America's Best-Kept Secret: The National Recreation Trails

By Chavez, Deborah J.; Tynon, Joanne F. et al. | Parks & Recreation, March 1999 | Go to article overview

America's Best-Kept Secret: The National Recreation Trails


Chavez, Deborah J., Tynon, Joanne F., Harding, James A., O'Dell, Irma, Parks & Recreation


We know a secret that most Americans aren't privy to, and we are going to share it with you. Do you live in Alabama? You're in luck. How about Idaho? Yes? So many choices. Perhaps you prefer to recreate in Tennessee? No problem. Little-known trails, replete with wonderful outdoor recreation opportunities, abound in the United States.

In 1968, the U.S. Congress passed the National Trails System Act (NTSA; PL. 90543). Included in this legislation was the authorization for establishment of a system of trails. Two types of trails, the National Scenic Trails (the Appalachian and Pacific Crest trails were the first two so designated) and the National Historic Trails (the first four were the Iditarod, the Lewis and Clark, the Mormon Pioneer and the Oregon trails), are well-known. National Scenic Trails are continuous, protected corridors for outdoor recreation, while National Historic Trails generally consist of trail segments and remnant sites (for example, past routes of exploration, migration, trade, communication, or military action). It takes congressional approval to become a National Scenic or Historic trail. To date, there are eight National Scenic Trails and 12 National Historic Trails.

So that's 20 trails in all. Also included in the NTSA are National Recreation Trails. What and where are they? And, more importantly, what do I do once I get there? Relax. We know the answers to these questions and, as we said before, we're willing to share.

What Are They?

National Recreation Trails are existing trails recognized by the federal government as contributing to the National Trails System. Whereas National Historic and Scenic trails require congressional approval, National Recreation Trails can be designated by either the secretary of agriculture or the interior. Today's National Recreation Trails include a variety of trail types, uses, lengths, topographies, history, and physical challenges. There are 822 National Recreation Trails nationwide. These trails support activities such as hiking, mountain biking, cross-country skiing, motorized recreation and horseback riding, and offer Americans a wide range of outdoor recreation opportunities.

National Recreation Trails differ in physical characteristics like length, elevation, and surface type. Length may range from one-tenth of a mile (Arkansas' Buckeye Trail or Florida's Discovery Trail) to 410 miles (Pennsylvania's Grand Army of the Republic Highway Trail). Elevation varies from virtual sea level (Bayside Trail in California and the Acadian Park Trail in Louisiana) to 12,000 feet or more (Mt Evans and Barr trails in Colorado). Some trails may be "connector" trails with other trail systems. Some are asphalt (Bright Angel Trail in Arizona and Shelley Lake Trail in North Carolina), some are constructed from wood chips and native natural material (Redbird Fitness Trail in Kentucky and Lost Creek Trail in Missouri), others are dirt (Mackenzie Touring Trail in Michigan and Westside Overland Trail in New York) or gravel (Blue Mountain Nature Trail in Montana and Sugar River State Trail in Wisconsin). Afew are slickrock (Utah's Moab Slickrock Bike Trail or Dorr Mountains Trail in Maine) or sand dunes (Seashore State Park Trail in Virginia and Tahkenitch Dunes Trail in Oregon). These variations in length, elevation, and surface type enhance the breadth of opportunities and challenges for trail users.

Where Are They?

Obviously, National Recreation Trails can be found throughout the United States. California alone has 78, including the Bizz Johnson Trail, the Columns of the Giants, and the Lewis Creek and Pony Express trails. …

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