Happy 50th to the AT, PCT, and National Trails System Act
Who wants some birthday cake? (If you’re currently hiking a trail, that’s a definite yes). This year, 2018, is the 50th birthday of the National Trails System Act and the 50th anniversary of the official designation of the Appalachian Trail (AT) and the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT) as America’s first national scenic trails. This special designation also attributes the AT and the PCT as “the first elements of the national trail system.”
Around the country and online, 2018 is a celebration of national trails and October 1968 when President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the National Trails System Act. This legislation blazed a path for a nationwide system of hiking trails to include 1) national scenic trails, 2) national historic trails, 3) national recreation trails, and today (with an amendment) 4) side and connecting trails.
A Very Special Trail Anniversary
To celebrate, a network of partners created Trails50.org, an online community for organizing events and generating interest. Trails50 wants you to get “trail famous” by sharing photos of you and your favorite trail(s) on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, tagging friends (#FindYourTrail #Trails50), and telling the world why it’s your favorite trail. (I shared one here!)
Today the U.S. National Trails System is more extensive than when it was established, but still largely resembles its earliest days.
Starting in 1965, Johnson gave a speech suggesting the U.S. develop a system of 100,000-plus miles of trails in U.S. national forests and national parks. He applauded the “wise management”of the U.S. Forest Service and National Park Service (NPS) to assist in “…designating the initial elements of the National Trails System.”
Johnson said that America needed a system of trails for refuge, exercise and wellness for the “… forgotten outdoorsmen of today, those who like to walk, hike, ride horseback, or bicycle.” He said, “For them we must have trails as well as highways… Old and young alike can participate for fitness and fun.”
A President’s and a First Lady’s Influence
Despite many failures of Johnson’s presidency, a high point was his protection and advocacy of the environment, including 200-plus laws like the National Trails System Act, the Wilderness Act, the Land and Conservation Fund, the Wild and Scenic Rivers Program, the 1965 Highway Beautification Act, and many additions to the National Park System–Canyonlands National Park, Guadalupe Mountains, North Cascades National Park (part of the PCT), and Redwood National Park.
Perhaps the biggest influence on Johnson for a national trails system was his wife and first lady, Claudia “Lady Bird” Johnson, a passionate environmentalist and naturalist. Lady Bird pioneered highway beautification with wildflowers, preservation of natural resources, establishing new national parks and environmental protections. Her nickname was even a nod to her lifelong love of nature, which she called her “daily companion.” The environment–to include trails– she said is “…a mirror of ourselves, but a focusing lens on what we can become.”
A few months before signing the National Trails System Act, Johnson presented Lady Bird with 50 pens used to sign 50 pieces of important environmental legislation and a plaque that read: “To Lady Bird, who has inspired me and millions of Americans to try to preserve our land and beautify our nation. With love from Lyndon.” Lady Bird’s influence on Johnson for the legislation that pioneered a trails system is significant. Historians have said that, “There may be no single individual since (President) Theodore Roosevelt who has contributed more to this awakening than Lady Bird Johnson.”
Secretary Udall To Establish U.S. Trails System
A national trail system would (and still does) require significant federal and state cooperation. Johnson requested then-Secretary of the Interior Stewart Udall to “…work with his colleagues in the federal government with state and local leaders and recommend… a cooperative program to encourage a national system of trails, building up the more than 100,000 miles of trails in our national forests and parks.”
Udall established a committee headed by the Bureau of Recreation (then an agency within the Department of the Interior) to study existing trails across the country, how well they served Americans, and to suggest federal legislation for a national trail system. From that work, the Trails for America report was published in December 1966. And by October 1968, Johnson signed the National Trails Act and recognized the AT and PCT. “…Two national scenic trails, one in the East and one in the West… being set aside as the first components of the Trails System.”
