FAQ: How does a trail get recognized as a National Scenic Trail?

According the 1966 study proposing the National Trails System, “Trails for America,” National Scenic Trails are to be "a standard for excellence in the routing, construction, maintenance, and marking… Each should stand out in its own right as a recreation resource of superlative quality and of physical challenge."

National Scenic Trail designation is a rare and prestigious achievement that has been awarded only 11 times since 1966. Trails hoping to receive a National Scenic designation must be contiguous and are typically more than 100 miles in length. Each trail will undergo a thorough process that takes, on average, between six and 15 years to achieve designation. The most recent designations were in 2009 which added the Pacific Northwest Trail, the Arizona Trail, and the New England National Scenic Trail. These were the first trails designated as National Scenic Trails since 1983—a drought of 26 years.

The Appalachian National Scenic Trail, Newfound Gap, Great Smoky Mountains National Park, Tennessee

The Appalachian National Scenic Trail, Newfound Gap, Great Smoky Mountains National Park, Tennessee

Designation Process

According to the National Park Service (the agency which oversees the designation process), “A trail is most likely to succeed in designation if there is a strong, well-organized, citizen-based organization working on behalf of the trail.”

National scenic trails require four steps to become fully established:

  1. An amendment to the National Trails System Act requesting a feasibility study.
  2. The feasibility study (usually conducted by the National Park Service).
  3. If the feasibility study recommends establishment, an act of Congress adding the trail to the National Trails System.
  4. Once the trail is established, a comprehensive management and use plan, outlining the roles of partners (including the Federal Government) the full length of the trail. This is usually conducted by the trail's administering agency.

For questions or to begin the process, contact:

Rita Hennessy
Program Lead, National Trails System
Department of the Interior
National Park Service
1849 C Street, NW, Rm 1344
Washington, DC 20240