Core components of the Potomac Heritage NST Foundation for Planning

Development of a "Foundation Document" is an opportunity to integrate and coordinate all kinds and levels of planning from a single, shared understanding of what is most important about the PHT network. The core components of the Foundation include a description of the PHT; the purpose, significance, fundamental resources and values; interpretive themes; special mandates; and administrative commitments; and an assessment of issues, planning and data needs, and associated study and data needs. In addition, a PHT "atlas" complements the Foundation, based on existing geographic information system data.
Description of the Potomac Heritage National Scenic Trail (PHT): The PHT, one of 30 Congressionally-designated scenic and historic trails in the National Trails System, is a developing, "braided" network of locally-managed trails and routes between the mouth of the Potomac River and the Allegheny Highlands. The authorized PHT corridor embraces portions of five physiographic provinces and four states, the Nation’s capital, and 20 other units of the National Park System. The PHT intersects with other national trails, which provides opportunities for cooperative trails development, resource conservation, partnerships, visitor services, interpretation, and sustainability. Collectively, trails and routes within the network offer a means to explore the origins and continuing evolution of the Nation. Locally and regionally, the national scenic trail designation is being used to increase economic and health benefits, expanded non-motorized transportation options, improve educational and interpretive experiences, and make connections between and among communities, historic sites, natural areas and parks.The PHT combines outdoor recreation with educational opportunities in a “braided” network of locally managed trails.

Partnerships permeate all aspects of PHT-related planning, management, interpretation and promotion. Legislation for the PHT—a 1983 amendment to the National Trails System Act—authorizes the designation of PHT “segments” outside the boundaries of federally-managed lands through formal agreements; the legislation precludes designation of PHT segments in West Virginia. The NPS is delegated, in the Departmental manual, responsibility for administration of the federal interest in the PHT; staff provides coordination among agency and organization partners, assists with some technical and financial support for PHT-related projects and manages use of the PHT insignia.

As the population within the PHT corridor increases and land uses change, the PHT designation provides an institutional framework—among volunteers, government agencies at all levels, nonprofit organizations, and business interests—for conservation and development of outstanding outdoor recreational experiences. In addition to resource conservation, outdoor recreation opportunities are increasingly recognized as an important component of local, regional, and state economies. From diverse regional perspectives, residents and visitors can explore a variety of historic and natural landscapes within the PHT corridor. Sites and features include working farms and orchards, canal systems, vineyards, historic home sites, museums, tidewater marshes, stream valleys, forested ridges, wildlife refuges, battlefields, and cemeteries. The concept of a “braided” network, with multiple trails intersecting and diverging at various points, provides the opportunity to promote different kinds of non-motorized travel, including hiking, bicycling, horseback riding, paddling and cross-country skiing.

Purpose: In 1983 Congress amended the National Trails System Act, designating the Potomac Heritage National Scenic Trail as a component of the National Trails System. Based on the legislation and the legislative history:

The Potomac Heritage National Scenic Trail designation provides a means to establish an inter-connected trail network between the mouth of the Potomac River and the Allegheny Highlands and offers, through varied partnerships, exceptional hiking and other non-motorized recreational and educational experiences rich with geographic, ecological, historical, and social diversity.

Significance: Statements of significance describe the distinctive nature of the PHT network and why the corridor is important within a global, national, regional, and systemwide context based on an understanding of the most important resources. With the Potomac River as the namesake and a primary resource, the PHT corridor and evolving network are significant in a national context:

  • The corridor designated for the PHT expresses George Washington’s vision of a “great avenue into the Western Country.” The first president’s association with the Potomac River strengthened his life-long goal of “the practicability of an easy and short communication between the Waters of the Ohio and Potomac.”
  • Increased environmental awareness in the second half of the 20th century has led to cleaner rivers and streams in the PHT corridor, with the Potomac River recognized nationally as a model of successful restoration and an ongoing challenge for sustained ecological health.
  • The great national conflict of the Civil War is reflected in microcosm within the Trail corridor, with the Potomac River often acting as a boundary between North and South.
  • The Trail provides outstanding opportunities for people to explore the connections and contrasts between and among diverse landscapes and the history and communities in five physiographic provinces.

