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Federal Programs and Legislation

The National Trails System: a grand experiment

arrow From the Fall 2008 American Trails Magazine

arrow Read more facts and history of the National Trails System and comments by Stewart Udall

By Pam Gluck

photo of people with big map

President Lyndon Johnson with a map of the National Trails System in 1968


COME JOIN US at the National Trails Symposium and help us celebrate four decades of progress! The National Trails System Act opened the door to Federal involvement in trails of all types, from city centers to remote backcountry. Virtually every trail in the country has benefited from the Act, and many trail initiatives over the last 40 years can find their roots in it. We’d like everyone to learn the significance of this milestone and how you and your trails fit into this national system of trails.

As excited as we are for all that has been accomplished through the National Trails System Act, we look forward to it being the route to future recognition of additional trails across the country. We hope to see you there!

To learn more about the 40 years of progress, read The National Trails System: A Grand Experiment, written by Steve Elkinton, Program Leader of the National Trails System at the National Park Service, and researched and co-written by Linnéa Caproni and Janelle Hoeflschweiger, PhD students in Public History at Arizona State University.

Here are some excerpts from A Grand Experiment:




"The establishment of a nationwide system of trails will be an accomplishment worthy of a place beside other major conservation programs... The fundamental objective of a nationwide system of trails is to provide simple, inexpensive recreation opportunities for all people by having an abundance of trails for walking, cycling, and horseback riding near home, as well as providing some major historic and scenic interstate trails of national significance."

—Stewart Udall

"The forgotten outdoorsmen of today are those who like to walk, hike, ride horseback, or bicycle. For them we must have trails as well as highways… I am requesting therefore, that the Secretary of the Interior work with his colleagues in the federal government and with state and local leaders and recommend to me a cooperative program to encourage a national system of trails, building up the more than [one] hundred thousand miles of trails in our National Forests and Parks... In the backcountry we need to copy the great Appalachian Trail in all parts of our country..."

—President Lyndon B. Johnson

“The National Trails System Act of 1968 set in motion a set of actions by various federal and state agencies, and thousands of citizen volunteers, for identifying and preserving trails of outstanding scenic, historic and recreational value across America. Today, these national trails attract millions of visitors. For many, they provide recreational benefits that improve health, boost energy and lift the spirits of the work-weary. The trails also allow public access to landscapes which reflect the rich cultural and natural diversity of our national heritage. Ultimately, as a conservation and recreation effort, national trails embody the visions and struggles of a spectrum of individuals dedicated to preserving these outstanding linear routes for the enjoyment of future generations.

"The National Trails System has been an experiment in democratic principles. Crafted alongside other significant environmental and social legislation of the 1960s, this act reflects deep American impulses, such as love of outdoor recreation, devotion to iconic trail experiences (such as hiking the Appalachian Trail), and reverence for the struggles that early American explorers and pioneers endured.

"This experiment was not a sure bet. Early cost estimates were off by magnitudes, and no one could predict how many trails would be enough to make an actual system. Yet somehow, in the 40 years since the law’s passage in 1968, this disparate collection of trails has begun to coalesce into a true system.

"History indicates the National Trails System is likely here to stay. It has far exceeded the vision of its earliest proponents, and gone beyond an experiment."

—Steve Elkinton

For more information on the National Trails System and its 40-Year Anniversary:

More resources for National Scenic and Historic Trails

Resources from our partners:

National Park Service site for the National Trails System

Interview with Steve Elkinton, Program Leader for the National Trails System


Join American Trails


Related topics:

More resources:

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