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On the Origin of Hiking Trails

Silas Chamberlin—

In the autumn of 1921, a small group of volunteers from the Palisades Interstate Park Conference assembled at dawn for a day of work in Harriman State Park, thirty miles north of New York City. It was a Sunday, a day of rest for most people, but these hikers would spend most of the day bent over with picks, shovels, and bow saws or reaching high with loppers to clear a narrow path through the forest. The hikers were responding to changes in the Mid-Atlantic landscapes through which they had once hiked. “Ever increasing automobile traffic on highways and even on secondary roads which were once delightful paths for the pedestrian, has spoiled many fine country walks,” a popular guidebook of the period observed. This was especially true on Sundays and holidays, “when most trampers find their only opportunities to enjoy such recreation.” The changing nature of roads coincided with “the remarkable growth of interest in walking as a means of recreation.” By the early 1920s, there were at least sixty hiking or walking clubs in or near the city, highlighting the need for new places to hike. 

On this particular Sunday, the Palisades crew was building a brand-new trail just to the west of Bear Mountain. Their first step was “laying a string along the top of the cliffs on the western side of the ridge” that would indicate the approximate route of the trail. After the leaders had approved the route—based on a balance between maximum scenic quality and ease of travel— the rest of the crew would begin to clear the path. However, before the volunteers could chop the first root or saw the first limb, a group of Sunday hikers came upon them, having followed the string along the ridge. Smiling and excited to be charting a new course, the group of hikers called out to the volunteers. “You are public benefactors,” they said breathlessly and continued to follow the string out of sight. As stunned journalist and trail advocate Raymond Torrey would write in his next New York Evening Post column, “Demand for trails by hikers is just barely ahead of the supply.” In this case, it was ahead by only a matter of hours. 

Building trails had been an important job for nineteenth-century hiking clubs, but, as the popularity of hiking increased during the first half of the twentieth century, the construction and maintenance of hiking trails became a crucial and very visible task for the American hiking community. Hikers created short, regional paths, such as the one the Palisades crew built, as well as entire networks of trails that spread out from hubs in state and national parks and major city park systems. The most high-profile projects were long-distance trails that spanned hundreds or thousands of miles and sometimes multiple states. In the 1910s and 1920s, the Green Mountain Club’s Long Trail, which ran the length of Vermont, became the nation’s first long-distance trail. By the time the club finished the Long Trail, however, the much longer Appalachian Trail had also come into being. By the late 1930s, the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT), which linked Canada to Mexico, became the West’s first long-distance trail. 

If concepts of religion, health, patriotism, and community motivated hikers and helped them forge a culture of hiking, then trails served as the tangible rallying point for that culture. Trails were something physical over which hikers could take ownership—either literally or in spirit. They were a manifestation of the various impulses that had guided the hiking community since its earliest days, including the pastoral ideal of wedding human artifice with wild nature. Despite their importance, however, trails led the hiking community toward a less tenable culture that celebrated solo “through” hikers and, in the postwar period, provided access to thousands of new recreationists who bypassed club membership and took the creation of trails for granted.

From On the Trail by Silas Chamberlin. Published by Yale University Press in 2019. Reproduced with permission.

Silas Chamberlin is an independent scholar who speaks and writes widely about past and current trail policy.

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