FAQs

Ice Age Trail marker.
Ice Age Trail marker. © Bart Smith

Frequently Asked Questions

  1. What is a trail?

  2. What is a "national trail?"

  3. Why is the Federal Government involved in trails?

  4. What is the difference between administration and management of National Scenic and National Historic Trails?

  5. What Federal agencies are responsible for administering trails?

  6. Do states get involved in the national trails?

  7. Who builds and manages trails?

  8. Where can I get funds for my trail?

  9. Where can I get additional information?



1. What is a trail?

There is no universal legal definition of a trail in the United States. One of the best, used for national recreation trails, is: ... a travel way established either through construction or use which is passable by at least one or more of the following, including but not limited to: foot traffic, stock, watercraft, bicycles, in-line skates, wheelchairs, cross-country skis, off-road recreation vehicles such as motorcycles, snowmobiles, ATVs, and 4-wheel drive vehicles.

2. What is a "national trail?"

National trails are officially established under the authorities of the National Trails System Act (16 USC 1241-51). There are several types:

National scenic trails are 100 miles or longer, continuous, primarily non-motorized routes of outstanding recreation opportunity. Such trails are established by Act of Congress.

National historic trails commemorate historic (and prehistoric) routes of travel that are of significance to the entire Nation. They must meet all three criteria listed in Section 5(b)(11) of the National Trails System Act. Such trails are established by Act of Congress.

National recreation trails, also authorized in the National Trails System Act, are existing regional and local trails recognized by either the Secretary of Agriculture or the Secretary of the Interior upon application.

3. Why is the Federal Government involved in trails?

Until 1968, the only Federal role in trails was to build and maintain those on Federal lands. The National Trails System Act of 1968 made it Federal policy to recognize and promote trails by providing financial assistance, support of volunteers, coordination with States, and other authorities. As a result, 11 national scenic trails (NSTs) and 19 national historic trails (NHTs) have been established by law (and are administered by the National Park Service, the USDA Forest Service, and the Bureau of Land Management, depending on the trail); almost 1,300 national recreation trails have been recognized by the Secretaries of Agriculture and Interior; and seven side-and-connecting trails have also been certified. In addition, other Federal statutes support and fund trails through programs such as FHWA's Recreational Trails Program and Transportation Enhancements programs, HUD block grants, and the NPS Rivers, Trails, and Conservation Assistance Program.

4. What is the difference between administration and management of National Scenic and National Historic Trails?

ADMINISTRATION

Trail-wide coordination -- Each National Trail, established by law, is assigned for administration to one or two Federal agencies by either the Secretary of the Interior or the Secretary of Agriculture, as designated by Congress. Subject to available funding, the administering agencies exercise trail-wide responsibilities under the Act for that specific trail. Such responsibilities include coordination among and between agencies and partner organizations in planning, marking, certification, resource preservation and protection, interpretation, cooperative / interagency agreements, and financial assistance to other cooperating government agencies, landowners, interest groups, and individuals.

MANAGEMENT

On-site jurisdiction -- Various government and private entities own or manage lands along each National Trail. Management responsibilities often include inventorying of resources and mapping, planning and development of trail segments or sites, compliance, provision of appropriate public access, site interpretation, trail maintenance, marking, resource preservation and protection, viewshed protection, and management of visitor use.

5. What Federal agencies are responsible for administering trails?

Every land-managing Federal agency has trails that provide access to their lands and waters. The 30 NSTs and NHTs created as part of the National Trails System cross numerous jurisdictions, with various segments managed by a variety of land owners or agencies. Each NHT and NST, however, is officially administered by the following agency or agencies:

Trail Name

Year Est'd

Authorized

Length (miles)

Adm. Agency

Appalachian NST

1968

2,158

NPS

Pacific Crest NST

1968

2,638

USDA-FS

Continental Divide NST

1978

3,100

USDA-FS

Oregon NHT

1978

2,170

NPS

Mormon Pioneer NHT

1978

1,300

NPS

Lewis and Clark NHT

1978

3,700

NPS

Iditarod NHT

1978

2,350

BLM

North Country NST

1980

3,200

NPS

Overmountain Victory

NHT

1980

275

NPS

Ice Age NST

1980

1,000

NPS

Florida NST

1983

1,300

USDA-FS

Potomac Heritage NST

1983

700

NPS

Natchez Trace NST

1983

95

NPS

Nez Perce (Nee-me-poo)

NHT

1986

1,170

USDA-FS

Santa Fe NHT

1987

1,203

NPS

Trail of Tears NHT

1987

5,045 (1)

NPS

Juan Bautista de Anza

NHT

1990

1,200

NPS

California NHT

1992

5,665

NPS

Pony Express NHT

1992

1,966

NPS

Selma to Montgomery

NHT

1996

54

NPS

El Camino Real de

Tierra Adentro NHT

2000

404

NPS & BLM

Ala Kahakai NHT

2000

175

NPS

Old Spanish NHT

2002

2,700

NPS & BLM

El Camino Real de

los Tejas NHT

2004

2,580

NPS

Captain John Smith

Chesapeake NHT

2006

3,000

NPS

Star-Spangled Banner

NHT

2008

290

NPS

Arizona NST

2009

761

USDA-FS

New England NST

2009

190

NPS

Washington-Rochambeau

Revolutionary Route NHT

2009

2,020

NPS

Pacific Northwest NST

2009

1,200

USDA-FS

(1) Includes both overland and water routes between Tennessee and Oklahoma.

6. Do states get involved in the national trails?

States vary widely in their interest in and support of national trails. Some have statutes modeled on the National Trails System Act; many have statewide trail plans and state trail coordinators. Most Federal NSTs and NHTs have ongoing cooperative agreements with States for the provision of motor tour route signs, law enforcement services, land protection, and other areas of common interest. Some States have dedicated revenue sources for trails and others subsidize trail maintenance because of the proven economic benefits these trails bring the State. For example, every State along the Lewis and Clark NHT organized a state council to help commemorate the Lewis and Clark Bicentennial in the years 2003-6.

7. Who builds and manages trails?

Most trails in America are publicly built and managed. However, most of the enduring ones occur in a partnership between agencies and concerned citizens. A classic of this kind is the Appalachian National Scenic Trail where thousands of volunteers each year contribute hundreds of thousands of hours to keep this trail clear, safe, well-marked, and well-monitored. The recent trend of converting abandoned railroads to recreational trails has been fostered by the largest national trails organization -- the 75,000-member Rails-to-Trails Conservancy -- linking citizen advocacy with state and county projects that have captured over 10,000 miles of former railbeds for trails.

8. Where can I get funds for my trail?

Funding for trails is now available from many sources. Some of the operating funds for each of the NSTs and NHTs can be made available through cooperative agreements to trail partner organizations. Many national trails have access to challenge cost-share project funds for trail projects.

The largest investment in trail projects since 1992 has come through the Department of Transportation through Federal transportation funding programs. For example, the Transportation Enhancements Program provided well over $1 billion for bicycle and pedestrian transportation projects (including many transportation trails), and the Recreational Trails Program provided $200 million for all kinds of recreational trails. There are many other potential funding sources for trails, including charitable foundations, corporations, permits and fees, local excise taxes, and dedicated funds.

9. Where can I get additional information?

Click here to get contact information for national program staff.

Last updated: January 16, 2018