Today, the National Trails System Act is slightly updated from its earliest structure — national scenic, national historic, and national recreation trails — to also establish connecting and side trails “…in both urban and rural settings for people of all ages, interests, skills, and physical abilities…” and to promote inclusivity and “the enjoyment and appreciation of trails while encouraging greater public access…”
Roll Call: Trail Count as of 2018
Today the national trails system includes 11 national scenic trails (including the AT and PCT), 19 national historic trails, and 1,200-plus national recreation trails. National scenic trails are land-based, extended trails of more than 100 miles that provide outdoor recreation “…for the conservation and enjoyment of the nationally significant scenic, historic, natural, or cultural qualities of the areas through which such trails may pass.” Like national parks, national scenic trails are designated by an act of Congress.
The Visionary and Architect of the AT
While the AT and PCT celebrate 50 years as national scenic trails this year, they are actually much older. The vision for the AT started in 1921 when Benton MacKaye, a Harvard-educated forester, government analyst, newspaper editor, and regional planner, envisioned a series of work, study, and farming camps from Georgia to Maine along the ridges of the Appalachian Mountains, connected by one single trail.
As a child, MacKaye preferred rural areas rather than urban centers. Originally he imagined a network of farms and wilderness work/study camps where city-dwellers could retreat on the weekends.
MacKaye’s wife died in the early development of the idea for the AT. After her death he devoted himself completely in 1925 at the Appalachian Trail Conference (which later inspired the Appalachian Trail Conservancy (ATC)). And then MacKaye worked tirelessly promoting his idea to friends and colleagues in the major East Coast cities–Washington, Baltimore, Philadelphia, and New York–but it was hikers, especially Myron Avery, who took up the cause starting in 1929.
Avery is known as the “architect of the AT,” a man with muscle and persistence who physically mapped and blazed the AT in the woods. He is remembered as tireless, demanding, and “completely dedicated” to the AT. He became president of the Potomac Appalachian Trail Club (PATC), chairman of the Appalachian Trail Conference from 1931 to 1952, and was the “doer” actualizing MacKaye’s dream and establishing a framework for how the ATC and trail clubs still exist today.
Avery summarized his own (and many others’) magnetism to the AT in the book In the Maine Woods. “…Follow the Appalachian Trail… for detachment, narrow for chosen company, winding for leisure, lonely for contemplation. It beckons not merely north and south but upward to the body, mind and soul of man,” he said.
The AT was officially completed in 1937 with Sugarloaf Mountain, Maine, as the initial Northern Terminus, and was later extended farther north to Mount Katahdin, Maine, where it ends today. It is considered a living trail that changes and grows in length over time.
The idea of hiking the entire trail end-to-end, or thru-hiking, was unplanned by MacKaye; but in 1948 WWII veteran Earl Shaffer hiked the entire trail from Georgia to Maine to “…walk the Army out of my system.” He later thru-hiked again in 1965 and 1998.
The Mother and Father of the PCT
Of many similarities that the AT and PCT share, one is the idea itself. The vision for the PCT was first introduced in 1926 by Catherine Montgomery, a schoolteacher in the Pacific Northwest who spent her free time hiking and who read about MacKaye’s idea in 1925 after the Appalachian Trail Conference met and thought the American West should have something similar.
Ironically, Montgomery’s vision for the PCT was long overlooked in historical accounts, but in 2010 she was recognized by the Northwest Women’s Hall of Fame for “the most enduring… vision of a hiking trail along the ridges of the Pacific Coast that she began to champion. Others took up the cause and, today she is justly called ‘the Mother of the Pacific Crest Trail.’”
Alongside Montgomery, Clinton C. Clarke is known as the “father of the PCT.” Clarke organized the Pacific Crest Trail System Conference in 1932 to promote the idea of a border-to-border trail from Mexico to Canada, and proposed it to the U.S. Forest Service (USFS) and National Park Service (NPS) and received approval to move forward with the trail plan.
