trail in rocky mountainous area

Everything You Need to Know About the US National Trails System

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Many Gen Xers and Xennials were introduced to one of America’s legendary trails when they played the Oregon Trail computer game. All you have to do is ask, “Where were you when you died of dysentery the first time?” and they’ll tell you stories of their first computer, how many hours they spent on the game, and the joy it brought them.

In the real world, The National Park Service (NPS) maintains a collection of protected trails scattered throughout the country, including Alaska and Hawaii. RVers, tent campers, and those looking for a fun day outside can hike any of the National Trails System paths at their leisure.

Take a stroll with us as we introduce you to the National Trails System and the history behind it. Then, you’ll learn about the different categories of trails and how to find them. Finally, we’ll let you in on some proposals and plans that are coming soon. 

What is the US Nationals Trails System?

The United States National Trails System is a department of the National Park Service. The system protects the designated rural paths and urban streets to promote and preserve significant cultural, historical, and natural areas. Main trails can stretch between 50 to over 1,000 miles in length. 

New trails are announced yearly, usually on the first Saturday in June, which is National Trails Day hosted by the American Hiking Society.

Yellow National Trail sign depicting people walking with horses

The National Trails System Act of 1968

If you’ve read our discussions on Route 66 and The Lincoln Highway, you know how important the Federal Highway Act of 1921 was to our country. Within that Act was a subsection that set up the first interstate recreation trail (the Appalachian National Scenic Trail). 

Congress considered another bill in 1945 to expand on the Appalachian Trail by developing a national system of foot trails. This bill turned into an amendment on a highway funding bill, but it couldn’t get past the committee. 

Another attempt was made in 1958 when the U.S. Congress established the Outdoor Recreation Resources Review Commission (ORRRC) to study the nation’s outdoor activities and camping numbers. The Commission released a study in 1960 that said over 90% of Americans spend some part of their leisure time outdoors. “Walking for pleasure” (hiking, a stroll around the block, and everything in between) ranked second on the list.

In his “Natural Beauty” address to the Senate and the House of Representatives on February 8, 1965, our 36th President Lyndon B. Johnson (LBJ) asked Congress to protect land through the NPS and other programs. His speech also focused on pollution controls and limiting urban sprawl.

“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, and to make full use of rights of way and other public paths.” 

Lyndon B. Johnson

It took three years, but the National Trail System Act (P.L. 90-543) passed on October 2, 1968. Two National Scenic Trails (NST) became the first to fall under the act within the new law. The East updated the Appalachian Trail to the Appalachian National Scenic Trail. The West did the same with the Pacific Crest NST (you can find details about them below).

What are the 3 Types of Trails in the National Trails System

There are three categories of national trails: National Scenic Trails, National Historic Trails, and National Recreational Trails. In the future, there are plans to develop a National Discovery Trail that stretches coast-to-coast.  

Since the original 68 Act, modifications have expanded the program. National scenic and historic trails become established through congressional approval. The Secretary of Agriculture or Secretary of Interior has the authority to approve National Recreational Trails. The Secretary of Transportation collaborates for proposed trails in urban areas.

Proposals for the National Trails System come from private organizations, county recreational agencies, state government departments, and the NPS. After review, both public and private organizations work together to generate initial funding, finalizing the route, and other details for final examination with the Sec. of Interior or Agriculture. If approved, the new foot trail becomes a part of the NTS. Learn more about the proposal process on the NRT website.

Trail sign with woman and child in the background

National Scenic Trails

National Scenic Trails are trails that extend over 100 miles. Most don’t allow motorized off-road all-terrain vehicles, but you’ll find foot, hoof, and bike tracks as you explore. Scenic trails show you the best America has to offer in the breathless landscapes you won’t find anywhere else on Earth. You’ll also find fascinating landmarks and plenty of public land locations to set up camp for the night. See the list below to learn about the current 11 scenic trails.

You can hike specific sections or go for the gold and navigate the whole trail. Many of the scenic trails are over 1,000 miles; it could take a couple of days before you make it on foot to the next RV-friendly stop. Speak with a park ranger at one of the visitor centers the scenic trails connect with to plan your trip ahead of time. NST trails have a point-to-point trail route design.

National Historic Trails

The National Historic Trails allow you to walk the same trails and roads our predecessors did allow you to immerse yourself in their story. The ability to travel from one place to another is one of the core characteristics of American history. 

