Over the years, a variety of local, state, and federal organizations have identified
and developed numerous water trails on rivers, lakes, and other waterways throughout
the United States. The new National Water Trails System
(NWTS) serves to bring existing and newly identified water trails together into
one cohesive national network of exemplary water trails. The National Water Trails
System is a network of water trails the public can explore and enjoy, as well as
a community of water resource managers that can benefit from information sharing
The National Water Trails System
is a distinctive national network of exemplary water trails that are cooperatively
supported and sustained.
More specifically, the National Water Trails System has been established to
- protect and restore America’s rivers, shorelines, and waterways and conserve natural
areas along waterways.
- increase access to outdoor recreation on shorelines and waterways.
The National Water Trails System will uniquely connect Americans to the nation’s
waterways and strengthen the conservation and restoration of these waterways through
the mutual support and cooperation of federal, state, local, and nonprofit entities
- establishing a national system of exemplary water trails.
- becoming a catalyst for protecting and restoring the health of local waterways and
- building a community that mentors and promotes the development of water trails and
shares best management practices.
are recreational routes on waterways with a network of public access points supported
by broad-based community partnerships. Water trails provide both conservation and
While national scenic trails and national historic trails may only be designated
by an act of Congress, national recreation trails (including national water trails)
may be designated by the Secretary of the Interior or the Secretary of Agriculture
(for trails on or in cooperation with National Forest Service lands). The designations
recognize exemplary trails of local and regional significance. Through designation,
these trails are recognized as part of the National Trails System.
Management of Individual National Water Trails
Each designated national water trail is managed by a local management entity (e.g.,
local, state, or federal government agency; nonprofit organization; interagency
organization). The ongoing management responsibility and associated costs of the
designated national water trail are the sole responsibility of the management entity.
Coordination and Support for the Overall National Water Trails System
The National Water Trails System is a grassroots effort that relies on local management
of the designated water trails. The National Park Service (NPS) Rivers, Trails, and Conservation Assistance Program (RTCA)
is the primary administrator that works in partnership with a collaborative interagency
group. RTCA staff serves as a clearinghouse for information sharing and national
water trail networking efforts. Agencies may nominate individual water trail designations,
work in collaboration with community organizations seeking designation, help strengthen
the network of water trail managers, and build the community of practice for water
RTCA coordinates the following functions undertaken by the interagency collaborative
- reviews national water trail applications for designation
- disseminates applicable information to management entities throughout the country
(e.g., best management practices, water trail management strategies)
- develops and maintains the National Water Trails System website, which provides
extensive information on the system and best management practices for water trails
As a subset of the national recreation trail designation, trails in the National
Water Trails System must meet the four criteria for National Recreation Trail designation
- The trail (and its access points) must be open to public use and be designed, constructed,
and maintained according to best management practices, in keeping with the anticipated
use. Water trail access points that demonstrate state-of-the-art design and management
are especially encouraged to apply for national water trail designation.
- The trail is in compliance with applicable land use plans and environmental laws.
- The trail will be open for public use for at least 10 consecutive years after designation.
- The trail designation must be supported by the landowner(s), (public or private),
on which access points exist.
In addition to the national recreation trails criteria, a designated water trail
incorporate the following best management practices:
- Recreation Opportunities: The water trail route has
established public access points that accommodate a diversity of trip lengths and
provide access to a variety of opportunities for recreation and education.
- Education: The water trail users are provided with
opportunities to learn about the value of water resources, cultural heritage, boating
skills, and outdoor ethics.
- Conservation: The water trail provides opportunities
for communities to develop and implement strategies that enhance and restore the
health of local waterways and surrounding lands.
- Community Support: Local communities provide support
and advocacy for maintenance and stewardship of the water trail.
- Public Information: The public is provided with accessible
and understandable water trail information, including details for identifying access
and trail routes; cultural, historic, and natural features; hazards; and water quality.
The water trail is promoted to the community and broad national audience.
- Trail Maintenance: There is a demonstrated ability
to support routine and long-term maintenance investments on the water trail. Facilities
are designed, constructed, and maintained by incorporating sustainability principles.
- Planning: Maintain a water trail plan that describes
a vision, desired future conditions, and strategies to strengthen best management
Benefits of designation into the National Water Trails System include
- designation by the Secretary of the Interior, including a letter and certificate
announcing the designation as a national water trail
- national promotion and visibility, including use by the management entity of use
the National Water Trails System logo in appropriate settings and trail publications
- mutual support and knowledge sharing as part of a national network
- opportunities to obtain technical assistance and funding for planning and implementing
water trail projects
As a result of designation, national water trails may gain
- positive economic impact from increased tourism
- assistance with stewardship and sustainability projects
- increased protection for outdoor recreation and water resources
- contribution to public health and quality of life from maintaining and restoring
- access to networking and training opportunities
- assistance with recognition and special events highlighting the trail
All national water trails will be included in the online searchable database of
trails and have a page on this site
trail information including water trail descriptions, maps, photographs, water trail
manager contact information, links to applicable websites, and best management strategies
and practices. Water trail managers are urged to provide updated information about
their national water trail for the website database by sending updates and additions
via email to NWTS@nps.gov
To take the first step toward national water trail designation, the management entity
for a potential trail submits a formal application via an application account
accessed through this site. The application will describe how the water trail and its management
entity achieve the criteria and meet the best management practices outlined. Applications
should be submitted by November 1 each year; edits can be completed on a continual basis. Applications are reviewed by a team of water trail
subject matter experts and a collaborative interagency group. The recommended trail
nominations are forwarded to the Secretary of the Interior for review and designation.
Information sharing is a key element of the program because it fosters the development
of a water trail community, creating a network of mentors and promoters of the National
Water Trail System. Effective management approaches and best management practices
identified in successful applications will likely become models for other water
The following table identifies the general steps of the review and designation process.
National Water Trails System Review and Designation Process
Application Submittal to the National Park Service
The management entity (sponsor) submits the official application and a letter of
support from the respective state trail administrator(s) through the application account.
The application is reviewed for consistency with the criteria for national recreation
trail designation. The appropriate federal agency staff confirms and ground truths
the water trail.
Water Trails Best Management Practices Evaluation
With assistance from subject matter experts in applicable federal agencies, applications
are reviewed for the best management practices identified in the application.
Interagency Review and Recommendation
An interagency review team reviews final applications and nominates the proposed
national water trail for designation to the Secretary of the Interior (except on
or in cooperation with National Forests lands).
Announcement of New National Water Trail Designation
The Secretary of the Interior (except on or in cooperation with National Forests
lands) makes official designation of the new national water trail.