Why Trails Matter: In Praise of Water Trails

This article is intended to inspire and support trail managers, designers, volunteer groups, and individuals with information you can use, whether you want to get out and explore an existing water trail or begin the process of designating a new water trail in your community. 

by American Trails Staff

Water trails connect us to nature and history in a way that other trails cannot. Many American towns and cities are built at the edge of water bodies, so taking to the water is a way to explore urban areas from a different perspective, close to home.

Water trails can also allow access to wild places that may be almost unreachable otherwise. Water trails are fun and inclusive and can be created at a fraction of the cost of land-based trails.

What is a water trail? The term "water trail" is a widely accepted term referring to mapped routes on rivers, streams, or lakes, or along the edges of coastal inlets and islands. These watery pathways allow access via small non-motorized watercraft such as a canoe, kayak, or stand-up paddle board, but they may also be used by sailing craft, motorized vessels, and even jet skis.

As they have been for thousands of years, waterways are natural corridors for wildlife and people. Often, water is a more logical and lower-impact way to access a landscape than a land-based trail. When the Lewis and Clark expedition crossed the continent, they did so mostly by waterway. In the Arctic, water trails can be critical routes connecting communities. The Pan-Inuit Trails Atlas maps the Inuit waterways and iceways in the Canadian Arctic, demonstrating the extent of historical Inuit occupancy, and traditional geographical knowledge of the Arctic, from Alaska to Greenland. Today, it is generally accepted that successfully managed water trails follow these general guiding principles:

  • Are managed as public/private partnerships, with the engagement of volunteers
  • Encourage environmental awareness, conservation, and stewardship
  • Support wellness, well-being, and universal access
  • Create community vitality by connecting people with nature and history

Leave No Trace, even on the water. Embarking on a water trail adventure is no different than going on a hike or backpacking trip in terms of being prepared, and respecting wildlife, other people, and the environment. The seven Leave No Trace principles still apply.

Water trail safety is important! Before your group hits the water trail, please take note of these tips:

1. Be prepared. Make sure you have the right gear for your adventure. Remember to wear floatation vests and don't overload your watercraft. Wear sunblock, hats, and sunglasses, and stay hydrated to avoid sunstroke. The sun is twice as strong reflecting off the water. Check water levels, tides, and weather conditions, find out what activities are allowed where you are going, and get the proper permits.

2. Learn about common hazards on rivers and streams. These can include very cold water temperatures, undercurrents, unstable banks, narrow gaps between rocks, and obstacles such as "strainers" which are branches and other woody debris that can cause you to become pinned against them or trapped underwater.

3. Understand water currents. Water may look calm on the surface but there can be strong currents below, and water levels change water currents.

4. Remember, water safety is your responsibility. Make sure everyone in your group knows how to swim and designate a "water watcher" who can monitor children and prevent drowning.

For more information, use the National Park Service (NPS) Trip Planning Guide and the NPS River and Stream Safety article.

Water trails connect us to the diversity of American history. Across America, water trails often have an interesting story to tell about the cultural and natural changes that have happened over time.

The African American Heritage Water Trail on Chicago's far south side "is a 12-mile-long water trail that covers at least two centuries worth of history, ranging from the Underground Railroad, the Civil Rights movement, the birth of justice movement," says Lillian Holden, Openlands Education and Outreach Coordinator. The Little Calumet River is a highly industrialized waterway connecting to Lake Michigan. Paddlers on this section of the Little Calumet can learn about the historic highlights along the route on the Openlands website, and download a printable brochure at this link.

photo credit: Trace Fleeman Garcia
A portion of the reconstituted Tulare Lake near (the) Sand Ridge, taken east of Alpaugh, CA.

A portion of the reconstituted Tulare Lake near (the) Sand Ridge, taken east of Alpaugh, CA.

In spring, 2023, the watery trails that native tribes once used to navigate Tulare Lake in California's Central Valley have returned, along with the lake itself, which disappeared completely after being drained by agricultural canals more than a century ago. NASA's Earth Observatory shows side-by-side satellite images of the area before and after the return of the lake. The reappearance of this forgotten lake after a historically wet winter has brought to life a dialogue about water, and trails as signifying access to resources and traditional lifeways. Tulare Lake was once the largest freshwater lake west of the Mississippi River, and the second-largest freshwater lake entirely in the United States based on surface area. It is usually a dry lake with residual wetlands and marshes in modern times. The lake reappears during unusually high levels of rainfall or snowmelt. In modern times, it has persisted for as long as two years.

A California tribe says allowing the lake to stay permanently would improve life in the valley by providing water storage and allowing the area’s original ecosystem to take root again. Members of the Tachi Yokut tribe would like to see the new lake preserved as a park. One of about 50 bands of the Yokuts people who once relied on the lake as a main source of food and for tule reeds for boats and shelter, the Tachi Yokut are hopeful that the idea of keeping the lake will have popular support, and perhaps their ancient water trails can become a recreational asset for all to enjoy, well into the future.

The NPS Rivers Trails and Conservation Assistance Program (RTCA Program) has programs to support communities in creating water trails. Although the RTCA program does not provide grant dollars, they collaborate with nonprofit or community partners and agencies to provide professional services. If you are curious about the process other cities and towns have taken to make the most of their outdoor recreational assets at the water's edge, take a look at the RTCA's River Town Review Toolkit here.

We hope this article has been useful. For more information about water trails, check out these additional resources from American Trails:

Water Trails are Better Than Land Trails. Read this totally unbiased take from Mike Passo, Executive Director of American Trails: https://www.americantrails.org...

Water Trails are Inclusive. Watch the American Trails webinar on Water Trail Accessibility here: https://www.americantrails.org...

Want to Plan a Water Trail? Use the Water Trails Planning 101 guide here: https://cdn2.assets-servd.host...

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