  • Lewis, Clark, and Sacagawea explored the Louisiana Purchase in 1804, covering 8,000 miles. 
  • In 1925, 20 sled dog drivers braved the -50°F temperatures and harsh conditions of Alaska to save the sick children of Nome in a 674-mile marathon known as the Iditarod Serum Run. 

Except for the Selma to Montgomery NHT, these trails range in the hundreds to thousands of miles. Contacting the visitors center will help you plan your RV vacation to visit those sections you want to see the most. Like the scenic trails, some of the point-to-point route markers the historic trails run through our state and national parks with campground accommodations. The table below links you to all 19 historic trails.

National Recreational Trails

National Recreational Trails are land-based or water-based public pathways managed by state, county, city, or private entities. Some exist as branches off of NST or NHT system, but many do stand alone. While there isn’t any federal oversight, when these local trails join the NRT network, they gain national recognition for tourism and other accompanying benefits that comes with it.

Trails must meet five basic requirements to join the National Recreation Trail network:

  1. The trail must be accessible to the public without any gaps. It must also be constructed and maintained according to the best practices set by the NPS and other authorities. 
  1. The trail must continue to stay open for at least 10 years or longer.
  1. The proposed path must meet all land use and environmental laws in the life cycle of the trail.
  1. If the trail crosses into private land or water at any point, the owners must be notified and give the trail management written consent.
  1. Trails on state, county, city, or private land must have a letter of support from the State Trail Administrator (federal land is exempt).

To find the closest NRT trail near you, use the National Recreation Trails Database by American Trails. You won’t find the NST or NHT trails on the database, but when comparing the NPS maps of the scenic or historic trails with the NRT, you can see where they connect. When you contact the visitor center for NST or NHT system trails, the park rangers can also assist you. Recreational trails come in loops and out-and-back routes that are primarily day hikes.  

Proposed American Discovery Trail (NDT)

In 1991, The American Hiking Society hired a coordinator to work with state volunteers creating the first coast-to-coast foot trail. The idea came from the Society’s 1980-81 HikaNation cross country hiking event and BACKPACKER Magazine’s proposed idea in one of their 1989 editions. 

The American Discovery Trail stretches over 6,800 miles starting at Cape Henlopen State Park, DE. and ends in Pt. Reyes National Seashore, CA. It connects to five national scenic trails, 12 national historic trails, 35 national recreational trails, and local trails. It combines backcountry, rural, and urban areas like San Francisco, CA, and Cincinnati, OH. The ends have a single trail, but the middle has a northern route and a southern route.

Eastern End States

  • Delaware
  • Maryland
  • Washington D.C.
  • West Virginia
  • Ohio (split for northern or southern route)

Northern Route States

  • Ohio
  • Indiana
  • Illinois
  • Iowa
  • Nebraska
  • Colorado

Southern Route States

  • Ohio
  • Kentucky
  • Indiana
  • Illinois
  • Missouri
  • Kansas
  • Colorado

Western End States

  • Colorado (splits for northern or southern routes)
  • Utah
  • Nevada
  • California

The entire trail is non-motorized. Sections that don’t allow bikes or horses have alternate paths that bring you back to the main trail. The American Hiking Society eventually wants a Discovery Trail that’s entirely off-road. 

Meanwhile, the American Discovery Trail isn’t officially registered with the U.S. National Trails System yet. Volunteer staff maintains the trail through donations and some sponsors. There’s only one part-time staff member who acts as the national coordinator. The trail’s organization, The American Hiking Society, and others continue to work towards the national registry as a fourth category within the U.S. National Trails System.

Great American Rail-Trail

Another coast-to-coast trail in development is the Rails-to-Trails Conservancy’s Great American Rail-Trail. This Washington (D.C.) to Washington (state) paved trail will stretch 3,700 miles when complete. Currently, 52% of the route is complete. It travels through:

  • Washington D.C.
  • Maryland
  • Pennsylvania
  • West Virginia
  • Ohio
  • Indiana
  • Illinois
  • Iowa
  • Nebraska
  • Wyoming
  • Montana
  • Idaho
  • Washington

Congress passed a different National Trails System Act in 1983. This one is also known as the Railbanking Act or the Rails-to-Trails Act. It preserves existing railroad corridors in case the rail system needs the route in the future. While it’s dormant, the rail route can is usable as a trail (assuming it’s compliant with state and local law). 

