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Going long: nurturing the long-distance trails movement

Long distance trails are a growing cross-country infrastructureinspire, a vast trail sstem that promotes conservation, land stewardship, and scenic preservation.

From the Fall 2008 issue of American Trails Magazine

By Robert Searns, Chair, American Trails

"AFTER VISITING MY TWO SONS and my wife… I took the Greyhound bus to St. Louis. I reassembled my boxed bike at the bus station… put on my two panniers, loaded my tent and sleeping bag."
— 75 year old Howard Harris describing setting out to ride the 225-mile Katy Trail

I met Howard Harris several years ago when I experienced an eight-day epic ride along New York’s Erie Canal trail from Buffalo to Albany. I had to labor to keep up with this 75-year-old but his tales of rides all over the country were more than an inspiration. Howard and I were among 400 other cyclists enjoying a mid-summer trek across the verdant heartlands of upstate New York.

photo of Derrick Crandall

Group ride on the Katy Trail near Columbia, MO


We traveled under our own power from town to town sleeping in campgrounds, school gymnasiums, quaint B&Bs, and a hotel or two. We dined— with dietary impunity after day long rides— both simple and gourmet. The many riders enjoying the event, sponsored by the New York State Parks and Conservation Association, daily dropped thousands of dollars into the local economies of each little town and each city along the way purchasing food, drink, and other provisions.

Traveling with style in a parallel universe

In addition to the ride on the Erie Canal, I have had the opportunity to ride the entire Missouri Katy Trail, and portions of the Trans-Canada Trail and other networks of long-distance trails. These pathways, as they expand and tie together, are creating a new outdoor realm of landscape experience across our continent. As a complement to the national parks, national forests, and other public lands, this growing national asset brings us to important historical, cultural, and geographic corridors telling stories of this nation and its emergence.

Linear in nature and traversable by muscle and lung power, this network offers more than just recreation. The corridors are linking places and people together in a new way. They put small forgotten places on the map. They bring tourism dollars to communities that have been struggling. They showcase new experiences to be seen, heard, tasted, and smelled. They inspire a new trail consciousness in places that may have never dreamed
of a trail or greenway. They promote conservation, land stewardship, and scenic preservation.

photo: dirt trail

The 1,600-mile Florida Circumnavigational Saltwater Paddling National Recreation Trail


A growing cross-country infrastructure

The notion of long-distance trails has grown out of many ideas and individuals. The famed Appalachian Trail has been around for over 80 years, running 2,175 scenic miles along the eastern spine of the U.S. In 1968, the National Trails System Act brought federal recognition and encouragement to the concept. There are now eight National Scenic Trails and 18 National Historic Trails, totaling over 46,000 miles, and the system continues to expand.

In addition to the National Scenic and Historic Trails, the system includes 35 National Recreation Trails over 100 miles long, such as the Alabama Scenic River and Hatfield-McCoy National Recreation Trails. This year we are celebrating the 40th Anniversary of the Act that created our National Trails System (see more articles. Advocates and trail adventurers have helped promote and expand the long distance system. In 1972, while riding bikes from Alaska to Argentina, Greg and June Siple with Dan and Lys Burden envisioned Bikecentennial: a network of mapped optimal bike routes spanning the nation. It evolved into Adventure Cycling, a group that continues to build on the Bikecentennial legacy. Also during the 1970s, the rails-to-trails movement added the concept of building trails on former or shared rail lines. The Rails-to-Trails Conservancy is promoting an “interstate of trails” across the county.

Besides the federally-designated trails, we have the East Coast Greenway, the Mississippi River Trail, the Underground Railroad Bicycle Route, American Discovery Trail… well you get the picture.

Cross-state trails include Indiana’s National Road Heritage Trail, the Arizona Trail, and the Colorado Trail. Other long trails define regions, like the Bay Area Ridge Trail, Pacific Northwest Trail, and C & O Canal Trail.

Long-distance paddling trails add to this burgeoning system with water routes. For ATV and motorcycle enthusiasts, there is the Great Western Trail, and the challenging Iditarod National Historic Trail for snowmobilers and dog sledders. And for single track riders, there is the 2,500-mile Great Divide Mountain Bike Route.

photo of Derrick Crandall

Along the Virginia Capitol Trail, a segment of the East Coast Geenway

A surprising range of benefits

While the system now is a blend of both on-road and off-road routes, some further along than others, the ultimate, and very realizable vision, is a national interconnected system of pathways. Ideally these routes will be totally separate from the street— except, perhaps, quiet byways and walkable, bikable, small-town main streets.

The bigger picture inspires local trails. Even before an entire trail is built people can travel segments. In fact, though most people will never travel an entire trail, many will enjoy local sections and the trails they link to. Planning a trip on a long-distance trail can also promote fitness, giving people motivation and a goal. They may ride or hike for months training for the “big” ride.

In an era of constraining fuel prices these trails and the networks they spawn will offer recreation closer to home— an alternative to long fuel-consuming trips to the traditional national recreational destinations. Better still, someday many will make the trek to a favorite national park via the national network of long-distance trails. What an experience to ride your bike up to Yosemite Falls starting out in San Francisco, Omaha, or Pittsburgh!

Connecting the dots

Creating these trails and creating this system may seem daunting, but it has been done before in tougher times. The Appalachian Trail Conference, established in 1925, brought together hikers, public servants, and conservationists. It took many different skills and people, such as visionary Benton MacKaye and trail builder Myron Avery, to create the Appalachian Trail. Similar leaders are creating the long-distance trails of today. (See Chuck Flink’s article on the East Coast Greenway in this issue.)

A vision for long-distance trails

As this movement continues to evolve there are several steps that we can take to further the expansion and interconnection of this exciting system. Steve Elkinton, National Trails System Program Leader for the National Park Service, suggests the following perspectives and
performance standards:

  • Build awareness and respect for the trail in all the communities it passes through.
  • Create a role for the trail in communities along the way as the new “main street.”
  • Plan and design trails to promote positive attitudes, public education, and state-of-the-art safety features, and to minimize potential conflicts among users and with adjacent properties.
  • Build and enhance trails that will attract visitors both locally and from other states and nations.
  • Work to promote landscape stewardship, cultural interpretation, and other ways to preserve trail resources.
  • Build on the catalytic ability of a long-distance trail to grow local trail networks while avoiding fragmentation and jurisdictional jealousies.
  • Find strong, ideally standardized ways to measure and communicate the dramatic and impressive economic impacts of long-distance trails.
  • Build broad constituencies in addition to trail advocates and uses: realtors, developers, business leaders, news media, and elected officials.
  • Promote and encourage local trails, and connector trails; build local trail consciousness and constituencies.
  • Showcase the trails and create better awareness with more visible and attractive signage.
  • Offer effective, clear, coordinated wayfinding along these corridors.
  • Create events such as the Erie Canal and East Coast Greenway Rides to publicize these projects.
  • Work to promote support facilities along the corridor such as places to sleep and eat, transportation, etc.

It is our intent that both this piece and Chuck Flink’s article will initiate a series about long-distance trails in the American Trails Magazine. To that end, we encourage advocates and managers of long-distance trails nationwide and globally to submit articles about their trails, and to share their ideas and advice. Also, we encourage our readers to enjoy their own long-distance trail experience soon!

Bob Searns is Chair of the American Trails Board, a greenways and trails development consultant, and Founding Associate of The GreenWay Team, Inc., a company that assists communities and organizations across America.

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