Day 8: National Scenic Trails of the NPS

Last Updated on January 14, 2020 by Janet Frost

On Day 7 of our 12 Days of National Parks Holiday Celebration, I highlighted National Historic Trails. Those trails covered thousands of miles and were designed to be traveled in a vehicle. Now on Day 8 I want to talk about a different type of trails. The National Trail System also includes National Scenic Trails. National Scenic Trails are meant for outdoor recreation, specifically long-distance hiking or “thru-hiking” as it has come to be known in the 21st century.

Let’s Go! Learn Things while hiking on National Scenic Trails…

National Trail System

National Scenic Trails in the National Parks

The National Trail System Act was passed in 1968 for the purpose of:

“…promoting the preservation of, public access to, travel within, and enjoyment and appreciation of the open-air, outdoor areas and historic resources of the Nation.” 

At the time of the Act, in 1968, two long-distance hiking trails were designated. The Appalachian Trail (AT) and the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT). In 1978 the National Trail System was expanded to National Recreation Trails and the National Historic Trails that we discussed on Day 7. At the end of 2019 there are 19 National Historic Trails, 11 National Scenic Trails and over 1000 National Recreation Trails. Some of the trails allow activities beyond hiking, such as mountain biking and horseback riding.

Thru-Hiking on National Scenic Trails

While all of these cross-country trails fall under the National Park Service, they each have a respective non-profit organization that shares in the maintenance, management and online presence for the trail. These are invaluable organizations that assure that the public can enjoy hiking on the trails. I have included the website for each agency. On these sites you will find information about long-distance hiking, smaller segments for shorter hikes, interactive maps and a community of kindred hikers. Be sure to visit these websites to learn how to really access and enjoy the trails.

Appalachian Trail

National Scenic Trails Appalachian Trail

The Appalachian Trail is pretty much the “Granddaddy” of thru-hiking trails. It was conceived in 1921 and completed in 1937, covering 2181 miles through the varying terrain of the Appalachian Mountains. The southern terminus in Springer Mountain in Georgia and the northern terminus is Mount Katahdin in Maine. Visit the non-profit agnecy, Appalachian Trail Conservancy for a comprehensive website on the AT.

Pacific Crest Trail

National Scenic Trails Pacific Crest Trail

An equivalent thru-hiking trail along the West Coast is the Pacific Crest Trail. It runs 2650 miles roughly following the coastline. From the southern town of Campo at the Mexico border to Manning Park in British Columbia in the north, hikers cross deserts, chaparrals, deep forests, wetlands and several mountain ranges. The non-profit agency for the PCT is the Pacific Crest Trail Association where you will find maps and State specific hiking segments and groups.

I stand on the PCT at Boulder Oaks Campground, about 14 miles north of Campo, CA

Continental Divide Trail

National Scenic Trails Continental Divide Trail

The third thru-hiking trail that is often included in what hikers call The Triple Crown, is the Continental Divide Trail. This route also runs south and north. The trail traverses 3,100 miles from the Crazy Cook Monument in the Big Hatchet Mountains of New Mexico to Waterton Lake in Glacier National Park. Visit the Continental Divide Trail Coalition for all the details.

North Country Trail

While the Triple Crown Trails, AT, PCT, CDT all run south to north, the North Country Trail runs east to west across the northern states of the U.S. The longest of the trails at 4,600 miles, it stretches from Middlebury, VT to Lake Sakakawea State Park in ND. North Country Trail Association is this trails non-profit agency.

Learn More: The website MyOpenCountry shares loads of great information about thru-hiking. Even a thru-hiking Beginners page.

Long Distance Trails through a State

The AT, PCT, CDT and NCT all cross several states and each state has groups that support their respective segments. These next trails stay within one state. They are supported by the National Trail System and state non-profit agencies, as well as communities and hiking clubs.

Ice Age Trail

This is my original hometown trail. After 35 years in Wisconsin I have traipsed many segments of the Ice Age Trail. It is a unique trail in that it follows a prehistoric geological phenomenon. The trail roughly follows the retreating edge of the final glacier in the last Ice Age. Apparently, glaciers don’t recede in a straight line so the trail makes a large horseshoe path through the state of Wisconsin. The Ice Age Trail meanders for 1,200 miles from Door County Peninsula in the east dipping down into the southern part of the state and then back northwest to St. Croix Falls, WI at the WI/MN border. I send a special thank you to all the selfless volunteers at the Ice Age Trail Alliance, who maintain this wonderful hiking experience.

Learn More: Why you should hike the Ice Age Trail...

Arizona Trail

So if the Ice Age Trail was my hometown trail, the Arizona Trail is my new and current hometown trail. Since relocating to Tucson in 2019 I have been committed to discovering segments of this trail. In a more traditional trail style, the AZT travels pretty straight south to north for 807 miles of desert floor, mountain peaks, deep forests and of course the Grand Canyon! It starts at the Coronado National Memorial near the Mexico border and ends up at the AZ/UT border on the Kaibab Plateau. Thank you to many of my friends and fellow hikers who work with the Arizona Trail Association.

Learn More: Visit the North Rim of the Grand Canyon…

Find your National Scenic Trails in 2020

I love hiking, it is a major reason that I chose to move to Arizona. But every state has some form of hiking available. Make it part of your New Year’s resolutions to get outdoors and reconnect with the natural resources of this vast country. You don’t have to cover thousands of miles. Just get out and find your comfort level on a National Scenic Trail.

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