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National Scenic and Historic Trails

Trails for America

The Secretary of the Interior in 1965 directed the Bureau of Outdoor Recreation to take the lead in conducting a nationwide trails study. This was in response to President Johnson's "Natural Beauty" message of February 1965 in which he called for development and protection of a balanced system of trails in cooperation with state and local government and private interests. In part, the President said, "we can and should have an abundance of trails for walking, cycling, and horseback riding, in and close to our cities. In the backcountry we need to copy the great Appalachian Trail in all parts of America."

The nationwide trails study led to publication of a report in 1966 entitled "Trails for America." The report called for federal legislation to foster the creation of a nationwide system of trails. Earlier that year the Secretary of the Interior had already proposed such legislation to Congress. The report and the legislation proposed three categories of trails for the nationwide system—national scenic trails and two other categories that were different from what eventually came to pass. The report heavily emphasized national scenic trails and the role that they should play in meeting the nation's needs for trail recreation. The Appalachian Trail was to be the first national scenic trail. The report proposed three other national scenic trails—Pacific Crest, Continental Divide, and Potomac Heritage—and identified five other routes that exhibited high potential—Lewis and Clark, Oregon, Santa Fe, Natchez Trace, and North Country. Congress passed the National Trails System Act and the president signed it into law on Oct. 2, 1968. The Act created two Congressionally designated areas the Appalachian National Scenic Trail and the Pacific Crest National Scenic Trail.

National Scenic and Historic Trails

As envisioned in "Trails for America," national scenic trails are to be very special: "A standard for excellence in the routing, construction, maintenance, and marking consistent with each trail's character and purpose should distinguish all national scenic trails. Each should stand out in its own right as a recreation resource of superlative quality and of physical challenge." According to the Act, national scenic trails "will be extended trails so located as to provide for maximum outdoor recreation potential and for the conservation and enjoyment of nationally significant scenic, historic, natural, and cultural qualities of the area through which such trails may pass." National scenic trails are located so as to represent desert, marsh, grassland, mountain, canyon, river, forest, and other areas, as well as landforms which exhibit significant characteristics of the physiographic regions of the Nation. The corridor will be normally located to avoid established uses that are incompatible with the protection of a trail in its natural condition and its use for outdoor recreation.

Congress amended the National Trails Systems Act in 1978 to create the category of national historic trails. At the same time, it designated the Oregon, Mormon Pioneer, Lewis and Clark, and Iditarod (Alaska Gold Rush) trails as national historic trails. Like national scenic trails, national historic trails can only be authorized and established by Congress and are assigned to either the Secretary of the Interior or the Secretary of Agriculture with most of the same administrative authorities as for national scenic trails. To qualify as a national historic trail, a route must have been established by historic use. It must be nationally significant as a result of that use—it must have had a far-reaching effect on broad patterns of American culture (including Native American culture). It must also have significant potential for public recreational use or historic interest based on historic interpretation and appreciation. National historic trails are extended trails which follow as closely as possible and practicable the original trails or routes of travel of national historic significance. National historic trails purpose is the identification and protection of the historic route and its historic remnants and artifacts.

Corridors associated with national scenic trails and the high priority potential sites and segments of national historic trails are protected to the degree necessary to ensure that the values for which each trail was established remain intact. National scenic and national historic trails may contain campsites, shelters, and related-public-use facilities. Other uses along the trail, which will not substantially interfere with the nature and purposes of the corresponding trail, may be permitted in limited situations.

The Forest Service and other agencies recognizes the valuable contributions that volunteers and private, nonprofit trail groups have made to the development and maintenance of the Nation's scenic and historic trails. In recognition of these contributions, it is a purpose of the Forest Service to encourage and assist volunteer citizen involvement in the planning, development, maintenance, and management of the national scenic and historic trails.

The Forest Service administers the following six national scenic and historic trails:

Arizona National Scenic Trail The Arizona National Scenic Trail (ANST) traverses the State from Mexico to Utah. The ANST is intended to be a primitive, long distance trail that highlights the state's topographic, biologic, historic, and cultural diversity.
Continental Divide National Scenic Trail

The Continental Divide National Scenic Trail (CDNST) traverses along the Rocky Mountains from Canada to Mexico. It navigates dramatically diverse ecosystems through mountain meadows, granite peaks, and high-desert surroundings. The nature and purposes of the CDNST are to provide for high-quality scenic, primitive hiking and horseback riding opportunities and to conserve natural, historic, and cultural resources along the CDNST corridor.

Florida National Scenic Trail

The Florida National Scenic Trail (FNST) extends from Big Cypress National Preserve in South Florida through Florida's three national forests to Gulf Islands National Seashore in the western panhandle. The FNST passes through America's only subtropical landscape as well as globally significant scrub and longleaf pine ecosystems.

Pacific Crest National Scenic Trail

The Pacific Crest National Scenic Trail (PCNST) spans California desert valleys to Northwestern rain forests, offering hikers and equestrians a wide variety of climate and terrain. It crosses California, Oregon, and Washington, with starting points in Canada and Mexico. The PCNST has the greatest elevation change of any of the National Scenic Trails, from near sea level to the crest of the Sierra and Cascade mountain ranges.

Pacific Northwest National Scenic Trail

The Pacific Northwest National Scenic Trail (PNNST) extends from the northern Rocky Mountains to the Pacific Ocean. The PNNST is intended to be a primitive, long distance trail that offers a variety of back-country scenery and outdoor adventure.

Nez Perce (Nee Me Poo) National Historic Trail

The Nez Perce National Historic Trail commemorates the flight of the Nez Perce Indians from their homeland in the Pacific Northwest to Canada to escape capture by the U.S. military. Using an indirect escape route as dictated by terrain and strategy, the Nez Perce passed through four states and traveled from Wallowa Lake, Oregon, to the Bear Paw Battlefield near Chinook, Montana.

National Trails Information

The National Park Service "Visit the Trails" webpage lists all national scenic and historic trail websites.

The Partnership for the National Trails System (PNTS) provides technical assistance to facilitate communications and information exchange, and coordinates collaborative actions amongst national scenic and historic trail organizations. The PNTS website provides national trails information and lists national trail system partners.

US Forest Service
Last modified December 2009

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