National Trails System

Text By Kathleen Ann Cordes - Photos Jane Lammers


With the passage of the National Trails System Act in 1968, our nation embarked on one of the most significant recreation endeavors of our time. The legislation spurred the development of 12 national historic trails, 8 national scenic trails, and over 800 national recreation trails. Today, no other country in the world has a trail system with as much diversity as that found in the United States. The National Historic Trails preserve stories of our country's past, and the struggles and bravery of our people. Some historic trails are celebrations of the past and others commemorate events.

For example, it was a unique combination of political, economic, religious and military circumstances that prompted Captain Juan Bautista de Anza's spirit of discovery. To secure California from threats by the Russians and British, the Spanish sought to build a presidio and mission overlooking the San Francisco harbor. Anza, the commander of the small presidio of Tubac (in present-day Arizona), was determined to find an overland route across the deserts of the Southwest.

The Juan Bautista de Anza National Historic Trail
The Juan Bautista de Anza National Historic Trail commemorates the route taken by Anza in 1775 -76 when he led a group of colonists from Mexico to San Francisco Bay. Before the expedition, he carefully explored the deserts, charting watering spots and pasturage that would be so important to a successful crossing of people and livestock. He established important contacts with American Indians along the route.

For instance, he developed a friendship with the Yuma Indians, who in a hostile desert had the ability to cultivate beans, maize, wheat, calabashes, watermelons and other food crops that could be exchanged for trade goods. After departing and spending 3 months traversing the deserts and another 3 to travel up the Pacific coast, the expedition reached the San Francisco Bay area where the city of San Francisco now stands.

Father Pedro Font, who traveled with the colonists, declared the Port of San Francisco to be a harbor of harbors. "Indeed," he said, "although in my travels I saw very good sites and beautiful country, I saw none which pleased me so much as this. And I think that if it could be well settled like Europe there would not be anything more beautiful in all the world."

The Trail of Tears National Historic Trail The Trail of Tears, on the other hand, commemorates the tragic experience of the Cherokee people in the 1830s, who were forcibly removed from their homelands in the southeastern United States to new homes hundreds of miles to the west. The history hits hard. On his 80th birthday on December 11, 1890, John G. Burnett, Veteran of the US Cavalry, said about the Trail of Tears, "I wish I could forget it all, but the picture of six hundred and forty-five wagons lumbering over the frozen ground with their cargo of suffering humanity still lingers in my memory." Though this national trail commemorates tragic events, it serves to remind us that power, at any level, must be used appropriately and humanely.

Today the trail passes through 9 states whose lands and waterways were traversed during the Cherokee removal. A Powwow and other festivities are held at Tahlequah, since 1839 the capital city of the Cherokee Indian Nation in Oklahoma, in the region of lakes within the Ozark Mountains. At the end of the trail at nearby Park Hill, children learn to play lacrosse at the Cherokee Heritage Center and the Cherokee National Museum presents the Cherokee story.

Following along the routes of these trails, people can learn much about America's past through hands-on trail experience. The stories of the Oregon, California and Mormon Pioneer Trails; the Santa Fe Trail; the Lewis and Clark Expedition; the Revolutionary War Overmountain campaign, the Pony Express, the flight of the Nez Perce (Nee-Me-Poo); Alaska's Iditarod serum-run, and the voting rights march from Selma to Montgomery are charged with the American spirit. Traveling along one of these 12 national historic trails, either by car, on foot, by train or via a myriad of other transportation modes is great experience and brings our rich American history to life.

About the author: Kathleen Ann Cordes is the author of America's National Historic Trails ($19.95) available at your bookstore or from the University of Oklahoma Press (1-800-627-7377). The paperback guidebook has color maps of each of the twelve national historic trails, and 80 beautiful color photographs of sites along the trails by Jane Lammers.

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