Evolution of the Trails


The trails we run have years of history packed deep beneath the ground.  While surfaces  wash away with each passing season, those who’ve traveled the single track helped reinforce the trail with the soles of their shoes and the hooves of their mules. Like today’s ultrarunners, previous generations of trail users traveled great distances to pursue what they were passionate about.

When the U.S. Forest Service began building trails in the late 19th century, they were designed to get from point to point the quickest way possible.  Whether it was for firefighting or communication, the trails needed to be wide and safe enough for pack animals which were used to carry supplies and provide communication between remote lookout towers.  Trails also provided access for firefighters and a means for reaching timber during World War II, a popular material for building shipping containers and airplane propellers.

CCC crews build trail on Notch Mountain, Grand Mesa National Forest, Colorado, in 1933.

CCC crews build trail on Notch Mountain, Grand Mesa National Forest, Colorado, in 1933.

The infamous Western States Trail was first used by the Paiute and Washoe Indians, and later by those who were traveling between the gold camps in California and the silver camps in Nevada. Stretching from Salt Lake City, Utah to Sacramento, California, the trail has a long history of gold mining claims including the section in Last Chance Mining District.  Here, miners helped form the trail to Michigan Bluff, providing them with a direct route to the river – a 1,600-foot drop – and a long, 3-day hike.  Today, it’s a brutal 13-mile section of Western States 100 Endurance Run that’s known simply as, “the canyons.”

Heading into the Depression era, President Roosevelt created work relief programs, including the Civilian Conservation Corps in 1933.  These crews created trails used specifically for hiking according to a USFS plan from 1934, “In trail construction (recreational trails) it should be the idea to make them as inconspicuous as possible. In this way their effectiveness should be increased, and the pleasure obtained from walking over such a trail should be of the highest quality.”

Recovery from the Depression led Congress to form the Outdoor Recreation Resources Review Commission (ORRC), which analyzed existing recreational resources, and future needs of the American population. After three years of gathering data, their report reinforced the benefits of outdoor recreation and helped create the Wilderness Act in 1964, as well as the National Wild and Scenic Rivers Act and National Trail Systems Act, four years later.

Four major trails systems, national recreation trails and national scenic trails were then established including the Appalachian and Pacific Crest Trails (first national scenic trails).  Annually, the Forest Service was budgeting $5.7 million for trail maintenance, and over $3 million for trail construction by the mid-1970’s.  As President Roosevelt stated during his lobbying for the passage of his administration’s New Deal plan, “the forests are the lungs of our land [which]purify our air and give fresh strength to our people.”


About Author

Amy Clark is the Editor of UltraRunning Magazine. She began her career at a small advertising agency in Bend, Oregon, where she enjoyed the fast pace and creative environment. For over 15 years, lunch hour runs were a ritual. Amy also joined the board of the local running club, became a race director and finished her first ultra. She has completed over 35 marathons and ultras combined, and continues to run long distances while encouraging both kids and adults to ignite their own passion for running.

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