A seemingly endless series of storms has turned much of the U.S. into a nation of shut-ins, so it comes as more than just a breath of fresh air that the mercury is beginning to rise above freezing: it's an invitation to dig those hiking boots out of the closet and hit the trails.
For hundreds of people this time of year, that trail begins in Springer Mountain, Georgia and ends some 2,180 miles later on the top of Mount Katahdin in Maine. It's the Appalachian Trail we're talking about and it's arguably the most famous long-distance trail in the world, holding a place on nearly every serious hiker's bucket list.
Because of its iconic status and proximity to major population centers on the East Coast, the A.T. draws millions of day-hikers annually. But as popular as it is, it's not alone.
The Appalachian Trail is one of eleven national scenic trails formally recognized by the federal government. Ranging from the 4,600-mile North Country Trail down to the relatively short New England Trail (around 200 miles), these trails provide mostly unbroken access to the best of the American landscape, whether that might be the high peaks of Colorado, the swamps of Florida, the Grand Canyon or countless other sights.
The first two of these trails, the Appalachian and Pacific Crest trails, were created by the National Trails System Act of 1968, which established a nationwide network of recreational, historic and scenic trails.
Amendments added nine more national scenic trails to the list, the latest being in 2009 when President Obama signed a land management act establishing the New England, Arizona and Pacific Northwest trails.
The routes vary widely in terms of difficulty. The Continental Divide Trail, remote segments of which are unmarked, is among the most challenging long-distance trails in the world. Meanwhile, the Natchez Trace Trail, defined mostly by a road, is hardly a trail at all.
Most are incomplete-some have hundreds of miles of roadside connector routes-but they all have a few elements in common: they are at least 100 miles long, they are for non-motorized use and they were established by act of Congress.
And as the law states, they "provide for maximum outdoor recreation potential and for the conservation and enjoyment of the nationally significant scenic, historic, natural, or cultural qualities of the areas through which such trails may pass."
North Country Trail
Created in 1980, America's longest scenic trail extends 4,600 miles through seven states, from central North Dakota to New York's border with Vermont, only 40 miles short of the Appalachian Trail. (The North Country Trail Association is pushing Congress for a connector trail.) Uniting what the association calls "America's red plaid nation," the trail passes close to 40 percent of America's population, and yet is rustic for much of its length, winding through more than 160 public land units, from prairies of Sheyenne National Grasslands in North Dakota, to the shores of Lake Superior; through the hills of southern Ohio and past New York's Finger Lakes to the heart of the Adirondacks.
Credit: Flickr/National Parks Explorer
Natchez Trace Trail
The Natchez Trace was a 440-mile footpath used for centuries by Native Americans and traders, and later developed as a vital corridor between the Mississippi River and what is now Nashville, Tennessee. Commemorated as the Natchez Trace Parkway, a scenic two-lane road from Natchez, Mississippi to Nashville, the route was designated as a national scenic trail in 1983. Although some portions are on the original sunken footpath, only five disconnected segments totaling 65 miles are actual off-road trail.
Credit: Flickr/Preserved Light by Caillum Smith
Pacific Northwest Trail
Officially recognized in 2009, the Pacific Northwest Trail begins in Glacier National Park, and roughly follows the Canadian border for 1,200 miles to the westernmost point in the contiguous 48 states, Cape Alava on the Olympic Peninsula. On its way it links the Continental Divide Trail (which also ends in Glacier National Park) to the Pacific Crest Trail, creating a continuous path from Mexico to Canada and back. Threading its way through thick forests of Douglas fir, the trail traverses several major mountain ranges-the Rockies and Cascades among them-before island hopping in Puget Sound and crossing the temperate rainforests and mountains of Olympic National Park, reaching its western terminus on the rocky, remote Wilderness Coast.