historic trail the cultural resources from the trail are irreplaceable. Once a set of ruts or a Pony Express station foundation or Indian-marked trees are lost, they are gone forever. So resource protection on the historic trails is critical. Along the national scenic trails -- because they are primarily recreational -- if a site is developed intolerably, or closed to the trail, it may be possible to relocate the trail elsewhere and keep it continuous.

Q.  There seem to be some obvious differences between the national trails and national park areas that would present unique management challenges. For example, the fact that many of the trails are of considerable length (even spanning several states), land ownership and right of way issues, and so on. What types of challenges do the trails present and how do you handle them?

The challenges facing these trails are many -- some the same as those facing park areas, and some quite different. For example, only a few national park areas cross state lines, but all the national trails are interstate except four. Partnerships are critical for national trails -- without an independent, self-funding, volunteer-based partner organization, a national trail is almost impossible to establish. Interagency partnerships are critical -- most trails involve collaborations among two or three Federal agencies, often with differing missions and budget structures. Most of the national trails have no boundaries, nor on-site staff.

Perhaps most profound is the difference between "management" and "administration". In a typical national park area, the staff manages the landscape and administers the policies and laws affecting national parks -- both functions are congruent. Along national trails those functions are separated. For example, the Oregon NHT is "administered" by an NPS office in Salt Lake City which tries to carry out the administrative (coordinative) functions of the National Trails System Act, while many segments of the Oregon Trail on the ground are owned and "managed" by Bureau of Land Management (BLM) resource areas. That management is carried out under the laws establishing BLM and range management and mining regulations in the Code of Federal Regulations. Therefore it is important for trail visitors to understand that in many places on these trails -- especially on Federal lands -- there may be two sets of rules and practice which apply: those for the trail and those for the land base. One of my jobs is to make sure these do not conflict.

Q.  It is my understanding that the National Scenic Trails and National Historic Trails are actually run as partnerships between federal agency, state government, non-profit organizations, and even individuals. Why are these partnerships necessary?

These trail corridors are multi-jurisdictional, so no one agency can fully control them. In addition, the trails only thrive when enthusiastically supported by volunteers, so the volunteer organizations need a voice in trail planning, operations, and advocacy. In many places the trails cross private lands, so landowners need to see the value of making their trail segments open to the public (if only on a limited basis). Over the past 31 years of the National Trails System's existence it has become clear that those trails where sophisticated and successful partnerships are the norm -- these are the most successful, flexible, pro-active, and best protected. The trails where partnerships wither or do not thrive are the least successful.

Established by Congress in 1978, the Continental Divide National Scenic Trail spans 3,100 miles from the Canadian to the Mexican border.
courtesy of the Continental Divide Trail Alliance


Q.  How are the roles and responsibilities defined between the various organizations and agencies as far as providing information to the public, maintaining the trails, and so on?

The division of labor amongst these trail partners varies from trail to trail. Generally the Federal agencies are limited to carrying out activities authorized in the National Trails System Act and land-management laws. These include trail route (and motor tour route) marking, resource protection, planning, land acquisition, facility development, and interagency coordination. However, any of these functions can also be taken over by partners where appropriate. For example, volunteers with the Oregon-California Trails Association have done a superb job marking the California and Oregon NHTs with upright markers in a dozen states. Some trails have land trusts that acquire critical trail lands. Volunteers build and maintain many of the shelters and bridges along the scenic trails.

I have developed a generic role-and-function statement for national trails, but the mix of tasks changes over time even on any one trail.

Q.  Of the 20 established national scenic and historic trails, why are 15 administered by NPS while others are administered by the Forest Service or Bureau of Land Management?

Trail administration is assigned to the department or agency which Congress believes will do the best job for the trail. Most come to NPS, unless a preponderance of underlying Federal land is managed by the USDA Forest Service or BLM. Sometimes this gets quite tricky. For example, along the Nez Perce (Nee-Me-Poo) NHT, the National Park Service is responsible for 38 sites which make up the Nez Perce National Historical Park, while the USDA Forest Service administers the 1,200-mile NHT which links them all together.

Q.  The NPS keeps statistics on daily visitation, overnight stays, and other information on its national parks, and this helps them with staffing issues and measuring visitor use and impact. Are you able to track similar information on the national trails and if so, how?