The proposed route for the PCT largely avoided civilization and weaved through scenic, mountainous terrain of national forests and protected wilderness in California, Oregon, and Washington. The PCT was proposed as one continuous trail to connect new and existing trails, including the 445-mile Cascade Crest Trail in Washington, the 440-mile Skyline Trail in Oregon, and the 185-mile John Muir Trail (JMT) in the Sierra Nevada.
The PCT was officially completed in 1993 and passes through 25 national forests and seven national parks. And like the AT, the PCT is a living trail that grows and changes over time.
1968: A Year in Context
While the signing the National Trails Act and designating the AT and PCT as national scenic trails is important, so is the context of the country in 1968. The legislation was signed in the last month of Johnson’s presidency, a year rife with highs and lows, great tragedy and death.
Early in 1968, Johnson approved legislation increasing the maximum number of troops on the ground in the Vietnam War and soon after came the deadly Tet Offensive. 1968 ended as the deadliest year of the entire war for U.S. forces. In April, civil rights leader Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated; and by June, Attorney General and presidential hopeful Robert F. Kennedy was assassinated, sending the country into even deeper mourning.
In a recent article for Granite Gear, Liz Bergeron, executive director of the Pacific Crest Trail Association (PCTA), wrote, “With all that was going on… they could easily have let trails fall by the wayside. But these leaders seized a moment to build a lasting legacy regarding America’s amazing outdoor landscapes and what they provide in terms of recreation, public health, resource preservation and wildlife protection.”
Bergeron credits the official national scenic trail status as a boost to the AT and the PCT which “…cemented their iconic status, brought new funding and introduced a sense of urgency and dedication.”
The AT and PCT Today
Today the AT and PCT are free, all-season trails that can be hiked by anyone on any day of the year (weather discretion advised). One can hike for a mile, a day, a weekend, a long section, or a thru-hike. The AT is a footpath-only for hiking /walking only; while the PCT is a footpath for hiking and horses in some sections.
The ATC’s website calls the AT, “A place of life-changing discovery.” And the PCTA says the PCT, “…symbolizes everything there is to love—and protect—in the Western United States.” The concept and design of the AT and PCT are still looked to as models that influenced other trails in and outside of the U.S.
Today the AT is 2,190 miles of gorgeous, lush, eastern landscape. It crests the ridges, hills, and valleys of the Appalachian Mountains through 14 states, traveling through eight national forests, six national park units, two national wildlife refuges, 24 wilderness areas, eight national natural landmarks, and three national historic landmarks. It also passes through historic war battlefields and along portions of the Underground Railroad, where slaves found their way to freedom.
The trail is a unit of the National Park Service and is managed as a unique partnership between the public and private sectors led by the Appalachian Trail Conservancy (ATC) and includes the National Park Service, the U.S. Forest Service, dozens of state agencies, and 31 local trail-maintaining clubs.
The PCT is currently 2,650.1 miles from the Mexico to Canada through California, Oregon, and Washington. It is a grand, open, and showy trail that travels through desert, glaciated expanses of the Sierra Nevada, and dense forest and volcanic peaks of the Cascade Mountain Range. It crosses 26 national forests, seven national parks, five state parks, and four national monuments.
The PCT is managed by the U.S. Forest Service, in partnership with the National Park Service, the Bureau of Land Management, the California Department of Parks and Recreation, and the PCTA. And the PCTA’s partnership network includes 75 partners from federal, state, county, local agencies, conservation, and volunteer-minded nonprofits, businesses and retailers, schools and universities with one shared goal: to protect, preserve, and promote the trail as a national resource and treasure.
Building and maintaining the AT and PCT are are not only the result of pioneers like MacKaye, Avery, Montgomery, and Clarke, but also thousands of volunteers, trail clubs, federal and state agencies, the ATC, PCTA, and the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC), a 1930s New Deal initiative that contributed significant labor to building sections and infrastructure for both trails, including shelters on the AT.
