The National Park Service produces a National Trails System Map and makes a digital version of it available online. Whether you download a pdf copy to your desktop for frequent use or just access the map at the website on an occasional basis, this map can be a very useful tool. You need to be aware of its limitations, though.
Like Affiliated Areas, National Heritage Areas, and the National Wild and Scenic
Rivers System, the National Trails System is linked in importance and purpose to
the nearly 400 units of the National Park System. Congress had this relationship in mind when it created the National Trails System (via the National Trails Systems Act of 1968) and gave the National Park Service a key role in managing the National Recreation Trails, National Scenic Trails, and National Historic Trails.
Although only the Appalachian National Scenic Trail (“AT”) is counted as a unit of the National Park System, the Park Service is tasked with providing administrative services and performing various planning and cooperative stewardship functions for 21 of the 26 existing long-distance trails. All 21 (including two that are jointly managed with the Bureau of Land Management) pass through or near National Park System units.
For the Park Service, producing and periodically updating a National Trails System Map goes with the territory. The agency’s Harpers Ferry Center distributes this particular product.
You will find the current edition of the National Trails System Map and Guide at this NPS website. The pdf file is fairly small (2.2 MB), so go ahead download it to your hard drive if you think you might want to consult it often. I’ve got my copy on my desktop.
For legibility, you’ll want to crank it up to at least 75%. One hundred percent is much better.
You’ll notice that this map not only shows you National Scenic Trails and National Historic Trails, but also certain federal recreation lands that the trails pass through or near. To put a finer point on it, the map shows the names and locations of relevant NPS units (not just national parks), plus national forests and grasslands, national wildlife refuges, and BLM lands.
Like all other maps, this one has its limitations. Remember that:
• This map doesn’t show the National Recreation Trails, nor any side and connecting trails that are part of the National Trails System. No map of this scale could include all those trails without creating unmanageable clutter. There are more than 1,050 National Recreation Trails totaling over 19,000 miles in 50 states, the District of Columbia, and Puerto Rico.
• This is a small-scale map. Small-scale maps are very generalized, meaning that they show a lot of area and not much detail. If all you need is the “big picture,” fine. But if details are important, as when planning a long-distance hike, you need to consult the large-scale maps specific to the trails of interest. (For an example, see the Appalachian Trail strip map at this site.
• The unbroken lines indicating trail routes can be misleading. Some trails have missing segments, and anyway, hikers cannot necessarily access all portions of the trails shown on the map. Savvy hikers always check with managing offices and trail clubs for the latest available trail locations and access information before undertaking long jaunts on unfamiliar trails.
• This map shows only the NPS units and selected other public recreation lands that the national trails pass through or near. The Park Service’s idea of “near” may not match up with your own, and in any event, you may want to know the location of all the recreation lands in the region through which a trail passes. The solution is to use public recreation lands maps in association with this National Trails System Map.
• This map is not as up-to-date as you may think. The website link identifies this product as a July 2008 map, but if you look at the map key you will note that the map was last revised in September 2007. This is not a major issue, just something you should bear in mind.
Postscript: The Omnibus Public Land Management Act that was signed into law last March established four new national trails, including the Pacific Northwest National Scenic Trail, the Arizona National Scenic Trail, the New England National Scenic Trail, and the Washington-Rochambeau Revolutionary Route National Historic Trail. All four of these newbies will eventually appear on future editions of this map.