The history of American Trails is a history of trail giants. Of people who, decades ago, before there were positions like state trails coordinator, or books like Wild, espousing the healing power of trails, stood up and said to everyone who would listen, we need to realize the value of trails. Men and women who embodied the quote from French poet Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, “If you want to build a ship, don’t drum up the men to gather wood, divide the work, and give orders. Instead, teach them to yearn for the vast and endless sea.”
You can’t talk about the history of American Trails without going back to long before the organization existed, to the first ever National Trails Symposium in 1971. You would be forgiven for thinking that the trails symposium has always happened because of American Trails, but it might be more accurate to say that American Trails exists because of the trails symposium. After that first symposium 46 years ago a group of trails enthusiasts formed the National Trails Council in Chicago, so that they could continue to work on trails issues on a national level, and not lose momentum from the symposium. Among those trail pioneers was Hulet Hornbeck, who would later go on to serve on the American Trails board and be a champion for trails for the rest of his life. It was Hulet who introduced many to the above quote about yearning from Antoine de Saint-Exupery, and Hulet who played such a powerful role in the trails world that American Trails has now named a scholarship program after him, and it was Hulet who suggested in 1971 that the symposium become a biennial event, held every two years, and to this day we have followed his advice.
In the 1980’s another group emerged called the “American Trails Network”, who had a stated goal of creating more connected trails between the states. A 1987 report from the President’s Commission on Americans Outdoors brought fresh focus to the need for more and better trails, and so it was that in 1988 the National Trails Council that had formed in 1971, and the much newer American Trails Network, combined to be a stronger and louder voice in the trails world, and the American Trails organization was born. American Trails hit the ground running, partnering that same year with the National Park Service to take a deep dive into trail issues in America, and offer recommendations for the best way forward to meet the country’s ongoing need for quality outdoor recreation through trails. This led to a report released in the summer of 1990 called “Trails for All Americans”. This manifesto, more than any other, laid the framework for trail advocacy over the next three decades, and provided a foundation which American Trails has built off of since then.
1988 Unicoi, Georgia – This was the symposium that started it all for American Trails, as this was the symposium where the merger between the National Trails Council and the American Trails Network took place. Present here were future leaders of American Trails, like Stuart Macdonald, and the aforementioned Hulet Hornbeck. Bill Spitzer, who played such roles in the trails world as the National Park Service's Recreation Resources division chief and later Assistant Director for Recreation and Conservation, offered this vision at the 1988 symposium –
"I would like to see the National Trails System be as myriad and diverse as the American people. I would like to see us being committed to preserving enough significant corridors that we could have a trail system that is reflective of various communities of interest – so we are not confused by some as serving a single activity group."
His words would echo in the work done between 1988 – 1990 on the Trails for All Americans manifesto.
1990 Cedar Rapids, Iowa – One main focus of the 1990 symposium was trail funding, and discussing how to make a successful funding program that hadn’t previously existed. These talks were the precursor for the Recreational Trails Program, which to this day provides millions in trail funding every year. Stuart Macdonald was also introducing the National Association of State Trails Administrators, which he was in charge of as one of the first and foremost State Trails Coordinators in the country, which laid the groundwork for what is now a nationwide position.
1992 Montana – In 1992 Bob Walker was elected as the board chair of American Trails, and he was elected with a goal – to hire an executive director for American Trails. Walker had worked closely with Stuart Macdonald over the previous year on creating and growing State Trail Coordinator positions, and was highly involved in the 1992 symposium. This was also the first fully inclusive symposium, where the motorized community was also represented, and there was a real focus on coming together and getting over the so called trail wars. Walker encouraged organizations to “stop wasting energy and money fighting each other”, and instead to come together as a strong voice for trails.
In 1993 Walker would fulfill his promise of hiring an executive director, and Skye Ridley was hired on a part time basis.
1994 Anchorage, Alaska – Bob Walker said of the decision on where to hold the 1994 symposium, “When the suggestion was made to go to Anchorage, Alaska, I about had heart failure. I thought people wouldn’t come.” This is a sentiment many felt at the time, and yet when you talk to people today about their memories of past symposiums, this is often remembered as not just a resounding success, but one of their favorites. The symposium involved an all day train ride in which the attendants completely rented out the train (the last car was described as “the party car”), a boat ride in Resurrection Bay, and some of the most breathtaking scenery the country has to offer.
After that conference, in spring of 1995, it was decided that all trail user types should be represented in a way they hadn’t previously been on the American Trails board. Bob Walker recruited Kay Lloyd (who would herself later serve as chair) to represent snowmobilers, and Clark Collins to represent OHV. From that point on American Trails truly lived up to the notion of representing all trail types.
1996 Bethesda, Maryland – The 1996 symposium was notable as the first time a local consultant was hired to work on the event, beginning a precedent of having dedicated employees that would only grow in the coming years. This was also the second, and last, symposium under executive director Skye Ridley, who would resign in 1997.