So far we have not had the means to measure visitation, overnight stays, and other similar statistics for all the NSTs and NHTs. However, a number of studies and laws are changing that. Currently along the Appalachian NST an extensive survey is being carried out through the University of Vermont to assess visitation levels, get profiles of visitor types, and ask for ways that the trail could be improved. In 1995, a study of visitors and the economic impacts they bring was conducted along the Overmountain Victory NHT in the Carolinas, Virginia, and Tennessee -- it found a over 1 million visitors per year bringing in "new money" of $16 million to the 15 trail counties.

The Government Performance and Results Act (GPRA) requires that all Federal Government functions have stated goals and establish a means to measure whether or not they are achieved. Throughout the NPS we are striving to measure levels of visitor and partner satisfaction, the degree to which the visiting public understands and appreciates the resources they are visiting, and levels of volunteerism we support, and many other goal-oriented factors. As funds become available, we will be developing (hopefully on an interagency basis) means to measure these factors.

Q.  What is the process for establishing a new national trail?

Establishing a new national trail is a four step process, which takes, on the average, about 10 years:

1) Congress requests a feasibility study through an amendment to the National Trails System Act.

2) The Administration conducts the feasibility study, using the instructions in section 5 of the National Trails System Act.

3) Based on a positive finding in the study (only about half of the trails studied have such a result), legislation is considered to establish the trail.

4) Once a trail is established (again, through an amendment to the National Trails System Act), a comprehensive management and use plan is conducted by the administering Federal agency, with strong involvement by all trail partners. Hopefully at that same time, an advisory council is appointed, a base budget established, and a small staff set up to administer the trail.

Q.  What was the most recent trail created and are there any currently under review? (For example, I think I had seen a feasibility study a few years ago on Camino Real.)

The most recent national trail is the 54-mile long Selma to Montgomery National Historic Trail in Alabama. It commemorates a series of marches carried out by civil rights workers in the spring on 1965 which resulted in the passage by Congress of the Voting Rights Act, one of the great victories of America's civil rights struggle.

There are several additional national trails under consideration. Feasibility studies for the first four have been completed by the National Park Service during the past several years. These include:

  • The American Discovery Trail, a coast-to-coast, 6,600-mile long, multi-modal trail which would introduce a fifth trail category, national discovery trails. Establishment legislation for it is currently pending.

  • The Ala Kahakai, a proposed NHT around 175 miles of the shoreline of the Island of Hawaii. Establishment legislation for it has also been introduced in the Senate.
  • El Camino Real de Tierra Adentro (Royal Road to the Interior) which comes north from Mexico City through El Paso and Albuquerque to Taos, NM. Legislation to establish it has been introduced in the Senate.
  • El Camino Real de los Tejas is also known as the San Antonio Road, and arcs across Texas from Nogales to Los Adaes, LA. Legislation for it has also been introduced.
  • The Old Spanish Trail, connecting Santa Fe and Los Angeles through Utah, is currently under study by NPS.
  • The Great Western Trail, proposed as a national discovery trail, would provide both motorized and non-motorized recreation opportunities in Arizona, Utah, Idaho, and Montana. Its feasibility study is now underway by the USDA Forest Service.
  • Star-Spangled Banner Trail, a 100-mile route from Maryland's Patuxent River through Washington, D.C., to the Battle of North Point site in Baltimore. This War of 1812 route marks the overland marches of American troops retreating from the British only to defeat them at the final battle. Legislation for a feasibility study has been introduced.

Q.  I realize the park system has a tremendous backlog of projects, the infrastructure is in great need of repair, and funding is scarce. But, if money was no object, what are some of the steps you would take to further develop the National Trail System?

First I would bring the existing trails up to full funding, somewhere between $300,000 and $500,000 a year for the average trail. Then I would conduct a national survey to ascertain the most likely routes which would qualify for future designation to make sure the system is balanced geographically. In addition I would try to nurture each of the trail support organizations and a national coalition of all the NST, NHT, and NDT partner groups so that they can play key long-term roles in keeping these trails viable as sacred places for Americans (and our international visitors) to enjoy, appreciate, and experience.

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