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The Millennium Trails: Paths into our Collective History and Culture

Written by Jeff Green of the Rails-to-Trails Conservancy
Edited by Darren L. Smith

The migration and trading routes of Native Americans…The epic paths of Lewis and Clark…The dusty trails followed by riders of the Pony Express…The secret flights of African Americans escaping the bonds of slavery…What do these journeys have in common? They all define the cultural identity of America and they all happened on trails. From the earliest routes of our ancestors, to new urban greenways, to itineraries that tell the story of our nation, trails have always been an important part of the American landscape, providing connections between people, land, history and culture.

The 2,500-mile East Coast Greenway sweeps the coast from Maine to Florida
courtesy of Rails-to-Trails Conservancy



Born in 1998, Millennium Trails is a national initiative of the White House Millennium Council, in partnership with the Department of Transportation and Rail-to-Trails Conservancy and other important partners in the fields of conservation, historic preservation, culture and the arts. President Clinton and First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton chose to honor the important influence that trails have on the lives of all Americans. For more than a year now, Millennium Trails has recognized, promoted and stimulated the creation of trails to "Honor the Past and Imagine the Future" as part of America's legacy for the year 2000.

With so many forces dividing our communities today, more and more Americans are discovering that a return to the simplicity of trails is beneficial to their quality of life.  Time spent in nature with family and friends frees us from the rigid and routine confines of traffic jams and busy schedules.  Trails reconnect our communities allowing us to walk freely with our neighbors to the corner store, hike up a nearby mountain or bike along on an abandoned rail-bed.

Scenery along the Lewis and Clark National Historic Trail which commemorates the Lewis and Clark Expedition of 1804-1806.
courtesy of Rails-to-Trails Conservancy

Categories of Millennium Trails

Of the more than 2,000 trails that have been built, enhanced, or recognized as Millennium Trails this year, the White House Millennium Council and Department of Transportation have singled out 16 as National Millennium Trails (see map below) whose legacy, scope and vision help define and inspire the nation.  They cross the land and sea, connecting people and communities, true pathways into the American experience.

From the scenic beauty of the Appalachian Trail to the historical importance of the Underground Railroad, these 16 National Millennium Trails all symbolize the scope and breadth of American trails. In her preface to the announcement of the trails, the First Lady noted, "Through the Millennium Trails project, we are building and maintaining trails that tell the story of our nation's past and will help to create a positive vision for our future. The 16 National Millennium Trails that Secretary Slater designated today are all visionary projects that define us as Americans."

A second major category of trail designated under the Millennium Trails Program is the Millennium Legacy Trail. Nominated by governors from the nation's states and jurisdictions, these include rail-trails and greenways, historic trails, cultural itineraries, recreation paths, waterways, alternative transportation corridors, and many other types of trails. From the Hawaii's sun-drenched Hana Highway to the snow-covered hills that line the Wyoming Continental Divide Snowmobile Trail to the ten museums that help make up the Connecticut Impressionist Art Trail, the 51 Millennium Legacy Trails reflect the essence and spirit of the areas they represent.

Church along the Juan Bautista de Anza National Historic Trail.
courtesy of Rails-to-Trails Conservancy

The Program's Future

Volunteerism and collaboration have always been a hallmark of trail building and Millennium Trails has helped to highlight this vital connection.  National Trails Day, the American Hiking Society's annual salute to trails, marked the pinnacle of the Millennium Trails program as hundreds of communities across the country took to their local trails to celebrate Community Millennium Trails. Because of Millennium Trails, people from all walks of life are joining community organizations, trail groups, arts and humanities organizations, local governments and businesses to create and preserve trails.  With over 500 separate events honoring more than 700 trails, the National Trails Day and Millennium Trails partnership recognized the importance and value that all trails - no matter the size - play in American life.

With generous contributions from the American Express Company and the National Endowment for the Arts, public-private partnership is another key to the success of these community-enriching projects and the Millennium Trails initiative.  It is the hope of the project partners that Millennium Trails will give direction to existing trail efforts, to encourage and support new trails and to synthesize this energy and momentum into a growing national movement.  

For further information on Hiking and Trails, see:

National Trails Day - Find out about the many activities that take place and how you can get involved.

Steve Elkinton interview
- Learn all about the history and development of our National Trails Program through an extensive interview with Steve Elkinton, Program Leader for the National Trails System.

National Trails System - Read about this cooperative venture to link natural, historic, and cultural resources throughout the country.

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