1998 Tucson, Arizona – Pam Gluck had first attended the Trails Symposium in 1992 as the Arizona State Trails Coordinator, and as serendipity would have it, in 1997 when the executive director position for American Trails became available, the trails symposium was already scheduled to be in Arizona, so Gluck was the perfect fit. She would go on to lead American Trails for the next 19 years.
Tucson proved to be a turning point in many ways for the symposium. Under Gluck, and the board at the time, it was decided that the symposium would shift to, as she put it, “focus more on the heart of why we do this and inspirational talks.” The awards program was expanded, new partnerships were formed, and the attendance shot up so high, over 650, that people had to be turned away from attending.
This symposium set the stage for a more sustainable model, and newly formed partnerships with federal agencies, and increased funding, created room for the symposium to grow. In 1999, American Trails took over as the lead nonprofit coordinating the National Recreation Trails program, saving it from being discontinued and forgotten.
2000 Redding, California – Terry Hanson was the Community Services Project Manager for the city of Redding, California, and he made it his mission to bring the Symposium to Redding in 2000. The city was not on anyone’s radar as an obvious choice, but they brought Pam Gluck out to show her the plans for the Sundial Bridge, and from the get go it was obvious that in Redding they realized the value of trails. Not only was the 2000 symposium held there, but Gluck herself moved to Redding, and to this day American Trails is headquartered in Redding, California.
2002 Orlando, Florida – One of the marks of this symposium was an innovative design contest sponsored by the Florida Department of Environmental Protection (DEP), Office of Greenways & Trails, and American Trails, to help design trail project in the community of Goldsboro located in Sanford, Florida. The competition allowed professionals and students to exhibit their creativity and expertise and leave a creative, positive and lasting reminder of the symposium. Winners received national and statewide exposure, a national award, and the potential to implement the project.
2004 Austin, Texas – The theme of this symposium was prescient, focusing on the emerging role of trails in American lifestyles. Since this symposium numerous studies have come out showing that trails are one of the most desirable community traits people look at when deciding where to move, property values soar around trails, and communities measure as happier and healthier when trails are present. This symposium also featured the first ever “Creative Crossings Photo Gallery”, where communities could share pictures and designs of their trail bridges.
2006 Quad Cities of Iowa and Illinois – This was the first year Candace Gallagher, current Director of Operations, worked on a symposium for American Trails, and she says of the experience, “What stuck out to me most attending that Symposium (and all Symposiums that we host) is the camaraderie and passion that the attendees and community brings. The fact that we can bring together a variety of trail types at one conference (in which conflict may arise in their regular life) is amazing.” There were many unique things about this symposium, including John Deere donating a tractor and sponsoring a banquet, over 50 exhibitors on the free public day, and a Trails Rock party held on a boat on the Mississippi River.
2008 Little Rock, Arkansas – 2008 was a chance to highlight the medical benefits of trails, thanks, in part, to the Medical Mile Arkansas River Trail. Two dozen physicians from the largest cardiology clinic in Arkansas funded this trail in the heart of downtown Little Rock, raising $350,000 in a ground breaking move to bring attention to outdoor recreation helping to fight obesity and heart disease. The symposium was the perfect place to highlight this project, alongside so many other exciting trails in Arkansas.
2010 Chattanooga, Tennessee – Dayton Duncan, who co-produced “The National Parks: America’s Best Idea Documentary” alongside Ken Burns was the keynote speaker of this symposium. Tennessee proved to be an amazing backdrop for the foremost trails experts in the world to gather.
2013 Fountain Hills, Arizona – 2013 was another landmark year of changes. The symposium was opened up from being a national event to an international event, with trail leaders around the world invited to participate. Gluck says of the change, “I felt like it was time, because there were people all over the world that we could learn from.” This was also the year the Emerging Leaders program was introduced, which through the Hulet Hornbeck scholarship, allowed young people just starting out in the trails world to attend the symposium and gain valuable knowledge and experiences they otherwise wouldn’t have access to.
2015 Portland, Oregon – Portland has the distinction of being the most well attended symposium to date, with 760 attendees from 48 states and 18 countries, making it truly international.
2017 Dayton, Ohio – Pam Gluck stepped down as executive director after an almost two decade run, paving the way for Mike Passo, who now leads American Trails. 2017 was Mike’s first symposium as Executive Director, although he had attended many others as a board member. The Professional Trailbuilders Association became a major partner in 2017, offering a Sustainable Trails Workshop Series. The symposium was so successful that the city of Dayton honored American Trails as the organization whose conference brought the most money to the city in all of 2017.
2019 Syracuse, New York – American Trails is excited to see what the future brings, and to continue the proud and distinguished tradition of trails symposiums in 2019. We invite everyone to join us in New York next year, and become a part of this history.
Special thanks to Pam Gluck, Bob Walker, Steve Elkinton, Stuart Macdonald, and Candace Gallagher for sharing their memories for this article, and to everyone who has been a part of American Trails over the last 30 years.