Annual Feet on Trail
Since 1968, the AT and PCT have grown in length, popularity, and fragility. They are arguably two of the most well-known long-distance hiking trails around the world. It is impossible to count how many hikers step foot on trail each year, but both the ATC and PCTA try. We know with the publicity of books, films, the internet, and social media, the number of annual hikers is increasing fast. Best-selling books (both which were made into hit films)–“A Walk in the Woods” by Bill Bryson about the AT and “Wild” by Cheryl Strayed about the PCT–have contributed to rising visibility and popularity of the trails.
In 2017, the ATC estimated that two to three million people per year access the trail for a section or thru-hike; and the number of hikers attempting a northbound (Georgia to Maine) thru-hike doubled in the past seven years, from 1,460 hikers in 2010 to 3,735 in 2017. Another 600,000 trail supporters (businesses, trail angels, donors, members), 6,000 volunteers, 250,000 volunteer hours, and 250,000 acres protected on trail contribute to the AT’s existence.
In 2017, the PCTA estimated that more than one million people use the trail per year—if counting every person who steps onto some section of the trail. In 2016, PCTA reported that a total of 5,657 permits were issued for section and thru-hikers to “long-distance hikers and horseback rider… from all 50 states and 41 countries and territories.” The numbers do not include day hikers or weekend hikers.
It is advised (and cool!) for long-distance hikers to register their hikes with the ATC and PCTA for safe, accurate trail monitoring.
All Walkers Welcome
Because of an uptick in hikers on trail, many who read or saw “A Walk in the Woods” or “Wild,” Bergeron of the PCTA says, “We need to welcome those who are interested to the magic of the outdoors. We need to provide information on how to use the PCT safely and responsibly. We need to educate new users on Leave No Trace (LNT) practices. It’s our duty to welcome and educate people, not turn them away.”
Even the Federally Protected AT and PCT Still Need Protection
Johnson’s signature to “officially designate” the AT and PCT as national scenic trails provides federal protection and resources toward the trails, but does not fully protect them from ongoing threats. Protecting, promoting and preserving trails is complex—always has been, and probably always will be.
Creating trails and conserving them are usually the results of long-fought battles and many unified people. In addition to protecting or acquiring land, impact of footsteps on trail, the need to educate hikers on LNT, the AT and PCT face ongoing threats of development on or near parts of the trails.
As you read this, there are sections in need of ongoing advocacy and protection on the AT and the PCT from threats that could impact the hiking experience and fragile landscapes surrounding the trails. Some of the threats to the AT and PCT include electric transmission corridors, new or expanded highways and roads, poorly sited industrial wind farms and large scale natural gas pipelines, threat of mountain bikes on trail, climate change, clear cuts, inappropriate barriers and unsafe road walks, protecting viewshed or simply put, what you see from the trail as you hike and possible expiration of the Land and Water Conservation Fund).
For example, over the last year—in case you were hiking and off the grid, which happens to most of us while out there–sections on or near the AT, PCT, and other national scenic trails, were threatened by this list of national monuments under review for possible reduced size and protection for development opportunities like natural gas development.
Additionally, The Mountain Valley Pipeline proposed along the AT would carry fracked natural gas for 300-plus miles through the Virginia and West Virginia countryside along the trail. The pipeline is planned to parallel the AT for over 90 miles and will be an eyesore carving ugly, physical gashes in the landscape, cross dozens of water sources through protected areas, and breach the AT corridor. The PCT has 10 percent of the trail’s land unprotected from development and is fighting a contentious battle to prevent the use of mountain bikes on trail.
First Person Affected
In 2016 and 2017, I spent 315 days thru-hiking the AT (2016) and the PCT (2017). It took me six months to complete the AT and four-and-a-half months to complete the PCT.
Those miles and months were profound, formative experiences–something that my college degrees, living and traveling overseas, and a decade working in the professional world had not given me.
These trails humble us, ground us, connect us in a way that big, busy, and online places cannot. We learn to live simply, to confront the elements, to bow to animals, to befriend strangers, to keep moving forward, to enjoy simple pleasures, and to extend a hand to others.
