In 1968, the U.S. Congress approved legislation creating the National Scenic Trails System and placed the Appalachian Trail and the Pacific Crest Trail under the stewardship of the U.S. Department of the Interior. Congress also authorized a system of shorter footpaths with a regional emphasis called National Recreation Trails. To date, America has eleven National Scenic Trails and more than 800 National Recreation Trails.
Each year brings the heartwarming story of someone who hikes one of America’s national scenic trails in its entirety to raise awareness of a disease, overcome a personal tragedy, celebrate retirement, or just because it’s there.
Most hikers, however, are not end-to-enders but day hikers, weekenders or week-long excursionists, These enthusiastic, but often pressed-for-time hikers seek out samplings of the great trails to enjoy for themselves, friends and families. “Hike your own hike,” is the oft-repeated mantra on the Appalachian Trail.
National Scenic Trails
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)
Natchez Trace National Scenic Trail (1983)
Florida National Scenic Trail (1983)
Potomac Heritage National Scenic Trail (1983)
Arizona National Scenic Trail (2009)
Pacific Northwest National Scenic Trail (2009)
New England National Scenic Trail (2009)
The Story Behind National Scenic Trails
During the 1920s, hikers on both coasts envisioned long distance trails that would extend north-south across the major mountain ranges of the east and west. On the east coast, Benton MacKaye envisioned a trail along the spine of the Appalachian Mountains while Clinton Clarke and Warren Rogers imagined a footpath that traced the crests of the High Sierra and Cascades.
While Rogers trail-blazed the Pacific Crest, the older trail philosopher Clarke offered the “vision thing” in the form of “Trails for America,” which later became the basis for the National Trail System Act of 1968.
America’s a big country and these trails are big in scope. These trails are standout national examples; just as the crown jewel national parks such as Olympic, Yellowstone, and Zion so too are the national trails.
And they’re very long, hundreds of miles long, thousands of miles long.
The paths are scenic jewels, crossing great tracts of national forest wilderness, national parks and state parks. They connect the dots on the map between parks, preserves and special places. The scenery by the trail is protected by stricter-than-usual regulations on timber cutting, livestock grazing and development of all kinds. A buffer zone along the trail is mandated to further protect the integrity of the trail.
National Scenic Trails give the hiker a slow-motion look at the wonders of nature and something more: an inner peace, a quiet confidence, a desire to live more with less.
What an idea! Take a hike across a whole state, a whole region or the whole darn country.
Chances are, if you’ve hiked for any length of time, you’ve sampled—deliberately or inadvertently—one of the national scenic trails. Those in the northeast and southeast have experienced the Appalachian Trail, those in the east and upper Midwest the North Country Trail, and those on the west coast the Pacific Crest Trail. Two-thirds of the nation’s populace lives within a day’s drive of the Appalachian Trail.
The two most renowned trails—the Appalachian Trail and the Pacific Crest—are kind of linear national parks and have distinct hiker cultures that evolved with the two trails. Both have extensive online presence with much discussion amongst hikers.