Back to top

Celebrate the National Trails System Act’s 50th Birthday


Many Colorado natives and visitors alike remember the wonderful celebrations in 2016 of the centennial of America’s amazing National Parks. But did you know that 2018 is a special year for our public lands, too? This year marks the 50th anniversary of the National Trails — and you can explore one right here in Colorado.

Fifty years ago next month, on Oct. 2, 1968, President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the National Trails System Act into law. This created a system of national scenic and historic trails to be hiked, ridden, explored and enjoyed by all Americans and visitors from around the world. That day, the famed Appalachian Trail — stretching almost 2,200 miles from Georgia to Maine — and the Pacific Crest Trail, which travels over 2600 miles from Mexico to Canada through California, Oregon and Washington, became the first members of the National Trails System.

Today, there are 11 National Scenic Trails and 19 National Historic Trails that together span over 52,000 miles — more than the entire interstate highway system — across 49 states (sorry, Indiana). These trails give Americans the opportunity to experience everything from desert mesas to 14,000-foot peaks, from the historic Pony Express to routes once traveled by families and traders headed west. The diversity of landscapes, communities and ecosystems showcased by our national trails is truly astounding. Here in Colorado, you can experience shady aspen groves, rocky traverses along high alpine ridges and hot springs; old mining camps; the state’s largest natural lake and the training grounds for the famed 10th Mountain Division — and that’s all along just one of the four National Trails that traverse our state!

About 800 miles of one of the most famous National Scenic Trails, the Continental Divide Trail (CDT), run along the spine of the Rocky Mountains through Colorado. And fans of the CDT have even more reason to celebrate in 2018! Not only is it the 50th anniversary of the National Trails System, but this year also marks the 40th birthday of the Continental Divide Trail. Congress designated the Trail on Nov. 10, 1978, and since then, countless people have visited the trail to enjoy Colorado’s gorgeous peaks, rivers and forests.

We think that the best way to celebrate the CDT is to get out there and explore it. With winter fast approaching, many of the high elevations along the divide are becoming difficult to access, but we’ve got three places you can join the birthday party before the snow starts falling in earnest — just don’t forget to follow the Leave No Trace principles and pack out your party hats.

Twin Lakes

Wrap around the Twin Lakes, a National Historic Site and home to the largest glacial lakes in Colorado. Be sure to visit the historic 1885 Interlaken resort and Dexter House which are located on the south side of Twin Lakes. This spectacular area once acted as a resort and hotel for the rich and famous in the late 1800s. Today you can still revel in breathtaking scenery with gorgeous aspens and amazing views of peaks more than 14,000 feet tall, including Mt. Elbert, the highest peak in Colorado.
Difficulty: Easy
Length: 4-mile loop
More Info and Directions:
Other Information: Pike/San Isabel National Forest

Rocky Mountain National Park

One-third of Rocky Mountain National Park is above treeline, rising above verdant valleys, twisting rivers and glistening lakes. Twenty-eight miles of the CDT pass through the park, giving hikers a chance to glimpse these incredible high-altitude views through the montane and sub-alpine life systems at elevations of 8,000 to 11,500 feet. From the Tonahutu/North Inlet Trailhead, hike out for as long or as short as you feel like to experience these gorgeous Colorado forests and maybe even see a moose, especially in the fall.
Difficulty: Easy-Moderate (length-dependent)
Length: Your choice (out-and-back)
Directions: Drive into the town of Grand Lake on Grand Avenue. The trailhead is less than 0.5 mile north of town at the filtration plant.

Herman Gulch

This popular spot for summer wildflower viewing is also an excellent fall hike, taking you through aspens and willows that have turned gold. Hike 0.25 miles from the trailhead to a junction with the Watrous Gulch Trail, where you will turn left. The trail ascends steeply in this section but don't worry — it mellows out in a bit. After about 1 mile of hiking, you will reach an open meadow with great views of Mt. Bethel, Pettingell Peak and Hagar Mountain. Turn around here for an easier out and back, or continue hiking. As you head further up the trail toward Herman Lake, you will re-enter the woods and encounter another brief steeper stretch of trail, but the terrain mellows out once you hit treeline. Continue towards Herman Lake, a spectacular alpine lake ringed by tall peaks.
Difficulty: Moderate
Length: 7.5 miles round trip, with a 1,919-foot elevation gain for the full hike to Herman Lake
Directions: Take I-70 West past Idaho Springs. The Herman Gulch Trailhead is off Exit 218. Make a right at the stop sign, then turn right again to reach the parking area.

Learn more about the Continental Divide Trail >> 

More about hiking in Colorado >>


Photo credits: Mike Henrick