These 3 Long-Distance Scenic Trails Have Joined the National Park System

The total number of U.S. national park units has been bumped up to 428 with the designation of these scenic trails: the Ice Age, the New England, and the North Country.

A stone staircase rising through the forest, surrounded by tree trunks and green plants, with a mountain lake in the distance

Wisconsin’s Ice Age National Scenic Trail cuts through Devil’s Lake State Park, which is known for its rugged terrain and memorable views.

Photo by MarynaG/Shutterstock

Three long-distance trails that connect people with some of the most spectacular northern landscapes in the United States have just received a promotion: They’re the three newest members of the National Park System.

There are currently 11 national scenic trails, which are defined as footpaths that extend for more than 100 miles through some of the country’s most beautiful terrain. Of those, five are controlled by the U.S. Forest Service and, as of December 8, six are under the domain of the National Park Service and recognized as official national park units.

These are the new national scenic trails:

  • The 1,200-mile Ice Age Trail spotlights the various river valleys, rolling hills, and lakes of Wisconsin. It got its name because it traces the path of the last continental glacier, which carved Wisconsin’s landscape into existence 15,000 years ago. Myriad glacial features, including moraines, drumlins, and eskers, are visible along the way.
  • The 235-mile New England Trail in Connecticut and Massachusetts spans from coastal areas to mountaintops, crossing through rural towns, glades, and valleys. It also passes a handful of historic colonial landmarks, such as the Henry Whitfield State Museum and the Hill-Stead Museum.
  • The 4,600-mile North Country Trail extends through eight states from Vermont to North Dakota, making it the longest scenic trail in the United States. Along the way, the varied terrain includes the Great Plains, the Lake Superior region, the Ohio River Valley, and the Adirondacks.

The three trails had previously been established by Congress and were overseen by the National Park Service—but they lacked the national park title. Wisconsin Senator Tammy Baldwin has been pushing for the new designation since 2014, when she introduced the National Scenic Trails Parity Act, which would give all national scenic trails overseen by the National Park Service national park status.

A wooden footbridge crossing over water reflecting trees, with green field on far side

Hikers on the North Country Trail will experience many types of terrain, including this footbridge that crosses over a river in the Hiawatha National Forest on Michigan’s Upper Peninsula.

Photo by ehrlif/Shutterstock

“The new status for the Ice Age, New England, and North Country national scenic trails will increase public awareness and use of these amazing pathways,” said National Park Service director Chuck Sams in a press release. “Their combined 5,500-plus miles travel through parts of 10 states and hundreds of communities, from large cities to rural towns, providing countless close-to-home opportunities for people to easily access green space and enjoy the benefits of outdoor recreation.”

By becoming official national park units, the trails will now have more access to federal funding and resources. It could mean that gaps in the trails (hikers currently walk on country roads between trail segments on each) would finally be completed. The Ice Age Trail, for instance, is only about half complete and currently includes more than 100 segments ranging from 1 mile to 15 miles, according to the Ice Age Trail Alliance.

“I think having the cachet that comes with being a national park unit, the resources that become available will help us close these gaps and meet our mission each day,” said Luke Kloberdanz, the executive director of the Ice Age Trail Alliance, at the virtual press conference announcing the designations.

The three new national scenic trails join three trails that are already part of the National Park System: the Appalachian, which stretches roughly 2,200 miles from Georgia to Maine in its eponymous mountain range; Natchez Trace, which spans 444 miles through Mississippi, Alabama, and Tennessee; and Potomac Heritage, which connects 710 miles of smaller trails in Virginia, Maryland, Pennsylvania, and the District of Columbia. The Appalachian Trail earned NPS status in 1968, whereas the other two were given the distinction in 1983.

An oxbow lake as seen from a hill, with rocks and trees in the foreground

This oxbow lake along the Connecticut River is visible from the Metacomet-Monadnock Trail, part of the New England National Scenic Trail.

Photo by Donna Carpenter/Shutterstock

With the addition of these three national scenic trails, there are now 428 national park units, a common term that encompasses the more than two dozen different name designations for national park land, including full-fledged national parks, national monuments, and national historical sites, among others. They add to the more than 85 million acres of protected public spaces across the United States and its territories.

In addition to the three national scenic trails, President Biden declared five new national monuments between 2022 and 2023. Those include Avi Kwa Ame National Monument in Nevada, Castner Range National Monument in Texas, Baaj Nwaavjo I’tah Kukveni National Monument in Arizona, and Emmett Till and Mamie Till-Mobley National Monument in Mississippi and Illinois. And there’s still a chance the U.S. could see its 64th national park in the near future. Ocmulgee Mounds National Historical Park has wide bipartisan support in becoming Ocmulgee Mounds National Park—Congress just hasn’t yet scheduled the vote to make it happen.

Bailey Berg is a freelance travel writer and editor, who covers breaking news, trends, tips, transportation, sustainability, the outdoors, and more. She was formerly the associate travel news editor at Afar. Her work can also be found in the New York Times, the Washington Post, National Geographic, Condé Nast Traveler, Travel + Leisure, the Points Guy, Atlas Obscura, Vice, Thrillist, Men’s Journal, Architectural Digest, Forbes, Lonely Planet, and beyond.
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