National Trails provide affordable outdoor recreation that contributes to the overall health and well-being of millions of people nationwide. As an arterial network that connects urban and rural communities in all 50 States and Washington, D.C., the National Trails System attracts eco- and heritage tourism, providing a vital boost to local economies for communities on and adjacent to National Trails. These communities often serve as access points to Trails and local businesses provide hospitality and other services to trail users. Several nonprofit Trail organizations coordinate Gateway Communities or Trail Towns programs that enhance the symbiotic relationships between towns and trails to promote visitation, resulting in increased foot traffic and revenue for local businesses and greater notoriety for towns and trails. National Trails also provide the backdrop for incredible one-of-a-kind activities, including career building and professional training for outdoor workforces by engaging young professionals in America’s Corps networks and other career development programs. In these and other ways, National Trails not only connect people and communities to each other, while helping to make them healthier, more economically viable, and more resilient. In this section, we present a few of the ways that National Trails helped local economies to thrive, encouraged tourism, and provided community health benefits in 2021.
The Florida Trail Association (FTA) expanded the Florida National Scenic Trail’s Gateway Community program by adding the City of Crestview to the program and working with another 3 communities that are in the process of joining. They also added 5 stamp locations to their Gateway Communities Passport Program, which encourages Trail users to collect stamps from each Gateway Community they stop at during their journey along the Trail, and installed dedicated Gateway Community kiosks in Okeechobee and Oviedo, Florida to educate visitors to these areas about the Florida NST.
On the Star-Spangled Banner National Historic Trail (SSBNHT), a new mobile visitors center will engage under-resourced communities and remove barriers to learning about important events in American history by bringing the Trail to communities. The SSBNHT purchased a retrofitted step van similar to a delivery truck and is currently working to modify it with help from a $32,000 grant from the Maryland Heritage Area Authority. Modeled off of a similar project completed by the Captain John Smith Chesapeake National Historic Trail, the SSBNHT mobile visitor center will appear at various Trail locations and at public events and festivals to provide many of the functions of a visitor center, such as serving as a place for people to interact with a National Park Service ranger, pick up brochures about the Trail and other local heritage sites, and participate in education and interpretive programs.
Volunteers at the Trail de Flores chapter of the El Camino Real de Los Tejas National Historic Trail, on the other hand, worked to bring more people to the trail by organizing a group hike in Floresville, Texas in March of 2021. The organization also sponsored a National Trails Day event in June in collaboration with the Floresville Hike and Bike Trail Committee. Approximately 50 community members attend the event, and all appeared enthusiastic about the renewed emphasis on making the trail part of the community fabric, and for the potential of the Trail to be a stimulus for city growth. The National Trails Day event included a trail hike, information tables, an educational traveling exhibit, and remarks by local and chapter officials. The event was attended by the Floresville Mayor, City Council members, and City Manager, and was supported by the leadership team from the Floresville Economic Development Corporation.
Where hiking events were primary on the agenda for the El Camino Real de Los Tejas NHT and Ice Age NST, on the Natchez Trace National Scenic Trail (NTNST) cycling events took center stage. 2021 saw the revival of both the Tour the Trace ride, which invited 50 competitive cyclists to ride the entire 444-mile length of the Natchez Trace Parkway from Nashville, Tennessee to Natchez, Mississippi over the course of four days, as well as the Natchez Trace Century Ride organized by Ridgeland Recreation and Parks in Ridgeland, Mississippi. This year’s Century Ride invited cyclists to ride 8, 25, 50, 62, or 100 miles along the Natchez Trace Parkway and attracted more than 1,000 participants, including country music stars Luke Bryan and Dierks Bentley.
The Ice Age Trail Alliance’s annual Mammoth Hike Challenge motivated a growing number of new Ice Age National Scenic Trail users, long-time users, and out of state tourists to hike, run, or walk 41 miles as they visited the 15 designated Ice Age Trail Communities spread across Wisconsin. The Challenge was a way for outdoor enthusiasts to experience the State of Wisconsin while spending time on the Trail, celebrating the Ice Age NST and increasing tourism to Ice Age Trail Communities. Over 6,500 people registered for the Mammoth Hike Challenge and, with a 50 percent completion rate, participants spent more than $380,000 in Ice Age Trail Communities.
Along the Iditarod National Historic Trail, USDA Forest Service employees in the Chugach National Forest completed several construction and maintenance projects with the help of the Alaska Trail Stewards, who hosted volunteer events for maintenance work in both the Girdwood and Seward Ranger Districts. Of special note were the three large bridges constructed in the Turnagain Pass and Falls Creek area which now connect segments of the Iditarod NHT. Hikers in the area no longer have to cross challenging fords, making these trail segments more inviting and opening them up to greater use by residents of local communities. Maintenance work, including removing brush and making tread and drainage fixes, was funded in part by a State Recreation Trails Program grant.
Finally, in December 2021, the Nez Perce (Nee-Me-Poo) National Historic Trail (NPNHT) received a $130,000 grant from the USDA Forest Service’s Washington Office through the Native American Tourism and Improving Visitor Experience (NATIVE) Act to update and install interpretive signs focused on using the Nez Perce language and traditional place names along the Trail’s Auto Tour Route. Crafting interpretive messages on the new signage will begin with interviews and photography of elders and artwork will be prepared by Tribal artists. Soon, local youth volunteers will assist with sign installation and Interviews with and photography of elders will serve as a basis for crafting interpretive messages for the new signage, and artwork will be prepared by Tribal artists.
“Updating interpretive signs with Nez Perce language is an important step in asserting the Tribe’s presence and history in this area,” said Nez Perce Tribal Executive Committee Chairman Samuel Penney. “These places were often named based on their features or attributes, and the names do not come from historical figures, but rather our people were often named after these places,” Penney says.
When many people think of National Trails, they think of multi-day hikes through the wilderness. But, for most trail users, National Trails provide a welcoming retreat in the outdoors, be it urban or rural, for just a few minutes or hours at a time. Whether they spend a day, a night or live and work in ‘trail towns’, as destinations National Scenic and Historic Trails encourage people near and far to visit neighborhoods or towns they may not otherwise explore. In this way, trails boost the local economies of rural and urban communities across the U.S. serving as another example of how the National Trails System contributes to the overall health and prosperity of the nation.