The Forest Service began building trails in the 1890s, when the national forests were first set aside as forest reserves. Those trails were not scenic walks, but designed as the quickest way between two points and built primarily for communication and fire fighting activities. Random trails created by the consistent use of visitors to access scenic areas were not of much concern to the early Forest Service. A 1915 Forest Service publication, Trail Construction on the National Forests, discerns the two types of trails:
In the days before telephones and radio, Forest Service trails were the means of
communication between remote stations. Travel and communication was done
primarily by horseback, and packhorses were used to deliver supplies to distant
lookout towers. Especially during fire season, efficient trails were essential
to move men and equipment quickly. The value of the road and trail system to the
Forest Service was recorded in each yearly Report of the Chief, the
annual report of the Forest Service. Included were the amount of road and trail
mileage constructed that year, the total miles of roads and trails, and the
distribution by state of the budget appropriation for roads and trails.
Foresters and packhorses ready to hit the trail, Okanogan National Forest, Washington, 1909.
During World War II, the national forest road and trail system was considered a
national security asset. Access to the timber was critical for the war effort as
it provided material for many war-related necessities, including shipping
containers, cots, and airplane propellers.2
One Forest Service document, assessing the potential value of the national
forests road and trail system for the military, stated: "It can furnish a
supplementary transportation system in the mountain regions, especially in the
West, which is largely screened from the air and therefore not as liable to
bombing as the open trunk highways."3
Trails for Recreation
The first edition of Trail Construction on the National Forest (1915)
defined trails as transportation routes for pack animals and classified them
according to their forest management use: as main trails, secondary trails, and
branch trails.4 In the second edition
(1922), the categories were more specific and included the "Purpose of Trails:
(a) Fire control; (b) administrations: (c) grazing: (d) recreation."5 Clearly the recreational use of
trails was beginning to be a consideration in trail planning, although to a
"Recreation trails will ordinarily be constructed only where the need is made
clearly apparent by public demand or by existing heavy use of trails over which
travel is very laborious or difficult."6
Based on the Forest Service annual reports, it was not until the mid-1930s that
trails were considered purely in terms of recreational value, particularly for
their scenic attributes. The Report of the Forester, 1933, is the first
annual report to include hiking as an activity in the report on recreational
use. It is included in a group labeled "motorists, horsemen, hikers, etc."7
CCC crew at work on trail to top of Notch Mountain, Grand Mesa National Forest, Colorado, 1933.
The following year saw extensive infrastructure improvement and construction by
the Civilian Conservation Corps and other work relief programs of the Depression
era, which would continue into the early 1940s. Among the many construction
efforts undertaken were trails designed specifically for hiking. A 1934 plan
described the aesthetic goal:
"In trail construction (recreational trails) it should be the idea to make them
as inconspicuous as possible. In this way their effectiveness should be
increased, and the pleasure obtained from walking over such a trail should be of
the highest quality. Ordinarily speaking, trails should go from one point of
interest to another as directly as it is reasonable in keeping with the
conformation of the ground."8
A National Trail System
During the era of relative prosperity of the 1950s and 1960s, the popularity of
hiking continued to grow. Demand for all aspects of outdoor recreation was
surpassing the available resources for national as well as state and local
governments. In 1958 Congress formed a special commission, the Outdoor
Recreation Resources Review Commission (ORRRC), to take a comprehensive look at
current recreational resources as well as future needs. The commission spent
three years gathering data and studying trends, working with local and state
governments to survey existing recreation resources.
Their 1962 report discussed the benefits of outdoor recreation for increasing
the health and wellbeing of American citizens, and reiterated the importance of
including recreational use in management policies at all governmental levels.
This report paved the way for such significant legislation as the Wilderness Act
(1964) and the National Wild and Scenic Rivers Act (1968), which set aside large
sections of undeveloped land to ensure there would be wild places for future
generations to enjoy.9
Hikers on the Black Angel Trail, White Mountain National Forest, New Hampshire, 1958.
