The National Trails System, encompassing more than 1,200 trails covering thousands of miles, turns 50 this year. And it all began with simple Yankee thrift.
Two hundred years ago, New Hampshire innkeeper Abel Crawford had a problem: guests at his White Mountain hotel were clamoring for the chance to summit the iconic Mount Washington. But without an established path, those intrepid enough to try would often get lost or return in tatters, having battled with scree and brush for miles. And so Crawford, and especially his son Ethan Allen Crawford, took up the Herculean task of cutting an 8.2-mile-long trail to the top. They felled trees. They moved boulders. Foot by foot, they lay their path over the steep peak of Mount Pierce, along the wind-swept spines that would later be known as Mounts Eisenhower, Franklin, and Monroe, and finally, up the formidable southern face of Mount Washington.
Their hotel is long gone, but Crawford Path is the oldest continually maintained trail in the country. It’s also a model for how the national trail system came to be — built and maintained by private individuals who loved the outdoors. The system was given national park status when President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the National Trails Systems Act of 1968, with the Appalachian (about a third of which runs through New England) named first in the legislation.
The national trails are as varied as America itself. Scenic trails like the Appalachian run for at least 100 miles, and can include challenging hikes like the Crawford Path. Historic trails also run at least 100 miles, and mark key moments in American history. The only such trail in New England is the Washington-Rochambeau Revolutionary Route, which starts near Rochambeau’s 1781 landing point in Newport, Rhode Island, and runs through nine states. National recreational trails are generally shorter hikes in urban, rural, and wilderness areas, such as the Hellcat Interpretive Trail in Essex, an easy stroll on elevated boardwalks.
All of these find their genesis in the quintessential spirit of New England, says Sarah Mittlefehldt, who teaches environmental history at Northern Michigan University and wrote 2013’s Tangled Roots: The Appalachian Trail and American Environmental Politics. “The Bostonian culture of intellectual leadership, creative thinking, and a Protestant work ethic was the perfect combination for the birth of outdoor recreation in this country,” she says. “For the first time in our nation’s history, physical work became play, and play became physical work.”
In the mid-19th century, says Mittlefehldt, that “play” largely took the form of social groups like the Berkshires Alpine Club, which undertook “tramping” expeditions on summits and peaks. The Boston Brahmins and academics who spent their weekends and holidays trekking up to the White Mountains formed the Appalachian Mountain Club in 1876. Its first trail, completed that same year, was Lowes Path, a 7.2 mile route that starts in Randolph, New Hampshire and runs up Mount Adams.
In the early years of the 20th century, Vermont’s Green Mountain Club established the 272-mile Long Trail, and the Connecticut Forest and Park Association built the Quinnipiac and Metacomet trail systems.
These might have remained wholly independent systems were it not for Benton MacKaye, the first graduate of Harvard University’s forestry program. MacKaye spent his formative years exploring and documenting the hills around his home in Shirley, about 40 miles northwest of Boston. After graduating from Harvard in 1905, he took a job as a forester in the nation’s nascent Forestry Service. He saw the spread of the automobile and other mass-produced innovations, plus World War I, as separating people from nature and creating social rifts. Getting people outside, he thought, was the way to heal these disruptions.
In 1921, MacKaye published a journal article, “An Appalachian Trail: A Project in Regional Planning,” making the case for a national trail that would preserve wilderness and give all Americans an opportunity for sustained outdoor recreation. The idea captured the imagination of Progressive-Era Americans, but became reality largely because of grass-roots efforts by New England trail clubs, says MacKaye biographer Larry Anderson. “The strong New England hiking tradition inspired local mountain clubs to form a federation,” Anderson says. Local organizations were crucial, he says, because much of the work needed to establish the Appalachian Trail involved not moving boulders but getting private property owners to grant access to their land on the trail corridor.
Two lawyers succeeded MacKaye as leaders of the Appalachian Trail project — Connecticut’s Arthur Perkins and Maine native Myron Avery, who graduated from Bowdoin and then Harvard Law School before going to work in Washington, D.C. Their work, especially that of Avery, who became chairman of the Appalachian Trail Conference after Perkins’s death in 1932, helped connect a path running almost 2,200 miles from the summit of Mount Katahdin in Maine to Georgia’s Oglethorpe Mountain (later shifted to nearby Springer Mountain).
Completed in 1937 (the last bit was on Maine’s Sugarloaf Mountain), the Appalachian Trail faced a crisis the very next year. September 1938’s Great New England Hurricane knocked down millions of trees, blocking sections of the trail. But by 1948, the trail was cleared enough for a World War II veteran named Earl V. Shaffer to hike it end to end, a first. He said he did it “to walk the Army out of my system.”
Our region is home to one of the newest national scenic trails, the New England Trail. Designated in 2009, it follows a 215-mile path from Connecticut’s Long Island Sound to the Royalston State Forest at the Massachusetts/New Hampshire border. We have dozens of national recreational trails, from Boston’s iconic Freedom Trail and Lowell’s Canal Heritage Trail to paths in Cape Cod’s Atlantic White Cedar Swamp and Maine’s Rachel Carson National Wildlife Refuge. The diversity of these trails serves as an emblem of the New England recreational experience, says Heather Clish, director of conservation and recreation policy at the Appalachian Mountain Club. “New England offers trails for everyone,” she says.