Frequently Asked Questions About the National Water Trails System

Q:Who do I contact if I have specific questions about the program or application process?

A:  The Rivers, Trails, and Conservation Assistance (RTCA) program and the National Trails System of the National Park Service administer the National Water Trails System (NWTS). If you cannot get your questions answered by viewing this NWTS website, please contact NPS staff.

Q:Who can apply for national water trail designation?

A:  Any public, private, or nonprofit organization or water trail manager administering an existing trail that meets the NWTS definition and criteria may apply for national water trail designation. Detailed information on the national water trails criteria and requirements can be found on this site or by contacting us.

Q:When can I apply for NWTS designation?

A:  National Water Trails System applications are currently accepted and are processed on a rolling basis. For more information on the application requirements and directions, go to the application.

Q:What kinds of water trails are eligible for designation into the National Water Trails System? Does your trail have to be a river?

A:  As long as the proposed water trail meets the necessary designation criteria and best management practices, the type and setting of the proposed water trail can vary considerably. Eligible water trails can exist on streams, rivers, lakes, estuaries, and ocean fronts. They can provide a variety of water-based recreation and education opportunities, including rafting, canoeing, kayaking, fishing, shoreline camping, scenic overlooks, interpretative and educational media, and other diverse opportunities. Eligible water trails can exist in both urban and rural settings and run across both public and private lands (as long as land owners agree to their presence and use). For more information, read our national water trails definition.

Q:How do I find out who manages a particular national water trail? Or, how do I get more information about visiting a particular national water trail?

A:  Each designated national water trail is managed by a local management entity (e.g., local, state, or federal government agency, nonprofit organization, interagency organization, etc.). In most cases, these local water trail managers will have a website, field office, or information line that offers information for trail visitors and users. To find specific visitor information for a particular water trail, contact the local management entity. You can search for basic information on a designated national water trail in your area in the National Water Trails System database. Once you locate the particular water trail in the database or on the map, you should be able to find the appropriate Web links or contact information for the local management entity in this database.

Q:What are the benefits of designation?

A:  National Water Trails System designation includes:
  • designation by the Secretary of the Interior
  • national promotion and visibility
  • positive economic impact from increased tourism
  • mutual support and knowledge-sharing
  • assistance with stewardship and sustainability projects
  • opportunities to obtain technical assistance and funding
  • increased opportunities for outdoor recreation and water resource protection
  • contribution to public health and quality of life

Q:Does the National Park Service (NPS) or the Department of the Interior (DOI) manage the designated national water trails?

A:  No, except in the cases where the water trail is located on NPS or DOI lands. The National Trails System and the Rivers, Trails, and Conservation Assistance program (RTCA) of the National Park Service administer the overall National Water Trails System and oversee the application review process. However, each designated national water trail is managed by the local management entity (e.g., local, state, or federal government agency, nonprofit organization, interagency organization, etc.) and management responsibility remains with that entity.

Q:What is the difference between national water trails and local or state water trails?

A:  Several types of water trails exist in the United States. National water trails are water trails that meet the required designation criteria and best management practices (as confirmed by an application review process) and have been officially designated by the Secretary of the Interior or the Secretary of Agriculture (when on or in cooperation with the National Forest Service lands). Not all water trails meet these criteria or have been designated as national water trails. However, local and state water trails may be included in the National Water Trails System. You can learn more about the National Water Trails System or access the National Water Trail System database and map for information on specific designated national water trails. Many states have statewide water trail systems that provide information about and recognize water trails locally.

Q:Can wild and scenic rivers or waterways with other designations become national water trails?

A:  Yes, waterways with other designations can be designated as national water trails.

Q:What is the legislative authority of the National Water Trails System?

A:  The National Water Trails System is a recently developed subset of the long-established National Recreation Trail (NRT) system. The National Trails System Act of 1968 (16 USC 1241-51) authorized creation of a national trail system composed of national recreation trails, national scenic trails, and national historic trails. Since 1971, over 1,100 national recreation trails have been designated on both public and private lands and waters throughout the United States.

The National Trails System Act gives the U.S. Department of the Interior and the U.S. Department of Agriculture the authority to develop “supplementary criteria” for national recreation trails. The National Water Trails System is now considered a subset under the umbrella of national trails defined by the National Trails System Act. With the recent development of the National Water Trails System, an enhanced focus on providing and promoting water-based trail opportunities throughout the United States will complement the existing network of national recreation trails. Click here to read in-depth about designation authority, management, and coordination.

Q:How long has the National Water Trails System been in existence?

A:  The National Water Trails System is a new interagency endeavor that came into existence in early 2012, based on the priority actions of America’s Great Outdoors report. National water trails must meet both the designation criteria of national recreation trails and the seven NWTS best management practices.

Q:What is an application account?

A:  An application account allows a water trail manager or primary contact person to apply for designation within the National Water Trails System. It is the beginning of the application process for National Water Trails System designation. Within this account a blank application for a water trail can be downloaded, filled out, uploaded, and submitted for review. One account should be made for each water trail being submitted for designation. Multiple users can login to this account to help build the application. The account should be made by the water trail manager or primary contact person. This person can then add other users so they too have access to the application account.

Q:Who can have an application account?

A:  Any group, agency, or nonprofit that manages a water trail and wants that water trail to be considered for designation within the National Water Trails System.

Q:Who should create an application account?

A:  For each water trail, one account should be created by the primary contact person for the water trail. This person can then add other people to that account so that multiple people can edit and upload the application and any supporting materials.

Q:What if the water trail manager or primary contact person changes?

A:  When the water trail manager or primary contact person changes for a water trail, that person can transfer responsibility of the application account to a new primary contact. Only the current primary contact has the ability to make someone else the primary contact.

Q:What can the water trail manager or primary contact person do that other users cannot?

A:  The primary contact person can change other users for the application account. If a new team member needs to be added only the primary contact person can do so. Other than the ability to add or remove application account users, all users have the same abilities within the account.
In sight of the Twin Cities skyline in Minnesota, the Mississippi River carries a flotilla of excited kids along its waters.
In sight of the Twin Cities skyline in Minnesota, the Mississippi River carries a flotilla of excited kids along its waters.

The Mississippi River and Recreation Area Water Trail is a ribbon of wilderness hidden in the heart of the bustling Minneapolis-St. Paul metropolis. In the summer you may see a flotilla of canoes with young paddlers led by Wilderness Inquiry, an organization that provides outdoor adventure trips that are accessible to everyone, regardless of age, background, or ability. Photo courtesy Wilderness Inquiry and NPS.