What Is The National Trails System Act

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As a nature lover, hiker, backpacker, or wilderness enthusiast, you may have wondered about the motivation behind all the beautiful trails in the United States. The short answer is to guarantee the public’s appreciation and enjoyment of natural, open-air spaces. The US government saw fit to ensure that people throughout America could savor its wild beauty and historic places by enacting legislation to permit this.

The National Trail System Act was signed into federal law in 1968. It establishes a national public recreation system in the form of trails in urban and rural areas. In a nutshell, its purpose is to preserve public access to outdoor spaces and historic resources and their appreciation and enjoyment.

The Act encourages giving people access to public and private land of striking scenic beauty or historical significance. The National Trail System Act establishes four categories of trails: national recreation trails (NRTs), national historic trails (NHTs), national scenic trails (NSTs), and side and connecting trails. This article explores these categories in more detail to give you an idea of what the Act says about these various trails.

The National Trails System Act

The National Trails System was first conceived in response to President Lyndon B Johnson’s appeal for a program to build public trails for modern “outdoorsmen”. The first national scenic trails designated by the National Trails System Act were the Appalachian Trail and the Pacific Crest Trail to preserve their wilderness from development threats. These lands were acquired with money from the Land and Water Conservation Fund.

Today there are some thirteen hundred national recreational trails that have been designated throughout the fifty states and the districts of Columbia and Puerto Rico. Thirty long-distance trails have been designated since 1968. The National Park Service administers twenty-one of them, the Bureau of Land Management administers one, and they jointly administer two others. The U.S. Forest Service administers the remaining six. 

National scenic or historical trails may have campsites, shelters, and other public facilities. Activities that are incompatible with the purpose of establishing the trail are not permitted. For instance, the Act prohibits the public from using motorized vehicles along national scenic trails. However, the relevant Secretary may make regulations authorizing the use of motorized vehicles when this is necessary in their judgment to meet emergencies or enable landowners and land users to have reasonable access to their lands or timber rights.

The Act also allows for regulations relating to fines and imprisonment for people who violate the laws pertaining to good conduct on and along trails within federally administered areas. This means that trails and the associated regions can be protected and preserved for future generations.

National Recreational Trails

The Act states that national recreation trails are to provide a variety of outdoor recreational uses in, or reasonably accessible to, urban areas. A national recreational trail is one recognized by the federal government with the landowner’s consent. The landowner could be a state or federal government or political subdivision having jurisdiction over the lands in question or a private entity or individual.

National recreation trails are located on federal, state, and local lands, may be land or water-based, and provide recreational opportunities close to people’s homes in rural and urban communities. A trail is a travel way suitable for foot traffic, bicycles, wheelchairs, cross-country skis, inline skates, off-road recreation vehicles, or four-wheel drive vehicles. Criteria for national recreational trails are:

  • The trail has to be open to public use and constructed, designed and maintained according to best practices in respect of the anticipated use
  • The trail must have no gaps
  • It must be compliant with land use laws and environmental laws
  • It must be supported by public or private landowners whose property is crossed by the trail
  • It must not be on a road or highway suitable for passenger car travel

National recreational trails ranging in length from less than a mile to four hundred and eighty miles have been designated. Examples of some national recreational trails are the –

Congaree River Blue Trail, South Carolina

  • River Mountains Loop Trail, Nevada
  • Middle Fork Trail along the Willamette River in Oregon
  • Lena Lake Trail, Olympic National Forest Washington
  • Cat Walk Trail, Gila National Forest, New Mexico
  • Pinnell Mountain Trail, Alaska

There are hundreds of NRTs, and still, more may be created as people increasingly realize their benefits. The NRT Program supports NRTs with technical assistance, networking and promotion, and, in some states, even funding. There is a searchable online database of NRTs, including descriptive information, pictures, and maps for trail users.

National Scenic Trails

The Act states that national scenic trails will be extended trails located in such a way as to provide maximum outdoor recreational potential and for the conservation and enjoyment of nationally significant historic, scenic, natural, or cultural qualities of the areas through which the trails pass.

The legislation provides that national scenic trails may be located to represent deserts, marsh, grassland, mountain, canyon, river, forests, and other areas, as well as landforms that exhibit significant characteristics of the physiographic regions of the country.

Examples of NSTs designated by the Act are the:

  • Appalachian Trail 
  • Arizona Trail
  • Continental Divide Trail
  • Ice Age Trail
  • New England Trail
  • Potomac Heritage Trail and
  • Pacific Crest Trail
  • Pacific Northwest Trail
  • North Country Trail

National Historic Trails

A historic trail aims to identify and protect the historic route and associated remnants and artifacts for public enjoyment. According to the National Trails System Act, NHTs will be extended trails that follow the original trails or roots of travel of national historical significance as closely as possible. Such trails or routes must be continuous, but the established or developed trail need not be continuous on-site.

The Act establishes criteria for the designation of national historic trails, but only those on federally owned lands are included as protected segments of an historic trail. A landowner or administrator may apply to the appropriate Secretary to certify that a national historic trail segment is protected, provided it meets the NHT criteria.

The criteria set out by the Act for a national historic trail are:

  • It must be established by historical use and must be historically significant because of it
  • Its location must be sufficiently well known to allow its evaluation for public and historical interest potential
  • It should generally follow the historic route but may deviate where necessary to avoid difficulties as a result of subsequent development or provide variations to make it more pleasurable as a recreational experience
  • It must be of national significance concerning facets of American history such as trade and commerce, exploration, migration, and settlement or military campaigns.
  • The trail’s historical use must have had a far-reaching effect on broad patterns of American culture
  • It must have potential for public recreational use or historical interest, and its recreational potential must be related to its historic appreciation

Some examples of NHTs designated in the Act include:

  • Overmountain Victory National Historic trail
  • Lewis and Clark National Historic trail
  • Oregon National Historic trail
  • Nez Perce National Historic trail
  • Santa Fe National Historic trail
  • Trail of Tears National Historic trail
  • The Pony Express National Historic trail
  • Al Kahakai National Historic trail

Connecting Or Side Trails

Connecting or side trails are established as provided in section 6 of the Act. They provide additional public access points to national recreational, national scenic, or national historic trails or connections between these trails.

The Act provides that connecting or side trails in parks, forests, and other recreation areas may be established, designated, and marked by the relevant Secretary as components of national recreational, scenic, or historic trails.


The National Trails System Act allows people of all ages from all walks of life to pursue their interest in the great outdoors safely and responsibly. It protects the land from developers who would otherwise block public access to critical areas of historical importance or scenic beauty. It also establishes vital land and water corridors for nature conservation and recreational opportunities in urban and rural areas.