Creation of Trails

It’s easy to take trails for granted. But each trail has a story, whether it was originally a game trail or built by the Civilian Conservation Corps in the 1930s. Sometimes the history of the trail you’re taking can add to your experience.

Early Trails

Native peoples, often following animal tracks, established the earliest network of trails. These were multi-use trails. Native Americans used trails for activities like hunting, warfare, trade, and ceremonial purposes.

Then Europeans arrived and began to move westward. Some Native American trails became migration routes. With heavy use, the trails widened for carts and eventually became permanent trails or roads. Around 250,000 emigrants used the California National Historic Trail in the 1840s. And about 70,000 Mormons from 1846-1869 followed the Mormon Pioneer National Historic Trail.
Historic black and white photo of four Native Americans sitting on horses with a mountain and mountain lake in the distance.
Native Americans were the first to establish trails, some of which are still used today by park visitors and staff.

NPS Photo

Tourist Trails

By the late 1800s, land protection and recreational hiking were rooted in American politics and society. In the Northeast, hotel companies built footpaths as part of their facilities. And in the West, similar hotel trails were designed to guide stock and pack trains into remote country. In California’s Yosemite Valley, a network of tourist trails began in the 1850s. This trail system expanded as the area became a state park in 1864 and then later a national park in 1890.

Railroads began to spring up across the country. Early hotel operators built extensive trail systems on their properties. A private entrepreneur built the Grand Canyon’s Bright Angel Trail in 1890 as a toll trail. It received greater use after the arrival of the railroad in 1901. In Montana, the Glacier Park Hotel Company constructed a horse trail network in the 1910s. This network linked tourist chalets and tent camps. The 163-mile trail system consisted of three loops, and it earned Glacier the title of America’s “Trail Park.”
historic black and white photo of people standing next to the Colorado River at Grand Canyon National Park
Early visitors explored nature by trail. In this 1906 photo, visitors hiked to the bottom of the Grand Canyon via the Bright Angel Trail.

NPS Photo

Standardized Design: The Heyday of Trail Building

In the 1920s and 1930s, the NPS developed trail design and construction standards. Designers put an emphasis on master planning or development plans for parks. They created integrated networks of foot trails, horse trails, road systems, visitor facilities, and park buildings. Constructed features were to be “laid gently on the land,” to blend in with the setting and native materials of the park. Builders used wood, stone, and clay and rustic building techniques to create bridges, culverts, and retaining walls. They avoided straight lines and right angles in all aspects of design. NPS landscape architects preserved 19th century naturalistic design principles on a grand scale.

The NPS constructed two main types of trails. The first type were narrow, rough trails. Usually they were cut along the line of least resistance and were used by park staff to track game animals and areas vulnerable to wildfires. The second type were tourist trails that led park visitors through attractive scenery. Ideally, these trails were four feet in width and didn’t exceed a 15 percent grade. By 1932, the NPS had built more than 700 miles of tourist trails in 15 parks. This included 216 miles in Glacier National Park in Montana and 150 miles in Sequoia National Park in California.
historic black and white photo of three women wearing period clothing sitting on a rock wall next to a standing park ranger and horse looking at distant mountains.
An elaborate trail system in Glacier National Park took visitors deep into its wild interior and earned the park the title of America's "Trail Park."

NPS Photo / George A. Grant

A third type of trail was the “wildflower garden trail.” Park staff constructed these trails near visitor facilities at the earliest national parks. They usually showcased the native flora, such as Castle Crest Wildflower Garden at Crater Lake National Park.

Trail development flourished during the 1930s. During this time, workers built many trails on state and federal lands. Federal programs such as the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) and Works Progress Administration (WPA) combined conservation and economic relief. Relief crews carried out projects all over the country under strict guidelines for trails and related structures. These tight controls on design and construction made the trails both beautiful and durable. The large crews of young men developed a set of skills that could be passed on to the next generation of trail builders and maintainers.
historic black and white photo of a group of CCC boys at a tent camp.
The Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) was instrumental in trail development. These young men worked for the CCC during the summer of 1933 in Glacier National Park.

NPS Photo / George A. Grant

End of an Era

With the onset of World War II, the crews disbanded. Without regular maintenance, many trails fell into disrepair during the 1940s. Other trails were left incomplete or were poorly routed and then soon abandoned. Learn how trails have been managed and maintained since then.

Last updated: July 8, 2024