Documenting the history of the National Trails System

by Steve Elkinton, Author, “A Grand Experiment: The National Trails System at 50” (2018, Palmetto Press)

Steve Elkinton, former National Park Service (NPS) Program Leader for the National Trails System, has compiled an illustrated history of how the System came about and how it has evolved since 1968. Maybe it was the national historic trail pieces of the System, or maybe it was NPS’s strong policy emphasis on historical resources; something led him to feel that he and his nationwide network of trail colleagues—Federal staff, organizational partners, and especially committed trail volunteers—were making history together.

“A Grand Experiment: The National Trails System at 50” is Elkinton’s attempt to document this remarkable history. It starts with the DAR and Ezra Meeker monumenting historic trail routes in 1906. Elkinton then threads together a variety of trends and personalities that led to the great wave of environmental and conservation laws that were passed by Congress in the 1960s. The National Trails System was not an afterthought, but actually the culmination of a series of laws over a decade that included the Wilderness Act, the Outdoor Recreation Act, the National Historic Preservation Act, the Wild & Scenic Rivers Act, and the National Environmental Protection Act.

The late 1960s were pivotal years in the nation’s history—the Vietnam War and protests against it wracked the nation; the Civil Rights movement and urban riots upset everyone; and environmentalism, the feminist movement, and the hippie, free love, and drug counterculture flowered. In the midst of all that, both houses of Congress each took the time in 1967 to hold two days of hearings to consider the idea of a national system of trails. And when the vote was taken in 1968, it was all but unanimous in both houses. President Lyndon B. Johnson signed it into law as one of his last official acts as president.

The nation shifts when political control of Congress and the White House change hands. Over five decades and 10 presidents, the National Trails System has evolved, reflecting changing trends. Well-organized volunteer-based trail organizations have often prevailed against seemingly impossible odds. This book does not trace the origin story of each of the 30 national scenic and historic trails. Instead, it concentrates on the actions and personalities that shaped the entire system.

In the years Elkinton worked on these trails, it began to truly function as a coordinated interagency effort. Meanwhile, trail nonprofits strengthened themselves, and many new ones were formed to support new trails. Federal agencies responsible for its various parts issued policies aimed at protecting and fostering these often fragile resource corridors. Importantly, the Partnership for the National Trails System was organized for effective systemwide advocacy. A new generation of trail workers came of age, trained others, and retired. Operating trails in partnership became an accepted practice on all sides.

What started as an experiment 50 years ago with just two interstate trails—the Appalachian and Pacific Crest national scenic trails—has now grown to 30 national scenic and historic trails totaling 55,000 miles of linear corridor and crossing 49 States and the District of Columbia. This is a remarkable story well worth celebrating.

“A Grand Experiment” is published by Palmetto Press and is due for release in mid-September. Once the author’s expenses are paid, all further proceeds from this book will benefit the Partnership for the National Trails System. For copies, contact Steve Elkinton at

Unless otherwise indicated, all material in Pathways Across America is public domain. All views expressed herein are perspectives of individuals working on behalf of the National Trails System and do not necessarily represent the viewpoint of the Federal agencies.