Celebrating 50 Years of National Trails

Get out your hiking boots.

By Gina DeCaprio Vercesi

Spend a little time trekking through the United States’ forested backwoods, majestic peaks, and red-rock deserts, and you may find yourself humming “America the Beautiful.” There are few better ways to take in the remarkable landscapes and waterways that stretch from coast to coast and beyond the mainland.

Depending on where exactly you’re walking, you may have the National Trails System Act to thank. Passed in 1968, the act promotes the preservation and enjoyment of—as well as access to—outdoor and historic areas around the country. Today it recognizes more than 60,000 miles of pathways, including about 1,000 National Recreational Trails and 30 National Scenic and Historic Trails.

In honor of the act’s 50th anniversary this month, here are five trails to hit around the country.

The Northwest

Kitsap Peninsula National Water Trail

In 2012, the U.S. Interior Department created the National Water Trail System as part of President Obama’s America’s Great Outdoors Initiative. Flowing between Washington State’s Olympic Peninsula and Puget Sound, the Kitsap Water Trail offers 361 miles of saltwater byways surrounded by Pacific Northwest forests. The region lends itself to exploration; it’s filled with charming coast towns, such as Bremerton, Poulsbo, Port Orchard, and Silverdale—each home to cafés, waterfront parks, plenty of outdoor outfitters, and countless places where you can hop on the trail. 800-337-0580; visitkitsap.com; free

The Southwest

Arizona National Scenic Trail

A staggering 800 miles, the Arizona Trail spans the full length of the state and takes hikers on a challenging journey through red-rock canyons, saguaro-filled deserts, and sky-island mountain ranges. Experienced outdoor enthusiasts can trek the entire distance, an endeavor that takes about six weeks. For less ambitious adventures, the trail has been organized into 43 passages ranging in length from 8 to 36 miles, allowing for shorter hikes that embark from multiple gateway communities. Popular trail sections venture into Saguaro National Park near Tucson, the Superstition Wilderness outside of Mesa, and, of course, the spectacular Grand Canyon. 602-252-4794; aztrail.org; free

The Midwest

The George S. Mickelson Trail

A 1983 amendment to the National Trails System Act converted defunct rail lines into traffic-free greenways, creating access to some of the country’s most pristine scenery. Curving through the spectacular Black Hills of South Dakota, the George S. Mickelson Trail, a.k.a. the Big Mick, guides visitors on a 109-mile Wild West tour. You can hike the trail, but it’s particularly popular among cyclists, who pedal along the crushed-stone path past granite peaks, vast prairies, and ponderosa pine forest where the deer and the antelope play. You can hop off to dip into historic gold-mining boomtowns—famous frontier folks such as Calamity Jane and Wild Bill Hickok once roamed these parts. Nearby Badlands National Park, the Crazy Horse Memorial, and Mount Rushmore also make for memorable detours. 11361 Nevada Gulch Rd., Lead, SD; 605-223-7660; gfp.sd.gov; trail passes, $4 a day or $15 a season

The Northeast

Rachel Carson National Wildlife Refuge

This maritime wilderness in southern Maine was named for a renowned conservationist whose 1962 book, Silent Spring, catalyzed the contemporary environmental movement, raising awareness about ecological health and spurring on the creation of Earth Day. Two National Recreational Trails wind through the park. From its headquarters in Wells, you can stroll the one-mile Carson Trail, where interpretive signs guide visitors through salt marsh, coastal meadows, and pine forest. Or, for views of the Atlantic, try Timber Point Trail, a less than mile-long path with a trailhead in Biddeford. At low tide, a land bridge connects to Timber Island—a tide clock lets hikers know when they need to head back to the mainland. 321 Port Rd., Wells, ME; 207-646-9226; fws.gov; free

The Southeast

Selma to Montgomery National Historic Trail

You can trace one of the most significant episodes in the civil rights movement along this 54-mile route from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama. Designated a National Historic Trail in 1996, it commemorates protests against the systematic disenfranchisement of African Americans. On March 7, 1965, 600 nonviolent civil rights protesters began marching from Selma to Montgomery, only to be attacked by law enforcement on the Edmund Pettus Bridge before leaving Selma, an event known as Bloody Sunday. After petitioning the courts, protesters were granted protection by the Alabama National Guard. They began the march again, this time making it all the way to Montgomery over the course of five days. Their protest helped bring about the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Though most people opt to drive the historic stretch of highway, walking across the Edmund Pettus Bridge is a powerful way to begin the journey. Pivotal sites bookend the trail in Selma and Montgomery, including the Brown Chapel African Methodist Episcopal Church, two National Park Service interpretive centers, the Civil Rights Memorial Center, and the Rosa Parks Museum. 2 Broad St., Selma, AL; 334-877-1983; nps.gov; free

  • NOTE: Information may have changed since publication. Please confirm key details before planning your trip.
  • Published: October 2018