A View From … The National Trails System

Posted 01/03/18 by Laura Stark in America's Trails, Success Stories

Great Shasta Rail Trail | Photo by Christina Schmidlin with Hellikon, courtesy Great Shasta Rail Trail Association

In 2018, we celebrate the 50th anniversary of the National Trails System Act, which provided an incredible legacy for all Americans. The 1968 law allowed for the establishment of long-distance National Scenic Trails (spanning more than 100 miles) and National Recreation Trails, which can be found in all 50 states. An additional category—National Historic Trails—was added in 1978. These special places showcase the country’s diverse and beautiful scenery, preserve and commemorate our shared culture and history, and provide an opportunity for all citizens to enjoy healthy outdoor recreation. 

Five of these iconic American experiences are listed below along with rail-trails that weave in and around them. For more information, visit trails50.org.

Related: New Year—New Visions: The Age of Connectivity


Appalachian National Scenic Trail

Virginia Creeper Trail | Photo by Darryl Church

Established in 1968, the Appalachian Trail (AT) is one of the granddaddies of long-distance hiking trails. Spanning more than 2,100 miles over 14 states from Georgia to Maine, the famed pathway leads hikers through the Great Smoky Mountains, New England woodlands and bucolic landscapes. Near its middle, the AT traverses Damascus, Virginia, nicknamed “Trail Town, USA” for the convergence of several trails there, including the Virginia Creeper National Recreation Trail, an inductee in the Rail-Trail Hall of Fame.

Related: Virginia Creeper National Recreation Trail


Pacific Crest National Scenic Trail

Great Shasta Rail Trail, CA | Photo by Christina Schmidlin, courtesy Great Shasta Rail Trail Association

Extending more than 2,600 miles, the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT) spans the country north-south from Canada to Mexico, traversing Washington, Oregon and California. Immortalized in the book “Wild” by Cheryl Strayed, the trail’s stunning backdrop includes jagged mountain peaks, alpine meadows, giant Douglas firs and the otherworldly beauty of Lassen Volcanic National Park. Rail-trail lovers who visit the Great Shasta Rail Trail in northern California will parallel the PCT for a short distance. The rail-trail also meets up with another icon on the banks of Lake Britton: the “Stand by Me bridge” made famous in the 1986 movie classic.


North Country National Scenic Trail

Wabash Cannonball Trail | Photo by Christine Heflinger

Even with more than 3,000 miles open, the North Country Trail (NCT) is considered a work in progress as the eventual goal is to span 4,600 miles. Created in 1980, the NCT crosses seven states from New York to North Dakota. Along its path, hikers can enjoy sweeping views of the Finger Lakes and Adirondacks, as well as quintessential Midwestern landscapes such as tall grass prairie and the Lake Superior shoreline. Portions of Ohio’s Wabash Cannonball Trail are part of the NCT, and while the National Scenic Trails are largely footpaths, this rail-trail adds many miles that can be experienced by bike.


Potomac Heritage National Scenic Trail

Great Allegheny Passage | Photo by Blase Ur

True to the “Heritage” portion of its name, the Potomac Heritage Trail is steeped in American history, following routes once traveled by George Washington and passing by his Mount Vernon estate. Covering more than 800 miles, the trail connects the nation’s capital, Virginia, Maryland and Pennsylvania, providing views of the Chesapeake Bay, the Allegheny Highlands and lush river valleys. Portions of the route align with the C&O Canal Towpath, as well as one of the best-known rail-trails in the country, the 150-mile Great Allegheny Passage, which is included in the Rail-Trail Hall of Fame.


Ice Age National Scenic Trail

Gandy Dancer Trail is part of Wisconsin's Ice Age Trail | Photo by Amy Bayer

Contained entirely within one state—Wisconsin—the Ice Age Trail is no less impressive than its counterparts. The 1,200-mile pathway traces the edge of a glacier that left its mark on the landscape here some 15,000 years ago. These remnants of another age now give the trail its beautiful backdrop: kettle lakes, river valleys, rolling hills and dramatic rocky ridges. The trail takes a circuitous route from the shores of Lake Michigan to the Minnesota border. Its western tip follows the Gandy Dancer Trail, a rail-trail whose unusual name comes from a nickname for railroad maintenance workers.

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