Since 1986, the Rails-to-Trails Conservancy (RTC) has taken advantage of these dormant railroad track routes, changing them into non-motorized trails for communities. Multi-use paths allow people to use trails built next to active train tracks, with the proper safety protocols in place. The organization advocates Capitol Hill and other governing authorities to further trail building through investment and policies to increase connections and the health of communities. 

The RTC works in local urban centers, suburbs, rural areas, and coast-to-coast trail projects. They are a private non-profit organization with over 40,000 miles of trails in 48 states, including Puerto Rico. You can use their mobile device app to locate one of their many trails nearby. 

Major Trails In Order By Established Date

YearNameLength (miles)StatesCategory
1968Appalachian2,190CT, MA, MD, ME, NC, NH, NJ, NY, PA, TN, VT, VA, WVNST
1968Pacific Crest2,650CA, OR, WANST
1978Continental Divide3,100CO, ID, MT, NM, WYNST
1978Oregon2,170ID, KS, MO, NE, OR, WA, WYNHT
1978Mormon Pioneer1,300IA, IL, NE, UT, WYNHT
1978Lewis & Clark4,900IA, ID, IL, KS, MO, MT, ND, NE, OR, SD, WANHT
1980North Country4,600MI, MN, ND, NY, OH, PA, WINST
1980Overmountain Victory330NC, SC, TN, VANHT
1980Ice Age1,000WisconsinNST
1983Potomac Heritage710DC, MD, PA, VANST
1983Natchez Trace65MississippiNST
1986Nez Perce (Nee-Me-Poo)1,170ID, OR, MT, WYNHT
1987Santa Fe1,203CO, KS, MO, NM, OKNHT
1987Trail of Tears5,045AL, AR, GA, IL, KY, MO, NC, OK, TNNHT
1990Juan Bautista de Anza1,200Arizona & CaliforniaNHT
1992California5,600CA, CO, ID, KS, MO, NE, NV, OR, UT, WYNHT
1992Pony Express2,000CA, CO, KS, MO, NE, NV, UT, WYNHT
1996Selma to Montgomery54AlabamaNHT
2000Ala Kahakai175HawaiiNHT
2000El Camino Real de Tierra Adentro404New Mexico & TexasNHT
2002Old Spanish2,700AZ, CA, CO, NV, NM, UTNHT
2004El Camino Real de los Tejas2,600Louisiana & TexasNHT
2006Captain John Smith Chesapeake3,000DC,  DE, MD, NY, PA, VANHT
2008Star-Spangled Banner560DC, MD, VANHT
2009Washington Rochambeau Revolutionary Route700CT, DC, DE, MA, MD, NJ, NY, PA, RI, VANHT
2009Pacific Northwest1,200ID, MT, WANST
2009New England215Connecticut and MassachusettsNST

Hiking the US National Trails

Hiking the U.S. national trails may take more than a pair of comfortable walking shoes. Some of the recreational trails might have a high hiking difficulty score that requires extra equipment. The trails inside many of the U.S. national parks have different ratings as well. 

The rating scale goes from 1-200. The easiest levels are below 50. For those who want a small challenge, 50-100 is about your speed. You need to know what you’re doing in the 100-150 range. You’ll see steep inclines and may need some basic climbing assisting equipment.

At 150-200, experienced hikers need crampons for their boots, hiking poles, ropes, and other gear. Terra firma probably isn’t so “firm-a.” The scenery and experiences are well worth the climb, but do you really want to be outmatched by bighorn sheep?

Preplanning is the key to success, even on an easy hike. We all know the logistics nightmare that happens when we just “wing it.” Make sure you check in with the visitors center, so the park rangers can verify your route and bring emergency supplies with you (including a gallon-sized Ziploc bag- they’re watertight).

Trail winding through green forest with Congress Trail sign in foreground
Congress Trail is a 4.8 kilometer heavily trafficked loop trail located near Three Rivers, CA

Get ready for 2026 RVers! Since Public Law 116-256 passed in December 2020, Route 66 will become a U.S. National Trail on its 100th Birthday! It will potentially become the first U.S. Highway to be overseen by the National Park Service. I wonder what the Junior Ranger activity will be for that one?

What is your favorite National Scenic Trail, National Historic Trail, or National Recreational Trail? How many have you hiked?