National Trails System Celebrates 50 Years

Don and June Mulford in 1959 on the first verifiable thru-ride of the PCT. Submitted photo.
Don and June Mulford in 1959 on the first verifiable thru-ride of the PCT. Submitted photo.

The year 1968 was a tumultuous one in our nation’s history, but it was also a significant year for redwoods and trails. President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the National Trails System Act into law on October 2, 1968.

The Act created a system of trails whose designations included National Scenic, National Historic, and National Recreation trails. The first two National Scenic Trails, designated on that day, were the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT) and Appalachian National Scenic Trail (AT). In the years since, nine National Scenic Trails have been added to the system, along with nineteen National Historic Trails and more than 1,000 National Recreation Trails. The Scenic and Historic designations require an act of Congress, while the Recreation Trail designation is an administrative one.

Trails have long been part of our nation’s history. Since humans first set out in search of food and water, we’ve created trails and pathways. In North America, native peoples blazed trails between summer and winter homes and hunting grounds. As Europeans settled the western part of the continent, they traveled across the Lewis and Clark Trail and the Oregon Trail, which have now been established as National Historic Trails.

Teddi Boston, one of first women to hike the Pacific Crest Trail solo, in 1976. Submitted photo.
Teddi Boston, one of first women to hike the Pacific Crest Trail solo, in 1976. Submitted photo.

Thanks to visionaries from the early part of the 20th century, the National Scenic Trails are prime examples of grassroots activism. Leaders such as Catherine Montgomery and Clinton C. Clarke on the PCT and Benton MacKaye on the AT conceived the ideas and made them happen. Catherine Montgomery envisioned “a high winding trail down the heights of our western mountains” as early as 1926. Under the direction of Clarke, Warren Rogers led a series of YMCA relays along the PCT in the mid-1930s to get the PCT route on the map. Clarke worked tirelessly on behalf of the PCT at the grassroots level and that work eventually led to the creation of the Pacific Crest Trail Association, the primary private partner with U.S. Forest Service in managing the PCT.

Another important and somewhat lesser known piece of the history is the 1966 Trails for America report released by the government’s Bureau for Outdoor Recreation. From the report:
“In the Cascade Mountains of Washington and Oregon and the Sierra Nevada of California is found some of the earth’s most sublime scenery. Beloved by the famous naturalist John Muir, they include a generous share of the continent’s most verdant forests, tallest and oldest trees, highest mountains, and most breathtaking waterfalls. The Pacific Crest Trail traditionally served horseback and foot travelers. This use pattern, accepted by most visitors to the trail, should be continued.”

Two years later, the PCT would become one of the nation’s first National Scenic Trails.
As we reflect on 50 years of our national trails, there are now 11 National Scenic Trails across the country creating a true system of trails that capture a variety of experiences. From Florida to the Olympic Peninsula and from Arizona to New England, there are more than 15,000 miles of trail offering the opportunity to walk for a day, a weekend, or perhaps many months at a time.

I first discovered the Appalachian Trail as a boy growing up in Maryland. I took some of my first long walks in the woods on the AT in western Maryland and in Virginia’s Shenandoah National Park. Later, while a student at Virginia Tech, I volunteered my weekends to help maintain the AT in Southwest Virginia. Volunteers around the country contribute hundreds of thousands of hours a year to our National Trails System. This incredible spirit of volunteer stewardship is a crucial part of the system and was referenced in the act itself. To learn more about the PCT and opportunities to volunteer, visit www.pcta.org. And, to learn more about the National Trails System, visit www.pnts.org.

So, get outside and experience one of your National Trails this fall. They are a true American treasure.

Ian Nelson has been the Pacific Crest Trail Association’s Regional Representative for Northern California and Southern Oregon for the past 14 years and is based in Medford, OR. He can be reached at [email protected].