Zip codes, bank accounts, and corporate hierarchies matter little on trail. Fresh air, good companionship, and integrity matter most on trail.
My hiking partner on the AT, Hatchet, once said to me, “You get a full range of people on trail and all that matters is that everyone’s ‘just a hiker.’ Grouping people as anything different isn’t what the trail is about.”
The Trail Effect
The truth is, the AT, the PCT, and all the trails in our national trail system are much more than paths to walk along. I think of this as “the trail effect.” Like a pair of glasses, once you wear them, they forever change the way you see the world and trails.
It is easy to walk the AT and the PCT and to think the trails magically exist. But that’s not how the trail story goes.
It took vision, hard work, volunteers, public-private partnerships, paid civil servants, generous landowners, money, and nimble nonprofits. And then in 1968 there was legislation for special notoriety.
Equally, it is easy to hike the AT or the PCT and to think it will always exist as you saw it at one moment in time. Maybe. We hope so, but it’s no guarantee.
The AT and PCT need money and people annually to do what Johnson’s pen could not do forever in 1968. The money and the hands do what it takes to keep the trails what they are –painting or hanging trail markers, cutting overgrowth and moving downed trees, supplying water where there is none, writing articles, educating hikers, advocating Congress, raising money, even fighting battles in court to keep them protected. And that’s just a short list of what’s required for these footpaths to be footpaths. And they require us. A lot of us.
Trails Make Stewards of Us
I spent a decade before my thru-hikes studying and working in environmental conservation. On trail I collected hikers’ stories for Sounds of the Trail podcast, and stories and photos for the PCTA’s P3 Program to help promote the ideas of stewardship–protecting, promoting, and preserving the trails.
Now, even after my thru-hikes are over, my stewardship stoke is at an all-time high because I know much more about how why, who, and how we have the AT and the PCT.
This year’s 50th is a good time to remind you that you and your trail stories matter in this conversation and for celebrating and protecting the trails.
Recently I’ve started to get involved as a volunteer for the AT and PCT–doing trail work, writing and sharing stories in print, in person, and on podcasts, and checking the ATC’s and PCTA’s website for opportunities. It’s taken a little time and courage but it’s been fun.
How to Stay Involved and Contribute to the AT and PCT
If you like to have your cake and eat it too, here are extra ways to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the National Trails System Act and the AT and PCT as national scenic trails. Join the party!
- Join/donate to the Appalachian Trail Conservancy.
- Join/donate to the Pacific Crest Trail Association.
- Volunteer for the AT, PCT, or other national trails – you don’t need to hike to volunteer.
- Write a thank-you note to a trail angel, business owner supporting the trails, the ATC or PCTA.
- Use your individual talents (writing, podcasts, speaking, etc.), business.
- Apply to work for a trail partner: National Park Service, U.S. Forest Service, Bureau of Land Management, U.S. Fish and Wildlife
- Practice Leave No Trace (LNT) on trails and educate your friends to do so.
- Organize 50th anniversary celebrations along trails and add to the event map.
- Subscribe to Backpacker Radio, The Trek’s new podcast.
- Share your trail stories in person — friends, family, colleagues, and in the community.
- Share your trail story online, with photos, videos, and podcasts for The Trek.
- Share your trail story in print, in blogs, newspapers, social media @trails50 #FindYourTrail
- Vote for public officials that care about protecting trails, public lands, and outdoor spaces for recreation.
- Read “Appalachian Trials” to get mentally ready for your next hike.
- Invite someone for a hike on the AT, PCT, or any local trail (and always practice Leave No Trace).
- Attend an ALDHA or ALDHA West gathering.
- Check out the Trails50 events, toolkit, and more on Trails 50.
- Buy some Trails50 trail swag for yourself or a fellow hiker.
- Spread kindness, acceptance, trail etiquette, andktrail Karma on and off trail.
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