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By Steve Elkinton, Program Leader
National Trails System Program, National Park Service, Washington, D.C.

photo of people walking along outdoor displays
Celebrating the Bicentennial of the Lewis and Clark Expedition (NPS Photo)

This year, 2006, brings to an end the bicentennial commemoration of the Lewis and Clark Expedition. This 3-year chain of events took place along the 2,700-mile Lewis and Clark National Historic Trails. Historic trails are often not backcountry footpaths nor front country paved bikeways. Historic trails are usually a complex set of ruts, traces, special events, historic structures, historic and prehistoric petroglyphs, and— most importantly— stories across the landscape.

Along the route that Lewis and Clark and their companions followed from 1804 through 1806, today's travelers can find a wealth of evocative resources. Lemhi Pass sits astride the Continental Divide and provides a crossing with the Continental Divide National Scenic Trail. It was at Lemhi Pass that Lewis and Clark realized that the way west was full of mountains and that it would be many weeks before they might descend safely to the Pacific Ocean.

photo of canoe paddlers in historic dress

". . the road took us to the most distant fountain of the waters of the Mighty Missouri in surch of which we have spent so many toilsome days and wristless nights. Thus far I had accomplished one of those great objects on which my mind has been unalterably fixed for many years, judge then of the pleasure I felt in allaying my thirst with this pure and ice-cold water . Here I halted a few minutes and rested myself. . . After refreshing ourselves we proceeded on to the top of the dividing ridge from which I discovered immence ranges of high mountains still to the West of us with their tops partially covered with snow . . . here I first tasted the water of the great Columbia river . . ." —(Journals of Lewis and Clark, ed. DeVoto 1997, pp. 188-189)

America's national historic trails come in many shapes, sizes, and partnerships. For some, much of the resource base is intact. For others, almost nothing remains. Some have been obliterated by urbanization. Others look as if the pioneers left yesterday. Some provide outstanding recreational opportunities today; others may be quite dangerous or boring. However, of the 24 long-distance trails established by law as components of the National Trails System so far, 2/3 (16) are historic trails, totaling over 28,000 miles in combined lengths.

Historic Trail Year Established Total Route Length (in miles)
Oregon NHT 1978 2,000
Mormon Pioneer 1978 1,300
Lewis and Clark 1978 3,700
Iditarod 1978 2,450
Overmountain Victory 1980 270
Nez Perce (Nee-Me-Poo) 1986 1,170
Santa Fe 1987 1,200
Trail of Tears 1987 2,052
Juan Bautista de Anza 1990 1,200
California 1992 5,665
Pony Express 1992 1992 1,855
Selma to Montgomery 1996 54
El Camino Real de Tierra Adentro 2000 404
Ala Kahakai 2000 175
Old Spanish 2002 2,700
El Camino Real de los Tejas 2004 2,500

These 16 trails cross 31 states, linking together hundreds of visitor centers, state parks, and historic towns. Most are held together by auto tour routes that approximate the historic route of travel. Many of the newer ones (established since 1980) are still in various stages of development, so signing systems and visitor services may not be fully in place.

photo of covered wagon with rock formation
Pioneer wagon at Scottsbluff, NE, on "the way west" (NPS Photo)

National historic trails are complex. Some involve resource protection. Some are brought alive through interpretive facilities. Some offer outstanding hikes and other recreational experiences. Some are largely inaccessible and may involve large tracts of private lands. One, the Iditarod National Historic Trail in Alaska is best experienced by dogsled.

Volunteers are the backbone of national historic trails. The National Trails System Act encourages volunteers to take part in trail planning, to build and maintain trails, to conduct research, to map and promote the trails, to monitor and protect resources, to raise money for the trails— and they do. Many groups that support historic trails are divided into chapters so that local groups can respond to local issues.

National historic trails commemorate some of the most gripping chapters in America's history. They identify the authentic routes for re-tracing the footsteps of the pioneers, the flight of Indian peoples seeking freedom, the daring-do of Pony Express riders, the demands of African Americans for fair voting practices. Additional routes currently under study highlight the 400-year old explorations of Captain John Smith in the Chesapeake Bay, the route of French and American troops that merged together to end the American Revolution and birth the United States 225 years ago, and War of 1812 maneuvers (mostly in 1814) that led to the writing of the Star Spangled Banner. As American history unfolds, the appetite for historic trails only seems to grow.

photo of people walking along beach

Hikers on the Ala Kahakai NHT on Hawaii's Big Island (NPS Photo)

Historic trails occur on both land and water, flat lands and mountains, rural areas and cities. In fact, America's national historic trails are found in 15 major cities over 400,000 in population (two in Los Angeles and four in greater Kansas City, MO). In some of these metropolitan areas, these trails have become organizing elements for urban greenways and trail systems.

The Lewis and Clark Bicentennial not only gives us a chance to reflect on how America's western landscape has changed since 1804, it has also offered many lesson about how valuable historic trails can be in linking communities, inspiring school children, studying economic benefits, planning special events, and bringing together America's rich and diverse cultural heritages. At their best, national historic trails encourage discovery, healing, and renewal.

Further Reference

Cordes, Kathleen Ann, 1999, America's National Historic Trails, Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 370 pages, illustrated.

Scherer, Glenn, 2002, America's National Trails — Journeys Across Land and Time, Guilford CT: Globe Pequot Press for American Hiking Society, 88 pages, illustrated.

Thompson, John, 2001, America's Historic Trails, Wash., DC: National Geographic Society, 199 pages, illustrated.

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