When Congress passed the National Trails System Act of 1968, its goal was to create a nationwide system of trails for people of all ages, interests, and physical abilities. The idea, as Secretary of the Interior Stewart Udall wrote at the time, was to give citizens opportunities to discover history, find solitude, and experience “nature’s secret beauties.” For most people, that meant heading out onto a land-based trail. But there’s another type of trail in the National Trails System that revolves not around land, but water.
The National Water Trails System is a network of water trails established in 2012 as a subset of the original 1968 program. Since launching nearly a decade ago, the water trail system has become a catalyst for protecting and restoring America’s waterways while also attracting new visitors to these areas. The first trail in the system was Georgia’s Chattahoochee River National Water Trail, which flows 48 miles through the Chattahoochee River National Recreation Area, and other trails have followed since, including the Great Miami River Trail in western Ohio.
“We’ve celebrated that designation and used it to help promote our rivers as some of the best in the country for paddling, fishing, surfing, and rowing,” says Sarah Hippensteel Hall, manager of watershed partnerships for the Miami Conservancy District, which oversees the Great Miami River Trail. “Since being designated as a National Water Trail in 2017, we’ve seen exponential growth in the use of our rivers.”
There are currently 33 water trails in the National Water Trails database stretching from Alabama to Oregon. But it’s not easy getting on the esteemed list. According to the National Park Service, potential water trails have to meet a long list of qualifications, including demonstrated community support, established public access points, plus access to a variety of recreation and education opportunities.
For visitors, that means water trails are excellent places to explore history, escape city crowds, and experience natural beauty—just like Secretary Udall intended. Want to get out on the water? Here are some top National Water Trails to explore around the country.