From The Lean-To: The National Trail System


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On the heels of a speed record on the Pacific Crest Trail, I thought it'd be interesting to get out the old history book and have a little class time. There are a lot of trails in our great country (although few like the PCT) and, as it seems, just as many categories for them. There are Scenic, Recreation, Historic, Connecting and Side Trails, and, as of 2009, Geological trails. Let's break em down.

The National Trails System, created by the National Trails System Act on October 2, 1968, benefits all of us, whether we're out East on the Appalachian Trail, in Wisconsin on the Ice Age Trail, or in the Southwest of Arizona and Utah on the Arizona National Scenic Trail.

The NTS Act created a series of trails that would “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.” Sounds pretty good, right? The government divided the trails into three sub-categories at the time: the National Scenic Trails, National Recreation Trails and connecting-and-side trails. And despite the fact that the trails already existed, the 1968 Act also brought the Appalachian and the Pacific Crest trails into the system for national protection. For better or worse…

Ten years later, in 1978, a fourth categories of American trails was added to the act; the National Historic Trails. More than 40 trail routes have been studied for inclusion in the system since 1968, but only 21 have made the grade. And with those 21 additions, the National Trails System now consistes of 30 National Scenic and Historic Trails, 1,000 National Recreation Trails, and two connecting-and-side trails, with a total length of more than 50,000 miles. That's a lot of walking/driving/biking/horseback riding/mountaing biking.

And what's the criteria for each?

National Recreation Trail
(NRT) is a designation given to existing trails that contribute to health, conservation, and recreation goals in the United States.

National Scenic Trails are established to provide access to spectacular natural beauty and to allow the pursuit of healthy outdoor recreation.

National Historic Trails are designated to protect the remains of significant overland or water routes to reflect the history of the nation.

To date, only two National Side Trails have been designated, both in 1990: The Timms Hill Trail, which connects the Ice Age Trail to Wisconsin's highest point, Timms Hill, and the 86-mile Anvik Connector, which joins the Iditarod Trail to the village of Anvik, Alaska.

Jeff Thrope is the founder and editor of Cold Splinters. For more ways to pretend you're sleeping under the stars instead of reading the Internet, visit and


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