National Recreation Trails - FAQs

Yes. Section 4 of the National Trails System Act of 1968, as amended (16 U.S.C. 1243), authorized the designation of National Recreation Trails (NRT) by the Secretary of the Interior and the Secretary of Agriculture as components of the National Trails System. The NRT system was intended by Congress to compliment National Scenic and Historic Trails (NSHT) by providing a national recognition program designed to elevate and promote State, local, and community trails for their local and regional significance.
The first NRT was designated in 1969. Currently, there are almost 1,300 NRT in all 50 states, including the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico.
The Secretary of Agriculture has the authority to designation NRTs only on U.S. Forest Service lands. The Secretary of Interior has the authority to designate NRTs on all other Federal, State and local lands with land owner consent.
National Scenic and Historic Trails (NSHTs) are legislatively designated by Congress and have a wide breadth of authorities, including land acquisition and financial assistance. NSHTs have a designated Federal land agency to administer and provide oversight for the trail. NSHTs require a comprehensive management plan. NSHTs must demonstrate national significance, usually involve some Federal lands, and often require a NPS-led study report to determine eligibility.

For NRTs, there is no designated Federal oversight responsibility, investment, management, or other involvement beyond the designation recognition. The program allows locally managed trails to be recognized for their contribution to the Nation’s system of public trail access and outdoor enjoyment. Many agencies, communities, and States pursue NRT designation to highlight the trail for tourism marketing, promote public access, and to recognize trails as a recreation amenity value for communities.
National Water Trails (NWTs) are a sub-category of the National Recreation Trail Program. The sub-category of “National Water Trails” was allowed through the National Trails Act and clarified by Secretary’s Order (SO) 3319 as a means to acknowledge the different management needs of land-based and water-based trails for access, recreation, visitor use and safety, as well as marketing and tourism purposes.
No. NRT designation does not have the potential or the authority to condemn or limit private land use. All designated trails must already have existing public access, legal easement, or fee title along the entire length of the land segment or along navigable public waters, in the case of a water trail. Public access includes trailheads or river access points. All jurisdictional “landowners” along the trail must document their support in writing as part of the application process. There is no real, implied, or intended additional restrictions on adjacent land use generated by Federal recognition other than what is already in place by the management entity, local zoning, or State law. NRT trails are often part of extended local trail networks and systems in place in cities, communities, and State entities. If a land owner of an existing NRT no longer wants to be part of the NRT Program, their status as a designated NRT will be rescinded. Acknowledgment of their removal from the program will be documented, and their trail will be removed from the NRT database.
No. All management and maintenance of the trail remains solely to the existing land manager / owner.
1) The trail must be open to public use, have no gaps, and be designed, constructed, and maintained according to best management practices, in keeping with the use anticipated.
2) The trail is in existence and will be available for public use for at least 10 consecutive years.
3) The trail is in compliance with applicable land use plans and environmental laws.
4) All public and private land owners of trail lands or waters who property the trail crosses have been notified and haven given written consent.
5) Trails on state, local government, or private land (anything other than Federal) must have a letter of support from their appropriate State Trail Administrator.

For non-U.S. Forest Service lands, DOI agencies, State entities and local communities around the country nominate their trail for NRT designation through an annual application process. Applications are accepted through November 1. After that time, it is the National Park Service's responsibility to review applications based on NRT criteria, supporting documentation, and field review to determine if nominated trails should be considered for designation by the Secretary of the Interior.

Last updated: June 4, 2020