Paths to the past: National Historic Trails lead travelers through time, US history

One of the best ways to learn history is to literally follow in the footsteps of those who were there, says Karen Berger, author of the new book, “America’s National Historic Trails” (Rizzoli, $55).

“These are historic routes – a trail version of the National Park system,” she says. The 19 federally recognized trails range from 54 to 5,000 miles, and pass largely through rural areas, making them perfect for road trips and socially distant traveling.

The author shares some favorites with USA TODAY.

Selma to Montgomery National Historic Trail, Alabama

Although the shortest trail at just 54 miles, this route resonates with many travelers, retracing 1965’s famous five-day voting rights march to the Alabama state capitol.

The trail crosses the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, where the late Rep. John Lewis and others were beaten by police. Mostly following U.S. Highway 80, the route lets travelers delve into civil rights history at visitors centers, museums and memorials.

Alabama's Selma to Montgomery Trail crosses the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, where the late Rep. John Lewis and others were beaten by police. Mostly following U.S. Highway 80, the route lets travelers delve into civil rights history at visitors centers, museums and memorials.

More information: nps.gov/semo

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Lewis and Clark National Historic Trail

The Lewis and Clark expedition team met the Shoshone tribe at Camp Fortunate in Clark Canyon Reservoir, Montana. The tribe was led by Chief Cameahwait, brother to Sacagawea.

The 4,900-mile route tracing the Lewis and Clark Expedition stretches across the country from Pittsburgh to Astoria, Oregon, taking travelers over the Great Plains and the Rocky Mountains to the Pacific Coast. Since much of the original route was along waterways, it allows travelers to float wild and scenic rivers. “It’s sometimes called the journey that opened the American West,” Berger says. (Note: The visitor’s center in Omaha, Nebraska is temporarily closed due to COVID-19.)

More information:  nps.gov/lecl

Santa Fe National Historic Trail

Fort Osage National Historic Landmark is an important stop along the Santa Fe Trail.

Stretching 1,200 miles across five states, this route brought American traders to the edge of the Spanish empire until it was eventually eclipsed by railroads. Today, travelers can see tall grass and shortgrass prairies, and visit museums and monuments before reaching the trail’s end at the Plaza in Santa Fe, New Mexico.

More information:  nps.gov/safe

Trail of Tears National Historic Trail

Big Spring, near Princeton Kentucky, was a camp spot for many of the Cherokees being forcibly removed from their lands along the Trail of Tears.

In 1838, the Cherokee Indians were forced off their lands in Tennessee, Alabama, North Carolina and Georgia and relocated to what is now Oklahoma. The series of migration paths are among the most documented in the National Historic Trail system, Berger says, with scores of museums, monuments, parks and markers along the routes. Today, the Cherokee are the largest of the nation’s federally recognized tribes, with most in Oklahoma and a smaller contingent who evaded relocation in the southeast.

More information: nps.gov/trte/

Juan Bautista de Anza National Historic Trail, Arizona and California

These metal sculptures located a few miles outside of Borrego Springs, California, commemorate the settlers who headed from New Spain (now Mexico) to San Francisco Bay.

This route commemorating the settlement of San Francisco Bay is one of several trails linked to southwestern settlement and trade. It focuses on Spanish expansion from Mexico that was occurring at roughly the same time as the Revolutionary War back east. The trail highlights include missions, parks and hiking paths.

More information:  nps.gov/juba

Captain John Smith Chesapeake National Historic Trail

Named for the pirate-turned-explorer, Captain John Smith Chesapeake National Historic Trail stretches from Virginia up the East Coast to New York. Pictured here: Wye Island in Maryland.

Centering on the Chesapeake Bay, this water-and-road trail not only commemorates English explorer John Smith, but also the region’s Native American Indian history and cultures. In total, it includes more than 2,000 miles of shoreline. Smith, who sailed to America in 1607, was a larger-than-life personality. A former pirate, slave and mercenary, he developed Jamestown, Virginia, and explored the Bay and its tributaries, creating detailed maps of the region. “His biography, you couldn’t make up,” Berger says.

More information: nps.gov/cajo

Oregon National Historic Trail

For old-school video game players, the sight of a covered wagon and the words "Oregon Trail" bring about thoughts of dying of dysentery. But don't let that scare you off a trip along the pioneer trail.

Overlapping at times with the California, Pony Express and Mormon Pioneer trails, this path was an emigration route for families making a new start in the West.  “Imagine a 2,000-mile journey with small kids, most of whom were walking,” Berger says. “This is about overcoming diversity, optimism and starting a new life and escaping poverty.” Today, travelers can still see wheel ruts where covered wagons once passed.

More information: nps.gov/oreg

Overmountain Victory National Historic Trail

”It’s not very well known, but it’s considered one of the turning points of the Revolutionary War,” Berger says of 1780's Battle of Kings Mountain, in which southern mountain men outsmarted British forces.

During the latter half of the Revolutionary War, the British found themselves outmaneuvered and outsmarted by southern mountain men, who won 1780’s decisive Battle of Kings Mountain in South Carolina. ”It’s not very well known, but it’s considered one of the turning points of the Revolutionary War,” Berger says. This trail through Virginia, Tennessee, North Carolina and South Carolina, includes driving and hiking routes.

More information: nps.gov/ovvi

Ala Kahakai National Historic Trail, Hawaii

Ala Kahakai National Historic Trail is a 175-mile corridor takes travelers through lava fields, past beaches (like Mahai‘ula Bay, seen here) and up mountains.

Located on the Big Island of Hawaii, this pathway explores an area developed by ancient Hawaiian settlers. The 175-mile corridor includes routes through lava fields, by beaches and up mountains. “On some parts you can walk on rock that was the Polynesian equivalent of pavement,” Berger says.

More information: nps.gov/alka/

Iditarod National Historic Trail, Alaska

An Iditarod dog team arrives at a checkpoint in Huslia, Alaska, during the famous race.

This pathway made famous by the annual Iditarod Anchorage-to-Nome dogsled race includes a network of 2,300 miles of winter trails first developed by Alaska natives to connect villages. “It was an important factor in the settlement of Alaska. Most of its accessible only during the winter,” Berger says. (Note: The Bureau of Land Management has temporarily closed some visitor centers in Alaska due to COVID-19.)

More information:  blm.gov/programs/national-conservation-lands/national-scenic-and-historic-trails/iditarod

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