Ribbon cutting celebration to officially open the Willamette River Water Trail.
Ribbon cutting celebration to officially open the Willamette River Water Trail.

The Willamette River Water Trail came about through the dedication of diverse partners and now facilitates hundreds of people getting out and enjoying the beauty of this stretch of river each year. Photo courtesy: NPS.

Paddling, whether you're young or old, is a great way to enjoy the water with family and friends.
Paddling, whether you're young or old, is a great way to enjoy the water with family and friends.

The National Water Trails System provides a variety of experiences from the water. Some water trails flow through urban city centers and others meander past natural areas. Photo courtesy: NPS/Steve Bowes.

Paddling is a way to get up close to the water and explore its environs, like the quiet of this natural area.
Paddling is a way to get up close to the water and explore its environs, like the quiet of this natural area.

Kayakers enjoy the wetland by boat. Photo courtesy: Eric Vance/EPA

What is the National Water Trails System?

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 and collaboration.
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 by
  • establishing a national system of exemplary water trails.
  • becoming a catalyst for protecting and restoring the health of local waterways and surrounding lands.
  • building a community that mentors and promotes the development of water trails and shares best management practices.
Water trails are recreational routes on waterways with a network of public access points supported by broad-based community partnerships. Water trails provide both conservation and recreational opportunities.

National Water Trails: Who Designates Them? Who Manages Them?

Designation Authority

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 trails.
RTCA coordinates the following functions undertaken by the interagency collaborative group:
  • 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

What are the National Water Trail Criteria and Best Management Practices?

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 as follows:
  1. 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.
  2. The trail is in compliance with applicable land use plans and environmental laws.
  3. The trail will be open for public use for at least 10 consecutive years after designation.
  4. 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 must 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 practices.

What Are the Benefits of National Water Trail Designation?

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 watershed resources
  • 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 to share 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.

How Do I Apply for National Water Trail Designation?

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 trail managers.
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.
Initial Review 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.