National Trails System Trails

The National Trails System Act of 1968 established National Scenic Trails and National Recreation Trails and in 1978 President Carter signed into law a bill that created National Historic Trails. 

As the Act stands today, as amended, National Scenic Trails are described as extended trails of more than 100 miles in length that provide for outdoor recreation and “for the conservation and enjoyment of the nationally significant scenic, historic, natural, or cultural qualities of the areas through which such trails may pass.” National Scenic Trails may only be land-based, necessarily excluding any water-based travel routes. These trails may only be designated and authorized by an Act of Congress.

National Historic Trails, according to the Act, are also extended trails, although they may be less than 100 miles in length, and follow historic trails or routes of travel as closely as possible. The purpose of these trails is “the identification and protection of the historic route and its historic remnants and artifacts for public use and enjoyment.” National Historic Trails, unlike National Scenic Trails, may include water-based routes such as the Captain John Smith Chesapeake National Historic Trail on the Chesapeake Bay and its tributaries. Just like the National Scenic Trails, National Historic Trails may also only be designated and authorized by an Act of Congress.

National Recreation Trails provide opportunities for outdoor recreation primarily in and around urban areas and have no minimal length requirement. These trails may be designated by either the Secretary of the Interior or the Secretary of Agriculture rather than by an Act of Congress. These trails may exist entirely on state, local, and private property as well as on federal lands. 

A 1983 amendment to the Act allowed unused rail corridors to be preserved for future use by converting them to rail-trails. There are now 22,000 miles of completed rail-trails and 8,000 miles of projects in progress. Over 2,000 rail-trails exist in 50 states, crossing rural, suburban, and urban communities and are enjoyed by millions of people for recreation, physical activity, and active transportation each year.