Blog Post Jennifer Errick, Linda Coutant Feb 29, 2024

The Longest Trail in the National Park System

The National Park System offers more than 21,000 combined miles of trails through some of the most magnificent parts of the country, from remote wilderness paths to interpretive walking tours along city streets. Which trail is longest? 

Three national scenic trails became national park sites in late 2023, doubling the number of long-distance scenic trails in the National Park System.

Six scenic trails now stretch through multiple states, totaling more than 9,200 miles across varying landscapes and hundreds of communities, both urban and rural. Parkgoers are drawn to these trails for both their natural wonders and cultural history.

The three new national park units previously had been part of the National Scenic Trail System, a network that includes national historic trails, such as the Trail of Tears, and recreation trails. These pathways are administered and managed by various federal agencies, as well as state and local governments, Tribes and nonprofit organizations.

Which of the six point-to-point, scenic trails managed by the Park Service is the longest? Consider the choices:

Among the three newest national park sites, the Ice Age National Scenic Trail in Wisconsin, established in 1980, crosses a landscape carved by the last huge glacier that covered North America. The New England National Scenic Trail in Connecticut and Massachusetts, federally designated in 2009, offers vistas of the region’s natural and cultural landscape — from the shores of Long Island Sound to scenic mountain summits. The North Country National Scenic Trail, designated by Congress in 1980, showcases the varying landscapes of the northern tier of the U.S., including the Lake Superior region, Adirondacks, Ohio River Valley and North Dakota plains.  

The Appalachian National Scenic Trail, built by private citizens in the 1920s and designated as part of the Park Service in 1968, passes through 14 states along the highest ridgelines from Georgia to Maine. The Natchez Trace National Scenic Trail, added to the Park Service in 1983, parallels the Natchez Trace Parkway and cuts through the wetlands, swamps and hardwood forest of Alabama, Mississippi and Tennessee. Natchez Trace had been a transportation artery for people for thousands of years.

The Potomac Heritage National Scenic Trail, added to the Park Service in 1983, meanders through four states and provides access to ecosystems within five distinct geographic regions.

Think you know which is the longest?

At a whopping 4,600 miles across eight states, the North Country National Scenic Trail will win the prize for the longest trail once it is complete. The trail’s entire route is currently walkable — from its eastern terminus on the Green Mountain National Forest in Vermont to Lake Sakakawea State Park in North Dakota — but there are some gaps where the Park Service does not control access to the land. Users proceed from one section of completed trail to the next on shoulders of roadways, referred to as “road walk,” said Superintendent Chris Loudenslager.

The continuous route covers sections of Michigan, Minnesota, North Dakota, New York, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Vermont and Wisconsin.

Billed as “a treasure in your own backyard” by the North Country Trail Association, this scenic corridor offers hikers rugged shorelines of three Great Lakes, farmlands and prairies, tree-lined country roads, glacial valleys, rushing streams and steep waterfalls. The majority of trail work over the years has been performed by hundreds of volunteers organized into more than two dozen chapters along the trail.

Because parts of the trail cross lands managed by other organizations, government agencies or private owners, the Park Service must develop route plans for each existing gap with those managers and owners and find workers to build and maintain the new sections before the North Country trail is technically “complete” — all of which takes time, Loudenslager said.

So, how far reaching are the other Park Service long-distance trails?

The shortest is Natchez Trace at just over 60 miles. The New England trail measures 235 miles. The Appalachian Trail stretches 2,190 miles. The Ice Age trail totals nearly 1,200 miles, with the Potomac not far behind with 924.

Changing the status for the Ice Age, New England and North Country national scenic trails from the National Scenic Trail System to the National Park Service will increase public awareness and use of these pathways, according to a Park Service news release.

National Park Service Director Chuck Sams said the trails offer “countless close-to-home opportunities for people to easily access green space and enjoy the benefits of outdoor recreation.”

There are two trails in the U.S. that are even longer, but they are not part of the Park System. The California National Historic Trail, which is part of the National Scenic Trail System, covers 5,665 miles across 10 states. It is not a continuous traditional trail from end to end — rather, it covers a variety of paths from different starting and ending points 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. It consists of many trail traces, structures, graves, landmarks and markers left on the landscape.

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 become an official part of the National Trails System if supporters have their way — they are urging passage of the National Discovery Trails Act. The ADT Society, a nationwide non-profit organization, manages the trail.

Learn more about where you can hike in the National Park System.    

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About the authors

  • Jennifer Errick Managing Editor of Online Communications

    Jennifer co-produces NPCA's podcast, The Secret Lives of Parks, and writes and edits a wide variety of online content. She has won multiple awards for her audio storytelling.

  • Linda Coutant Staff Writer

    As staff writer on the Communications team, Linda Coutant manages the Park Advocate blog and coordinates the monthly Park Notes e-newsletter distributed to NPCA’s members and supporters.