National Trails System Reference Manual 45

This document is designed for National Trails System partners: Federal trail administrators, local land managers and landowners, volunteer partners, and State and Tribal agencies. It focuses on America’s national scenic and historic trails with only brief mention of national recreation trails and connecting-and-side trails. It provides background to Director’s Order #45, National Trails System (see Section 2.6).

by National Park Service

As an orientation guide, this reference manual is intended to serve both new staff and "old hands," providing a ready-reference manual to their many responsibilities. It documents several decades of experience in administering and managing components of the National Trails System.

America’s national scenic and historic trails form a remarkable network of well over 50,000 miles of trails that protects and links together many of America's most significant natural, cultural, and recreational resources. They provide opportunities for millions of Americans to enjoy the outdoors. National scenic and historic trails are the backbone of the National Trails System. Both kinds are planned and administered under the authorities of the National Trails System Act (NTSA, 16 U.S.C. 1241-1251). These trails are unique among Federally administered areas, for they typically:

  • Are managed in partnership with other Federal, State, and non-governmental entities;
  • Span hundreds, if not thousands, of miles;
  • Involve complex land-ownership patterns (and, consequently, complex jurisdictional issues);
  • Involve overlapping jurisdictions, including two or more trails following the same route; and
  • Are dedicated to a primary purpose, either recreational (for scenic trails) or cultural (for historic trails).

However, little is standard about these trails. From the Appalachian National Scenic Trail to the Ala Kahakai National Historic Trail, each national trail has its own unique identity and management
challenges. Practices vary widely. The suggestions of this reference manual should be considered generic, aiming for servicewide and systemwide consistency, and may be varied to suit the needs of individual trails.

This reference manual links the authorities of the National Trails System Act to the other authorities, practices, regulations, and procedures of the agencies that administer and manage them.

Attached document published February 2019

About the Author


The National Park Service (NPS) was created in 1916 and today manages over 390 units found in all 50 states and some of the U.S. territories. NPS supports and operates trails in three interlocking arenas: trails in parks, technical assistance to States and communities, and administration of much of the National Trails System.

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