The National Trails System and the National Scenic Trails

In 1968, Congress passed the National Trails System Act which established a vast network of historic, scenic, and recreational trails. Since its inception, the National Trails System (NTS) has grown to include a total of over 60,000 miles in all 50 states, of which there are 11 National Scenic Trails, 19 National Historic Trails, and more than 1,000 National Recreation Trails. The Director of the National Park Service, one of several agencies responsible for administering the network, Jonathan B. Jarvis, has recently noted that the NTS has become so extensive that if all “the trails were laid end to end they would cross the entire country more than 4 times!”. Countless opportunities exist, then, for millions of Americans to spend time hiking, biking, or canoeing. Since every trail cannot be covered here, listed below is a short overview of the 11 long-distance hikes known as the National Scenic Trails. Let us know if you have hiked any, and as always, please share your experiences.
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1) The Arizona Trail: Over 800 miles long, the Arizona Trail extends from Mexico to Utah and traverses markedly diverse terrain, from mountain ranges to deserts, and from canyons to forests. Perhaps one of the more remote long-distance trails in the country, the landscape is simply a geological wonder, featuring disparate life zones and sharp elevation changes, resulting in varied vegetation and wildlife. While the trail meanders past small communities, it contains vast regions untouched by man, and includes Miller Peak, Mt. Wrightson, Rincon Mountain, Pusch Ridge, Superstition, Four Peaks, and Mazatzal Wildernesses.

2) Appalachian Trail: At 2,180 miles, the Appalachian Trail is one of the longest, continuous footpaths in the world, running the entire length of the Appalachian Mountain range in the heavily populated eastern US, from Georgia to Maine. Though situated closely to major metropolises, the AT still affords a satisfying wilderness experience, as evidenced by the trail’s popularity. The first section of the trail opened in Bear Mountain State Park west to Harriman State Park in Arden, New York in 1923 and was finally completed in 1937. Highlights include Clingman’s Dome in North Carolina at 6,000 feet, and the rugged landscape of the White Mountains in New Hampshire, as well as the Mahoosuc Range and the 100 Mile Wilderness in Maine.

3) Continental Divide Trail: Stretching along the spine of the Rocky Mountains and traversing five states, Montana, Idaho, Wyoming, Colorado, and New Mexico, is the awe-inspiring Continental Divide Trail (CDT). The CDT, along with the AT and Pacific Crest Trail (PCT), form what is commonly called the “Triple Crown” of long-distance trails in the United States. Expansive, stunning, and breath-taking views best describe the CDT. Its northern terminus is at Glacier National Park in Montana, while its southern terminus consists of three locations at the Mexican border: 1) Columbus, NM 2) Antelope, NM and 3) Crazy Creek Monument. Unlike the AT and PCT, the trail is only 70% complete and does not have a well-marked, continuous path. Many users therefore rely on alternate routes, since the trail is a mixture of defined-path, cross country travel, and dirt and paved road walking. It is advised that only experienced backpackers attempt to thru-hike the CDT.

4) Florida Trail: While associated with palm trees and sun-drenched beaches, Florida offers plenty of hiking opportunities. The orange-blazed, 1,400 mile Florida Trail (FT) is within a one-hour driving distance for most residents of the state, as the trail cuts through state and county parks, and state forests. Though the FT is still a work in progress, there are many exciting loop trails to experience and enjoy. Connecting Big Cypress National Preserve just north of the Everglades to Fort Pickens on Pensacola Beach, the FT offers hikers a variety of experiences, from easy day hikes on flat terrain, to rugged and challenging adventures through gorges and ravines.

5) Ice Age Trail: Situated in the far north, and located entirely in the state of Wisconsin, is the captivating Ice Age Trail. Named after the last ice age of more than 12,000 years ago, retreating glaciers sculpted an exquisite landscape, which outdoor enthusiasts can observe and experience today. Including connecting routes, the trail stretches roughly 1,200 miles from Potawatomi State Park in Door County to Interstate State Park in Polk County. More than 600 miles of the trail is considered a traditional, off-road hiking path. The official blaze for the Ice Age Trail is yellow marked, and meanders through quaint towns and villages, as well as past a multitude of pristine lakes and rivers.

6) Natchez Trace Trail: The trail is part of the Natchez Trace Parkway which follows an ancient path first used by Native Americans centuries ago for hunting and trading. Eventually, European and American explorers would use the same route, leading to the “opening” and development of the Old Southwest, and finally incorporated into the United States by the early 19th century. The parkway extends nearly 440 miles from Natchez, Mississippi to Nashville, Tennessee. Unlike the PCT and AT, however, the Natchez Trace Trail was not conceived as a long-distance trail, and therefore only 60 miles have been designated for hikers and horseback riding.

7) New England Trail: At 215 miles long, the New England Trail (NET) obviously cannot compare to the grandeur of the AT, but nevertheless highlights classic New England scenery. Like the Natchez Trace, the NET follows ancient paths used extensively by Native Americans. Traversing Connecticut and Massachusetts, the trail offers hikers breathtaking views along ridges where the landscape below is dotted with sleepy rural and agrarian communities. Thick forests and river valleys abound, adding to the sensation of a true backcountry experience. Hikers can also step back in time as they travel upon important Native American and colonial sites, learning some history along the way.

8) North Country Trail: When completed, the North Country Trail (NCT) will stretch 4,600 miles from New York to North Dakota, becoming America’s longest national scenic trail. Truly remarkable in scope, the NCT will connect 7 states and cross 12 National Forests and over 150 public lands. It will also link scenic, natural, historic and cultural areas, as hikers experience the wonders of the north woods. While there are many spectacular spots on the NCT, one of the highlights includes reaching the headwaters of the formidable Mississippi River at Itasca State Park in Minnesota.

9) Pacific Crest Trail: Undoubtedly the grandest of all the national scenic trails, the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT) covers some of the most spectacular and outstanding scenery in the US. Starting in southern California, near the Mexican border, the PCT extends 2,650 miles as it travels through California, Oregon and Washington until reaching the Canadian border. A true western experience awaits both hikers and backpackers alike, as they can expect to encounter a markedly varied landscape, from the scorching Mojave Desert to remote rainforests in the Pacific Northwest. Significant elevation changes prevail, as the trail heads into the majestic mountain ranges of the west, from the Sierra Nevada to the Cascades.

10) Pacific Northwest Trail: Running east to west for 1200 miles, beginning from the Continental Divide to the Pacific Ocean, the Pacific Northwest Trail (PNT), like its sister trails PCT and CDT, exhibits all the beauty that is associated with the west: High, rugged peaks, and wide-open space. The PNT crosses 3 National Parks and 7 National Forests. It includes some of the famous mountain ranges in the US, such as the Rockies, North Cascades and the Olympic Mountains before tailing off into the Wilderness Coast.

11) Potomac Heritage Trail: Last but not least, the Potomac Heritage Trail (PHT) differs from the rest of the scenic trails insofar as it offers multiple outdoor activities, like kayaking, canoeing, bicycling and horseback riding. The PHT links the Potomac River to the Allegheny Mountains, along with three states and the District of Columbia. Nearly 830 miles long, the trail essentially follows in the footsteps of George Washington, as he attempted a military reconnaissance to Pittsburgh. The foot section of the path will lead hikers from the running tidewaters of Chesapeake Bay to the twin gaps of the Blue Ridge Mountains near Harper’s Ferry and beyond, leading hikers on hallowed ground from the French and Indian War to the Civil War.

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