Q: The National Park System has 18,000 miles of trails through some of the most magnificent parts of the country, from remote wilderness paths to interpretive walking tours along city streets. It also offers some of the most challenging hikes in the country. Can you name the longest trail in the National Park System?
A: The National Trails System is a network of some of the longest trails in the country, administered and managed by various federal agencies, including the National Park Service, the Forest Service, and the Bureau of Land Management. Many of these trails span multiple states and geographic regions, leading travelers through scenic vistas and significant historic sites. The National Trails System includes 21 trails that are more than 1,000 miles long, including popular thru-hiking routes such as the Appalachian Trail and the Pacific Crest Trail. It also includes a number of smaller trails with historic and regional significance.
But which is the longest? It depends how you measure it. The national trail with the most trail-miles is the California National Historic Trail, which covers 5,665 miles across ten states. This trail commemorates the paths that thousands of emigrants took in the 1840s and 1850s, often by wagon, from the Midwest toward the Pacific in search of gold and opportunity. However, this historic trail is actually a series of separate routes that measures about 2,000 miles from east to west and covers a variety of alternate paths from different starting points and ending points—by design, it is not a single point-to-point trail.
The longest point-to-point trail entirely within the National Park System is the North Country Trail—or it will be, when the trail is officially complete. The planned route will measure 4,600 miles from North Dakota to upstate New York, traveling through the Great Lakes region and highlighting the natural features and cultural history of the North Country region. Interested in seeing the trail, but not up for quite that kind of distance hike? The North Country Trail Association is celebrating the Park Service centennial this year with a more manageable challenge: Hike just 100 miles, in as many visits and as many places as you choose on the trail over the course of 2016, and the association will send you a commemorative patch and a certificate through its Hike 100 Challenge.
It’s worth noting that neither of these trails, despite their enormous size, is actually the longest in the country—just the longest among those administered by the National Park Service. The American Discovery Trail is a 6,800-mile route that travels from coast to coast across 15 states and boasts the longest distance of any U.S. trail. This trail could also become a national park site if supporters have their way—legislation introduced earlier this year proposed adding the trail to the National Trails System, though the bill has yet to pass.
Note: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated that the Trail of Tears had the most trail-miles in the National Park System, though it is in fact several hundred miles shorter than the California National Historic Trail. We regret the error.
About the author
Jennifer Errick Managing Editor of Online Communications
Jennifer co-produces NPCA's podcast, The Secret Lives of Parks, and writes, edits and moderates online content.