In direct response to the findings of the ORRRC, President Johnson gave a speech
on February 8, 1965.10 In it he
called for a national system of trails, as well as a national wild rivers system
and for full funding of the Land and Water Conservation Fund. A national trail
study was begun and the resulting report, Trails for America, was
published in 1966. Congress passed the National Trails System Act in 1968 with
In order to provide for the ever-increasing outdoor recreation needs of an
expanding population and in order to promote public access to, travel within,
and enjoyment and appreciation of the open-air, outdoor areas of the Nation,
trails should be established (i) primarily, near the urban areas of the Nation,
and (ii) secondarily, within established scenic areas more remotely located.11
This act of Congress established four major trail systems, national recreation
trails, national scenic trails, national historic trails, and connecting or side
trails. The Appalachian Trail and the Pacific Crest Trail were designated as the
first national scenic trails. Management of the national trail system trails
falls to the agency with administrative responsibility for the majority of land
on which the trails lay, usually with the National Forest Service or the
National Park Service.12
In 1978 Congress passed an amendment to the original act that created 4 national
historic trails and added the Continental Divide Trail as a national scenic
trail.13 By 2014 the national trail
system included 30 national scenic or historic trails, and over 1,100 national
1970s – Increasing Demand for Trails
During the 1970s, recreational use of national forest trails reached new levels
of popularity. By 1976, the Forest Service was spending $5.7 million on trail
maintenance and more than $3 million for trail construction each year. A trail
assessment underway in the 1970s suggested that approximately 50 percent of all
trail miles were not in adequate condition. The Forest Service's 1977 statistics
showed more than 10.5 million visitor-days on a 97,000-mile trail system (a
visitor-day equaled one visitor for a 12-hour period). With the increasing
popularity of its trails, the agency was also finding increasing numbers of user
conflicts - between backpackers and horsepackers, for example, or motorcyclists
and hikers - as well as needs for more trail maintenance, visitor education, and
improved trail design.
Forest Service chief John McGuire pointed to many of these issues in a 1977
speech: "When most National Forest trails were built, utility and speed were the
prime considerations - not esthetic appeal or quality of the recreational
experience. Often, trails were located along canyon bottoms to take advantage of
flatter ground and easier construction. Many are snowbound early and late in the
season, susceptible to erosion, and costly to maintain. They also provide little
opportunity for scenic vistas, and sometimes lie in the paths of avalanches."
McGuire proceeded to emphasize that public demands on trails could cause
problems. "Nor were these trails designed for all-comers. They were generally
meant for occasional use by experienced people and pack and saddle animals.
Motorized vehicle use was not anticipated. Nor was safety a great concern. Nor
was the sheer volume of use that we see today. . ."
Trails for the Future?
Surveys of recreational users conducted over several decades show that interest
in hiking has continued to grow in the 21st century, albeit at a slower rate
than the last decades of the 20th century.15
Providing trails to meet the increase in demand, as well as maintain them, has
long challenged the Forest Service. Advocates for outdoor recreation have been
critical of Forest Service management of its trail resources, although most
blame lack of congressional funding more than management policies.16
Concerns about the condition of existing trails and the large backlog of
maintenance in the late 1980s prompted the Congressional Subcommittee on
National Parks and Public Lands, Committee on Interior and Insular Affairs, to
request the General Accounting Office (GAO) to review the issue of deferred
maintenance on Forest Service trails. The committee chair felt that deferred
trail maintenance was resulting in the loss of valuable recreational
opportunities to the American public, as well as a financial loss of capital
Footbridge at Tinker's Cave Recreation Area, Wayne National Forest, Ohio, 1937.
The GAO report found inadequate fiscal funding from 1981-1987 led to the large
backlog of deferred maintenance, as well as unfulfilled new trail construction
projects. The Forest Service reported that in 1988 the backlog totaled $195
million. Service personnel indicated funding had been inadequate for the
previous decade, and budget limitations had led to a sharp decline in skilled
trail personnel. The report continued that Congress had increased funding from
19.7 million in 1987 to over $36 million in 1988 and 1989, which allowed for
many maintenance and reconstruction issues to be addressed, but would not
provide for construction of new trails.17
In 1991 hearings were held by the Congressional Subcommittee on National Parks
and Public Lands on the management of America’s recreational trails. A statement
presented to the subcommittee by the associate deputy chief of the National
Forest System highlights the agency’s dependency on public-private partnerships
to expand and maintain recreational trails under their jurisdiction.18 The partnerships included
volunteers, hiking clubs, and local governments and businesses.
According to a 2013 conducted by the U.S. General Accounting Office in response
to a Congressional request, the total mileage of national forest trails used for
recreation and management in 2012 was 158,000. For that year the agency
performed maintenance on 37 percent of trails, while only 26 percent met the
Forest Service standards for condition. For 2012 the allocated resources were
$81.9 million, while the estimated amount required to fully address trail
maintenance needs totaled $523.7 million.19
Accelerated Public Works (APW) workers constructing nature trail, Mark Twain National Forest, Missouri, 1963.
According to Forest Service reports, the allocation for trails generally goes to
basic maintenance of existing trails rather than upgrades or new trail
construction. Volunteers and outside partners remain an essential means of
maintaining and expanding existing facilities, and the advocacy work of out-door
clubs and environmental groups, as well as local citizens and businesses,
continue as important force in calling for more funding for trail construction
and maintenance. Because of recurring budget constraints the Forest Service has
continued to rely on the help of volunteers and outside partners for maintenance
and enhancements to the national trail system.20
Additional information on hiking and trail building in the national forests can
be found using the Forest History Society
as well as additional webpages on recreation in the national forests, hiking,
backpacking, the national trail system, and the long trails.
