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The United States National Scenic Trails are a collection of eight hiking trails in the US that are protected by federal law. These trails are renowned for their beauty, abundant flora and fauna, and historical significance. Acting with the US Bureau of Land Management, the National Parks Service and the US Department of Agriculture Forest Service, Congress plays a part in maintaining the trails and reviewing new candidates for scenic trail status.
In 1968, the United States Congress passed the National Trails System Act in recognition of the country’s need to protect and maintain certain significant hiking trails. The original act named two trails as part of the National Scenic Trails designation, the Appalachian and Pacific Crest trails. Since that time, six more trails have received the designation and a seventh, the New England Trail, is under committee review.
The shortest trail in the National Scenic Trails system is Natchez Trace, which runs throughout Tennessee, Alabama and Mississippi for over 400 miles (643 km.) The route has high historical significance, as it follows a trail carved by Native American tribes and later used by frontier explorers and early postal services. The trail also contains the death place of Meriweather Lewis, of the famous exploring duo Lewis and Clark.
In 1983, Congress approved three new National Scenic Trails, one of which being the Potomac Heritage Trail. The 700 mile (1126 km) trail, when completed, will connect historically significant sights in Virginia, Maryland, Pennsylvania and the District of Columbia. As of 2008, significant portions of the trail have not been completed, but the finished plans include a variety of landscapes and locations for hiking, horseback riding and even canoeing the trail.
The Florida National Scenic Trail winds through the entire state, from the panhandle in the north down through the swampy southern half. Originally envisioned as a 500 mile (804 km) hike, the trail has grown to over 1400 miles (2300 km.) Highlights of the trail include Big Cypress National Preserve and the Northern terminus at Fort Pickens. Lucky hikers may spot some of Florida’s unusual fauna, including the elusive manatee.
The efforts of US Senator Henry Reuss and native Wisconsonian Ray Zillmer are credited with the creation of the Ice Age Trail in Wisconsin. The trail will span 1200 miles (1931 km,) as of 2007 about half is completed. The Ice Age Trail gives hikers a close encounter with the effects of glaciation on landscape. Unlike many other trails, this National Scenic Trail intersects towns frequently, making it easier to plan rests and resupply stops while on the trail.
The “triple crown” of American hiking is made up of the Appalachian Trail, the Pacific Crest Trail and the Continental Divide Trail. Each of these National Scenic Trails is over 2,000 miles (3218 km) long and run vertically through the country. Hardy thru-hikers attempt to hike one of the trails in a single season, but only a handful have ever successfully completed all three trails. The fastest time recorded for a triple crown hike was 240 days, completed in 2005 by British endurance hiker Matt Hazley.
When completed, the North Country National Scenic Trail will cross the eastern United States, from New York to North Dakota. The trail will run approximately 4,600 miles (7402 km,) making it the longest hiking trail in the United States. On its path, hikers will cross ten national forests, two wildlife preserves and 57 state parks.
Each of the eight National Scenic Trails has parent trail associations, which are always in need of volunteer efforts. If you are interested in maintaining the trails, be sure to contact one of the local organizations in the area to see how you can help. Hiking the trails is a unique American experience, but potential hikers should research carefully to determine if it is a good idea for them. Remember these trails are not controlled environments, and the wise hiker takes several months to prepare to prevent accidents from occurring.