Accessibility and Awareness 2021 Highlights

When immersed in a trail experience, it is simple to overlook the many hands and hours of labor need to create and maintain treasured public lands. Projects like removing obstacles on trails, refurbishing historic buildings, or temporarily reviving a historic route often occur without great fan-fare or out of the public eye, but the results of these efforts elevate the visitor experience, increase trail user safety and increase accessibility to National Trails. The following highlights illustrate recent work that was done to preserve history, improve visitor experience, offer new adventures on trails, and draw increased attention to National Scenic and Historic Trails.

 The Potomac Heritage National Scenic Trail (PHNST) celebrated the opening of a system of mountain biking trails at Locust Shade Park in Prince WIlliam County, Virginia in November 2021. The new trail system was the result of 5 years of collaboration between the Mid-Atlantic Off-Road Enthusiasts and Prince William County’s Department of Parks, Recreation and Tourism with funding from REI and the National Park Foundation and labor contributed by numerous volunteers. The mountain biking trails are distinct from the PHNST hiking trails. They include routes for beginning and advanced riders and are the first of their kind in northern Virginia, promising to attract new outdoor enthusiasts to the PHNST.

Eliminating an obstacle for trail users was the goal when the USDA Forest Service San Bernardino National Forest used explosives to remove several large boulders that had been blocking a 12-foot-by-12-foot section of the Pacific Crest National Scenic Trail (PCNST). The section of trail at milemarker 172.5 of the PCNST had been obstructed since a 2019 landslide. The Pacific Crest Trail Association, American Conservation Experience, and the Redshank Riders Unit of the Backcountry Horsemen of California assisted a small team lead by a certified blaster from the Lake Tahoe Basin Management Unit of the USDA Forest Service blasted boulders and cleared a path to make passage easier for trail users. Forest Service Volunteer Association volunteers provided additional support to ensure no trail users entered the area during the blast operation. 

On the Pacific Northwest National Scenic Trail, the Pacific Northwest Trail Association (PNTA) was able to complete more trail maintenance and construction on the ground in 2021 than ever before. They accomplished this feat by adding additional crews and skilled Technical Advisors to assist with project oversight and implementation, including expanding the organization’s Performance Trail Crew program to include the largest number of youth and young adult participants in PNTA history. To attract and retain a larger crew, PNTA reduced traditional barriers to inclusion in trail stewardship by paying all participants a living wage and providing field-based meals and transportation to job sites.  They also offered access to a gear library to ensure that program participants were well-equipped while working in the Trail’s remote settings. Technical Advisors enriched the learning experience for crews by training them on and assisting them in the completion of advanced projects, such as building puncheon bridges in remote locations using materials harvested on site.

2021 saw the reintroduction of the National Pony Express Association’s annual Pony Express National Historic Trail Re-Ride from Old Sacremento, California to St. Joseph, Missouri. The roughly 2000-mile ride took ten days to complete with riders traveling non-stop on horseback 24 hours a day, regardless of the weather. Commemorative letters were carried by about 900 riders and horses from all eight states along the Trail. Since the event was canceled in 2020 due to COVID, the letters from 2020 and 2021 were delivered together. With so many letters to deliver, a horn bag had to be placed on the horses’ saddles in addition to the typical mochila bag used to carry the letters on horseback. INSP, a cable television channel dedicated to westerns, purchased 10 commemorative letters to be delivered during the re-ride and held a giveaway of those letters to promote their “Young Riders” series, which is based on the riders of the Pony Express. 

Also on the Pony Express National Historic Trail, the National Park Service and the Utah Division of the National Pony Express Association repaired and refurbished the replica of the “Lookout Pass” station located at “This is the Place Heritage Park”, adjacent to the Fairbanks Pony Express Memorial. Volunteers cleaned and trimmed shrubs, removed brush, and repaired the structure’s roof. They also added a park bench, stained the cabin, and installed lighting.

Selma to Montgomery National Historic Trail celebrated the commencement of a long awaited and much repair project to restore Brown Chapel in Selma, Alabama with a well-attended groundbreaking event. Brown Chapel stands at the western terminus of the Selma to Montgomery NHT and marks the starting point of the famous march from Selma, Alabama to the State capital of Montgomery which led to the signing of the Voting Rights Act by President Johnson in August of 1965.  

On the Oregon National Historic Trail, the Idaho State Historical Society reopened, updated and refurbished Rock Creek Station/Stricker Ranch Park near Twin Falls. This location was a camp site on the Oregon Trail. It also was the site of one of the first stores to provide goods to emigrants, and was later a stage station and farm.

Another preservation effort took place on the Lewis and Clark National Historic Trail. After the format of video files gathered from a 2003-06 National Park Service touring exhibit entitled the ‘Corps of Discovery II: 200 Years to the Future’ became obsolete, Lewis and Clark National Historic Trail staff oversaw a contract to redesign and update the website that housed the files. The potential loss of content included Tribal presentations given by American Indian elders, scholars, historians, and community members inside the exhibit’s ‘Tent of Many Voices’. To ensure that the content could be preserved, video clips were converted to mp4 format and captions were added. Ultimately, the new design and improved functionality will help keep this valuable collection open and accessible for teachers, historians and the public for years to come.

On the Natchez Trace National Scenic Trail, one man’s effort to raise money for charity drew significant attention to the Trail. After being diagnosed with a potentially terminal brain tumor, 61-year-old Scott Williams of Little Rock, Arkansas took up cycling after years away from the sport in an effort to recover from brain surgery. During his training, he decided to cycle the entire 444-mile length of the Natchez Trace Parkway in an effort to raise money for former Olympic figure skater and cancer survivor Scott Hamilton’s charity, the Scott Hamilton CARES Foundation, and the Central Arkansas Radiation Therapy Institute. Williams reconnected with and was joined on his 11-day ride by three friends with whom he had cycled two sections of the Parkway in high school. Hamilton even joined for a portion of the tour, which raised nearly $30,000 and resulted in numerous news articles.

The Connecticut Forest & Park Association hosted an AmeriCorps National Civilian Community Corps team in the fall of 2021. The team learned trail building and carpentry skills while assisting with two major projects on the New England National Scenic Trail (NENST). The crew built over 1,000 feet of bog bridging in order to preserve year-round access to an area that is seasonally flooded while also reducing the impact of trail users on the land.The National Civilian Community Corps team also assisted with a trail relocation on Lamentation Mountain. 

Whether working to increase safety and accessibility, to repair or refurbish a historic structure, or to archive information to ensure future generations are able to access it, trail organizations, volunteers, and professionals made significant gains in 2021 to make the 30 National Scenic and Historic Trails more inviting and safer for diverse visitors while also attracting new trail users by increasing public awareness of the National Trails System. It is with the help of efforts like these the National Trails System will be sure to continue to grow, reach new audiences and delight tens of millions of visitors year after year.