CCC enrollees at work building the Glen Ellis Falls Trail in New Hampshire, 1938.
•Daigle, John J., Alan E. Watson and Glenn E Haas.
National Forest Trail Users: Planning for Recreational
Opportunities. Research Paper NE-685. Radnor, PA: U.S. Department of
Agriculture, Forest Service, Northeastern Forest Experiment Station, 1994.
•Lucas, Robert C. and Robert P. Rinehart. "The
Neglected Hiker" Backpacker Magazine 4 (1976): 35-39.
•Roth, Denis M.
The Wilderness Movement and the National Forests:
1964-1980. [Washington, D.C.]: U.S. Dept. of Agriculture, Forest
•Roth, Denis M.
The Wilderness Movement and the National Forests: 1980-1984.
[Washington, D.C.]: U.S. Dept. of Agriculture, Forest Service, 1988.
•U.S. Forest Service.
Trail Construction on the National Forests.
Washington, DC: Government Printing Office, 1915.
•U.S. Forest Service.
Trail Construction on the National Forests.
Washington, DC: US Department of Agriculture, Forest Service, 1923.
•U.S. Forest Service.
Forest Trail Handbook. Washington, DC: US
Department of Agriculture, Forest Service, July 1935.
•U.S. Forest Service.
Backpacking in the National Forest Wilderness...A Family
Adventure. Washington, DC: US Department of Agriculture, Forest Service,
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1 US Forest Service. Trail Construction on the National Forests. (Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Agriculture, 1915), 8.
2 Manuscript, "The Timber Production War Project," Forest Service History Collection, Forest History Society [no date, no author].
3 Manuscript, "Forest Roads and Trails: Aerial Surveys," Forest Service History Collection, Forest History Society [no date, no author].
4 US Forest Service. Trail Construction on the National Forests. (Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Agriculture, 1915), 8.
5 US Forest Service. Trail Construction on the National Forests. (Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Agriculture, 1922), 5.
6 US Forest Service. Trail Construction on the National Forests. (Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Agriculture, 1922), 6.
7 US Forest Service. Report of the Chief of the Forest Service. (Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Agriculture, 1933), 28.
8 Maughan, Kenneth. "Recreational Development in the National Forests : A Study of the Present Recreational Use and a Suggested Plan for Future Development Together with a Recreational Management Plan for the Wasatch National Forest, Utah," Bulletin of the New York State College of Forestry at Syracuse University VII (May 1934): 97-98.
9 Olson, Brent A. "Paper Trails: The Outdoor Recreation Resources Review Commission and the rationalization of recreational resources," Geoforum 41 (2010): 447.
10 Johnson, Lyndon B. "Special Message to the Congress on Conservation and Restoration of Natural Beauty," speech, February 8, 1965, accessed October 24, 2014.
11 Public Law 90-543, 90th Congress, S 827, October 2, 1968, "To establish a national trail system, and other purposes."
13 Public Law 95-625, 95th Congress, November 5, 1978, "National Parks and Recreation Act of 1978," accessed October 30, 2014.
14 "National Trail System Facts and History," American Trails, accessed October 24, 2014.
15 Cordell, H. Ken. Outdoor Recreation Trends and Futures: A technical document supporting the Forest Service 2010 RPA Assessment, Southern Research Station, USDA Forest Service (2012), 33-35.
16 "National Forest Trails," Wilderness Society, accessed October 22, 2014; and Rob Burbank, "Trails in Trouble," Appalachian Mountain Club, accessed October 22, 2014.
17 Parks and Recreation: Maintenance and reconstruction backlog on national forest trails. Report to the Chairman, Subcommittee on National Parks and Public Lands, Committee on Interior and Insular Affairs, House of Representatives, United States General Accounting Office, 1989, accessed June 23, 2015
18 Henson, Larry. "Concerning Recreational Trails in America, October 31, 1991, Statement of Larry Henson Associate Deputy Chief, National Forest System, Forest Service, United States Department of Agriculture, before the Subcommittee on Energy and the Environment; Subcommittee on National Parks and Public Lands; Committee on Interior and Insular Affairs; United States House of Representatives," 1991, Forest Service Collection files, Forest History Society.
19 "Report to Requestors: Forest Service Trails," U.S. Government Accounting Office, June 2013, accessed October 24, 2014.
Written by: Nancy C. Nye, special
projects, Forest History Society.