What You Need to Know About Our Midwest National Trails

Later this month, we’ll be trekking out on our last camping/backpacking trip of the year. Fall trips always hit the sweet spot for us—we love fewer crowds, quieter trails, and a sense that, like us, the woods and all her residents are preparing for a welcomed time of rest.

This year, with the ongoing social distancing requirements, we’re choosing a more remote option.  Instead of our usual #parkchasing adventure, we’re taking in a stretch of the North Country Scenic Trail in northern Minnesota, just a few hours from our base camp in St. Paul. And researching our trip opened up an entirely new appreciation for the remarkable National Trails System entwined within the national parks. 

Photo by Park Chasers

About the National Trails System
With the passing of the 1968 National Trails System Act, the National Park Service joined together with state and other federal agencies to preserve urban and rural environments with significant scenic or historical value. The creators of the law intended to provide recreation opportunities for all. The trails now encompass a total length of more than 50,000 miles, and 11 of those trails are also official National Park Service units.

For anyone who believes in the vision of Hello Ranger—to connect, enhance, and organize the national parks experience, all while striving to protect, preserve, and share the good these places create in the world—you’ll find yourself right at home with the National Trails System.  And while we may not have one of the famous “Triple Crown” trails, there are still thousands of miles of National Trails winding through the heartland.

Here’s what you need to know about the Midwest National Trails.

National Scenic Trails in the Midwest 
National Scenic Trails gain their status by demonstrating “spectacular natural resources and beauty along with outstanding recreation opportunity.” There are 11 National Scenic Trails in the United States, two of which pass through the Midwest. 

The longest of the two is the North Country National Scenic Trail; at 4,600 miles, it’s also one of the longest trails in general, winding through seven (soon to be eight!) different states. Much of the trail weaves through the glacial hills of the upper Midwest, and our favorite sections (and the ones we’ll be on this year) connect with the Superior Hiking Trail near Duluth, Minnesota, and the Border Region trail near the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness.

The second of the two National Scenic Trails in the Midwest is the Ice Age Trail. Growing up in central Wisconsin, we spent more school field trips than you can count hiking, skiing, and snowshoeing sections of the Ice Age National Scenic Trail. Built to preserve the rolling hills and boulder ridges left behind by glacial flow more than 15,000 years ago, the Ice Age National Scenic Trail is one of Wisconsin’s most popular National Park Service destinations. The trail starts in the southern part of the state (headquarters near Madison) and travels over 1,200 miles of private and public land. The other trailhead is located near the border with Minnesota and St. Croix National Scenic Riverway.

Photo by Park Chasers

Ice Age National Scenic Trail 

Location: Wisconsin

Length:  1,200 miles

NPS Website:  https://www.nps.gov/iatr/index.htm 

North Country National Scenic Trail 

Midwest Locations:  Michigan, Minnesota, North Dakota, Wisconsin 

Length:  4,600 miles 

NPS Website: https://www.nps.gov/noco/index.htm 

National Historic Trails in the Midwest
Unlike National Scenic Trails, which cover long distances of remote wilderness, according to the National Park Service, our National Historic Trails in the United States are designed to “re-trace past events through historic sites, points of interest, trail segments, and waterways.” We have seven National Historic Trails that cover thousands of miles through nine different states in the Midwest.

If you’re interested in National Historic Trails, we recommend visiting the Western Historic Trails Center in Council Bluffs, Iowa—routes for four of the trails travel through the area. The visitor center here has National Park passport stamps and historical information for many Midwest national parks, too It’s also just across the Missouri River from the Midwest Regional Office of the National Park Service (another fun road trip stop!).

Western Historic Trails Center/Photos by Park Chasers

California National Historic Trail 

Midwest Locations:  Kansas, Missouri 

Length:  5,600 miles 

NPS Website: https://www.nps.gov/cali/index.htm

 Lewis and Clark National Historic Trail 

Midwest Locations:  Illinois, Iowa, Kansas, Missouri, Nebraska, North Dakota, South Dakota

Length:  4,900 miles 

NPS Website: https://www.nps.gov/lecl/index.htm 

Mormon Pioneer National Historic Trail

Midwest Locations:  Illinois, Iowa, Nebraska

Length:  1,300 miles 

NPS Website: https://www.nps.gov/mopi/index.htm 

Oregon National Historic Trail

Midwest Locations:  Kansas, Missouri, Nebraska

Length:  2,170 miles 

NPS Website: https://www.nps.gov/oreg/index.htm 

Pony Express National Historic Trail

Midwest Locations:  Kansas, Missouri, Nebraska

Length: 2,000 miles 

NPS Website: https://www.nps.gov/poex/index.htm 

Santa Fe National Historic Trail

Midwest Locations:  Kansas, Missouri

Length: 1,203 miles 

NPS Website: https://www.nps.gov/safe/index.htm 

Trail of Tears National Historic Trail/Photo by Park Chasers

Trail of Tears National Historic Trail

Midwest Locations:  Arkansas, Missouri

Length: 5,045 miles 

NPS Website: https://www.nps.gov/trte/index.htm 

Header photo: Trail of Tears National Historic Trail/Photo by Park Chasers

From their base camp in Minnesota, Amy and Greg Sippl, aka “The Park Chasers,” have been “chasing” the dream of visiting all 400+ units of the National Park Service. They share national park photos, stories, and travel advice to help others do the same. Even though they’ve traveled coast-to-coast, they have always called the Midwest home. As the Hello Ranger Ambassadors for the Midwest Region, they share everything the Heartland has to offer!


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