Fundamental resources and values: Closely related to legislative purpose and are more specific than significance statements, the following are fundamental resources and values associated with the PHT network:

The Ecological Value of the Potomac and Youghiogheny River Corridors. The Trail corridor embraces a variety of important natural resources. Specifically, the corridor spans two major watersheds—the Potomac (the second-largest tributary to the Chesapeake Bay) and the Youghiogheny in the Upper Ohio River basin—and also includes portions of five physiographic provinces: Coastal Plain, Piedmont, Blue Ridge, Valley and Ridge, and Appalachian Plateaus. Three national wildlife refuges and a network of other wildlife management areas are also included in the corridor.

A Trek through America’s Heritage. Important historic sites, cultural and natural resources, and other attractions are within the Trail corridor that offer residents and visitors opportunities for outstanding educational and recreational experiences. Prominent features include the birthplaces of George Washington and Robert E. Lee, Westmoreland Cliffs, the National Colonial Farm, the City of Alexandria Historic District, Civil War battlefields and fortifications, national natural and historic landmarks, 20 units of the National Park System, historic canal and tunnel systems, the Great Falls of the Potomac, the confluence of the Shenandoah and Potomac Rivers at Harpers Ferry, the Great Allegheny Passage rail-trail, and the Laurel Highlands Hiking Trail following Laurel Ridge. Together, the experience of these resources reflect stories related to the founding and continuing evolution of the nation, as well as the tension in American society between conservation and exploitation.

Outstanding Recreation Opportunities. The PHT provides opportunities for non-motorized recreation in diverse settings ranging from a paved river trail through dense urban and suburban landscapes to a secluded footpath winding through forested lowlands and rocky hills. These recreation opportunities encourage people to explore nature, connect with history, find adventure, exercise, relax, and recharge.

Community and Agency Partnerships. Continued development of the PHT network depends on productive and mutually beneficial partnerships among a variety of parties including municipal, county, regional, state and federal agencies; community groups; nonprofit organizations; volunteers; and business interests. Collectively, the whole of investments in the trail concept is greater than the sum of its individual parts.


Interpretive themes define the most important ideas or concepts about the PHT network, derived from and reflecting purpose, significance, resources, and values; as an organizational tool, they reveal and clarify meaning, concepts, contexts, and values represented by PHT-related resources. Sound themes are accurate and reflect current scholarship and science; they encourage exploration of the context in which events or natural processes occurred and the effects of those events and processes.

  • Meeting Ground of Ideas. The Potomac Heritage National Scenic Trail relies on a network of mutually beneficial partnerships to develop and sustain a system of trails and associated resources for recreation, transportation, health, and education between the Chesapeake Bay and the Allegheny Highlands. Among its users and stakeholders, the Trail serves as a national meeting ground of ideas and practices, reflecting a desire for the conservation of lands and waters, for educational opportunities combined with outdoor recreation, and for a celebration of regional diversity and distinctiveness.

  • Natural History and Human Ecology. Between the Chesapeake Bay and the Allegheny Highlands, the Trail corridor includes portions of five distinct physiographic regions. Each region, in different ways, has inspired and shaped hundreds of human generations with beauty, abundance, and utility.
  • Nation-Building / Nurturing a Nation. Routes connecting the Potomac River with the Forks of the Ohio River provided an essential context for the development of the US republic, and now connect Trail visitors and users with the places and stories related to the founding and continuing evolution of the nation.
  • Boundary, Corridor, and Crossroads. As a boundary between north and south and an east to west route into the North American interior, the Potomac River has been a crossroads of opportunity, diversity, and conflict.


Special mandates are requirements specific to an administrative unit that must be fulfilled, based on enabling legislation, separate legislation, and/or through a judicial process. The following two mandates apply to PHT administration:

  • For all trails authorized under the National Trails System Act, the legislation directs that “A uniform marker system shall be established, with a distinctive and appropriate marker for each national trail. These markers shall be provided by the appropriate secretary to non-Federal landowners who shall erect and maintain them to set standards.”
  • Specific to administration of the federal interest in the PHT, the 1986 Omnibus Appropriations Act (Public Law 99-500) directed the Secretary of the Interior to recognize the Laurel Highlands Hiking Trail as a segment of the PHT network.

Last updated: January 29, 2018

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Potomac Heritage National Scenic Trail
c/o Chesapeake and Ohio Canal National Historical Park
142 W. Potomac St.

Williamsport, MD 21795


This phone will reach the main line for the C&O Canal National Historical Park.

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