America’s National Historic Trails (NHTs) provide time-travel portals. In the words of the National Park Service, a NHT is “a long-distance route that follows and commemorates historic paths of travel that changed the history and character of the U.S.” Traced by car, boat, bicycle, or hiking trail, these corridors partly get their power from the scenery they encompass: depending on the specific location, scenery striking because of how changed it is since the period the trail references, or because of how seemingly unchanged it is.
There are currently 19 NHTs managed by the National Park Service, Bureau of Land Management, U.S. Forest Service, and other agencies. Not all are historic hiking trails per se, but all offer some form of foot-powered recreation and appreciation. The following seven representative historic trails have been chosen for the wonderful scenery along their routes as well as the diverse geographies, cultures, and stories they evoke.
This 175-mile corridor runs along the western and southern coasts of the Big Island, partly following the route of the ancient Hawaiian Ala Loa—the “Long Trail”—which linked seashore communities. Along with a remarkable array of Native Hawaiian historical and cultural sites, travelers on the trail corridor can appreciate some grand and varied scenery: from the looming flanks of giant shield volcanoes to lava-rock coves and Pacific Ocean green-flash sunsets. Among many scenic highlights on the Ala Kalakai NHT are Upulu Point (northwesternmost tip of the Island of Hawaii) and some standout features of Hawaii Volcanoes National Park, including Kilauea Caldera and the Hilina Pali cliffs. Toward the end of Chain of Craters Road, check out the evocative Puuloa Petroglyphs and then nab a glimpse of the wave-battered Holei Sea Arch.
Pennsylvania, Ohio, West Virginia, Indiana, Kentucky, Illinois, Missouri, Kansas, Nebraska, Iowa, South Dakota, North Dakota, Montana, Idaho, Washington, Oregon
The Lewis & Clark NHT covers nearly 5,000 miles of the preparatory movements and huge out-and-back journey of the Corps of Discovery, which under the directives of President Thomas Jefferson explored the Louisiana Purchase and sought a water route to the Pacific Ocean from 1803 through 1806. Headed by Captains Meriwether Lewis and William Clark, the expedition also included such linchpin members as York, Clark’s slave, and Sacagawea, a Shoshone woman. The enormous trans-continental spread of this NHT includes a feast of scenic wonders, from Manitou Bluffs, Spirit Mound, and the White Cliffs of the Upper Missouri River to the Gates of the Mountains, Lemhi Pass, the Columbia River Gorge, and sea stack-edged Cannon Beach.
Virginia, Maryland, Delaware, Pennsylvania, New York, Washington, D.C.
Some 3,000 liquid miles constitute the Captain John Smith Chesapeake NHT, which celebrates the indigenous and natural geography of the Chesapeake Bay country that John Smith of the Virginia Colony explored and mapped late in the first decade of the 17th century. This water trail offers numerous opportunities to appreciate the resilient beauty of the nation’s largest estuary, out on Chesapeake Bay proper and up rivers such as the Susquehanna, the Potomac, the Rappahannock, the Chester, and the James. From the Potomac’s Great Falls to Cape Charles and the Rappahannock River Valley National Wildlife Refuge, paddlers have much to explore on this NHT, headquartered at Historic Jamestowne.
Missouri, Kansas, Nebraska, Wyoming, Colorado, Utah, California
Although it only operated between April 1860 and October 1861, the Pony Express remains a fixture of the popular conception of the Old West. Ferrying mail by horseback from St. Joseph, Missouri to Sacramento, California, Pony Express riders were quickly made obsolete with the construction of a transcontinental telegraph line. Exploring the old wayside stations and trail remnants on this NHT, though, it’s hard not to hear hoofbeats pounding in your imagination! The scenic terrain encompassed by the trail—which overlaps with a number of other NHTs associated with 19th-century westward expansion of Euro-American settlement—includes Bessemer Bend National Historic Site (aka Red Buttes Crossing), a ford of the North Platte River; the Bonneville Salt Flats in Utah; Egan Canyon in Nevada; and Lake Tahoe on the Nevada-California line.
Oregon, Idaho, Wyoming, Montana
The 1,170 miles of the Nez Perce (Ne-Me-Poo) NHT summons another of the many tragic theaters of conflict between the U.S. government and American Indians: that of the so-called Nez Perce War of 1877. More of a long-distance chase than a war, this conflict saw several bands of Nez Perce (among them Chief Joseph’s Wallowa Valley band), resisting forced removal to a reservation in the Idaho Territory, attempt to flee from northeastern Oregon to Canada, following long-used traditional travel routes across the Rockies. The Nez Perce very nearly made it to the Canadian border but were forced to surrender after the Battle of Bear Paw in northern Montana. Stirring scenery along the trail—including landscapes still deeply sacred to the Nez Perce—includes Wallowa Lake in Oregon, Hells Canyon on the Oregon-Idaho border, the Bitterroot Mountains, Yellowstone National Park (which the fleeing Nez Perce crossed just a few years after its establishment as the world’s first national park), and the Bear’s Paw Mountains on the Great Plains.
The roughly 2,400-mile-long Iditarod National Historic Trail is the U.S. National Trails System’s only winter trail, and the country it crosses is the wildest of any of the NHT. It’s anchored by the main thousand-mile run of the Iditarod Trail between Seward and Nome, a sled-dog route that serviced the villages, mining camps, and trading posts of Alaska’s Gold Rush from the late 19th into the early 20th centuries. Associated and connecting trails around the main corridor fill out the total mileage. The mostly wilderness scenery is expansive and varied, from the Kenai Peninsula, Chugach Mountains, and Alaska Range to the interior lowlands of the Yukon, Kuskokwim, and Innoko rivers and the Seward Peninsula edging the Bering Sea.
Missouri, Kansas, Nebraska, Wyoming, Idaho, Washington, Oregon
The most famous of the numerous emigrant roads expanding Euro-American settlement in the West during the 19th century—and, indeed, one of the most famous trails in history—the Oregon Trail ran some 2,000 miles between Missouri and Oregon’s Willamette Valley. This arduous wagon trail saw its heyday from the 1840s through the 1860s, and many of its defining natural landmarks still look much the same as they did back then. The scenery on the trail includes the vast prairies and sagebrush steppes of the Great Plains and Intermountain West, the heights of the Rockies and Cascades, and the fertile, mild lowlands of the Willamette. From Scotts Bluff, Chimney Rock, and South Pass to Farewell Bend, the Columbia Gorge, and Mount Hood, the Oregon NHT treats you to some swoony—and history-drenched—vistas.
Mind you, we’ve had to leave off many scenic—and poignant—National Historic Trails, including the Trail of Tears, Santa Fe, and California NHTs. And, of course, there are scads of gorgeous hiking trails with history brimming along their tread, whether or not they have official historic status or not.
From the shores of Chesapeake Bay to the Red Desert of Wyoming, from the salt flats of Utah to the pounding breakers of a Pacific Northwest headland, delve into American history while enjoying delicious, convenient, road-trip and camping-ready eats courtesy of Mountain House!