There are a jaw-dropping million miles of scenic, recreational and historic trails crisscrossing the United States. These pathways provide rich travel opportunities, preserve our nation’s natural and cultural history, and improve community health. And especially over the past couple of years, they’ve provided us with refuge and connection.
In many ways, volunteers are crucial to this system. They perform most of the crew work on many trails, including some of our most iconic, because public land agencies’ budgetary constraints limit staff positions and equipment — and the need is growing.
“With increased usage, trails need more regular maintenance and cleanup, so we need more volunteers,” said Kate Van Waes, executive director of the American Hiking Society.
The 30th annual National Trails Day is June 4. Led by Silver Spring, Md.-based American Hiking, with partner agencies and organizations, the day is an occasion to celebrate and steward trails and public lands. There will be more than 330 events, including guided hikes, presentations, cleanups and music festivals. Everyone, whether a sidewalk explorer or a thru-hiker who traverses long-distance trails, can participate.
In 2019, National Trails Day set a trail service world record, with 1,164 events and 41,424 participants. And despite the coronavirus pandemic, last year included 565 events, 36,398 participants and 274 miles of improvements. (The 2020 celebration was canceled.)
About 10 events are planned in the Washington area, including a family-friendly Rock Creek Park hike that American Hiking board member Tiffanny Williams is organizing. Williams started hiking after an injury sidelined her from competitive running. In 2019, she started a group for women of color, Honeydipped Hikers, to share her enthusiasm for nature and help make trails accessible and inviting to everyone, especially people who might not otherwise feel welcome.
Williams coordinates three or four meetups a month, with 10 to 15 women joining each hike. “Most women who come out with us for the first time have little to no experience hiking or using trails, so they’re really excited,” she said. “Afterward, they’re so happy they came and look forward to the next hike.”
Caring for miles and miles of trails
Numerous federal, state, local and private landholders manage trails and keep their own data, so it’s difficult to calculate total mileage. American Trails, a nonprofit that advances trail and greenway development, conservatively estimates that about 1.069 million miles of trails spread across the country. That’s about 43 times around the planet, more than two round trips to the moon or 1,425 pairs of worn-out hiking boots, assuming a 750-mile life span.
About 194,100 miles of trails are on federal lands, with the U.S. Forest Service holding 158,000 miles, the most of any federal agency. States manage 350,000 miles, and local and private agencies another 525,000 miles.
Trails can be found on city sidewalks (the Asheville Urban Trail in North Carolina), in spectacular landscapes (the Appalachian National Scenic Trail) or following in the footsteps of history (the Selma to Montgomery National Historic Trail in Alabama). The National Trails System, established in 1968, is a great resource for finding some of the most iconic pathways in the country.
Serving all kinds of outdoor enthusiasts
According to the Outdoor Foundation’s 2021 Outdoor Participation Trends report, 57.8 million Americans are hikers, but the trail community is even broader. Mountain bikers, runners, horseback riders, skiers, climbers and nearly everyone else who enjoys the outdoors use some kind of trail. Paddlers can use water trails, including those in the national recreation system.
Machiko Yasuda, who hikes in California’s Angeles National Forest and now helps engage volunteers, emphasized the variety of outdoor enthusiasts who engage with nature and each other when using the trails. “There are birding groups, native plant groups, mountain biking trail maintenance groups, every kind of group. It’s a welcoming committee for people who want to learn about all these parts of the forest.”
Since waterfalls and a rattlesnake captivated her during her first hike in the San Gabriel Mountains, Yasuda has introduced about 30 of her friends to the area. Many of her favorite hikes link public transit with local paths that lead to backcountry trails and even the 2,650-mile Pacific Crest National Scenic Trail, which winds through California, Oregon and Washington.
On National Trails Day, Yasuda will be at the Angeles National Forest’s Cobb Estate trailhead, distributing stewardship kits that include trash grabbers, garbage bags and maps that reflect wildfire-related route changes — and highlight the new Trail Angeles site that connects volunteers with projects in the San Gabriel Mountains and national forest, where usage soared at popular destinations such as Eaton Canyon Trail during the pandemic.
Dealing with skyrocketing usage
Trail-related activities such as hiking have grown in popularity for more than a decade but skyrocketed during the pandemic, surging by more than two times in some areas. The Outdoor Participation Trends report revealed that, in 2020, 160.7 million Americans ages 6 and over participated in at least one outdoor activity, an increase of 7.1 million over 2019.
Those numbers are still elevated. Rails-to-Trails Conservancy found that, in 2021, trail use remained 36 percent higher than in 2019, including on the 2,297 rail-trails across the country.
“Especially over the last couple years, more people have realized the importance of getting outside and discovering their local trails, as well as keeping them clean and funded,” said American Hiking’s Van Waes. “Just being outside and moving on your own power provides physical and mental health benefits.”
Trails do more than create healthier communities; they drive tourism and economic growth. According to the Outdoor Industry Association, a trade group, 4.3 million jobs depend upon the $689 billion outdoor recreation industry.
But that, in turn, encourages more use, which stresses public lands, especially in places where an influx of inexperienced and unprepared trail users have damaged fragile areas and created waste, as well as infrastructure, parking and safety issues — burdening stewards, other users and search-and-rescue operations.
These challenges underscore the need for volunteers who can perform vital educational and repair work, as well as help land managers mitigate the already substantial effects of climate-change-fueled wildfires, storms, drought and erosion.
Rebeca Rodriguez is such a volunteer. Her experience trekking popular Phoenix trails led her to help build new, nonmotorized segments along the Arizona National Scenic Trail, which stretches 800 miles across Arizona between its borders with Utah and Mexico.
“Trails are much busier, so we need to kick our responsibility up a notch in terms of keeping them clean and leaving no trace,” said Rodriguez, who has been volunteering for six years. “Through volunteering, I get to be outside, meet great people who care about public lands and learn about parts of Arizona that I wouldn’t have explored on my own.”
Improving access to trails
Another focus of volunteers is the disparity in outdoor access that still keeps people off trails. A 2021 report from the nonprofit Trust for Public Land found that majority-minority neighborhoods have about less than half the park space of majority-White neighborhoods. And according to the Outdoor Participation Trends report, nearly 75 percent of outdoor activity participants are White. People with lower incomes may lack transportation to trails, and many trails aren’t accessible for people with disabilities.
National Trails Day participants are working to overcome these barriers. In Evergreen, Colo., a team of about 100 volunteers will be creating a 16,000-foot loop trail at Elk Meadow Park that accommodates mobility devices.
“Even small things can make a big difference, and these obstacles can easily be addressed for our visitors who experience disabilities,” said Mathew Martinez, volunteer services specialist for Jefferson County.
Building a trail is just one option for helping. Volunteering can be as simple as picking up trash on your walks, following Leave No Trace principles, donating, participating in maintenance days or supporting legislation that protects public lands and increases trail funding and access, such as the Transit to Trails Act. AmeriCorps and volunteer.gov offer opportunities, and American Hiking provides volunteer vacations and has a list of about 200 organizations that involve people with stewardship.
“Check out what’s out there in your local area,” Martinez said. “Often people come out for the mission, then stay for the community they join.”
Williams is a writer based in Oregon. Her website is erinewilliams.com.