Monument Cliff is a huge outcrop of slate on the summit ridge of Third Mountain, along the Appalachian Trail in the middle of five peaks that comprise the rugged and remote Barren-Chairback Range in the southern section of Maine’s 100-Mile Wilderness.
In the company of two friends, I crested the craggy ledges atop Third Mountain several weeks ago at the height of the fall foliage. We uttered a collective “wow” as we stood in awe of the extraordinary panorama before us, a kaleidoscope of brilliant colors as far as the eye could see, muted not at all by the steely gray skies above.
For a glorious half-hour, we enjoyed our perch on Monument Cliff, looking out and absorbing the big view, easily one of the finest on the entire Appalachian Trail, which leads north from this beautiful spot to majestic Katahdin in 91 miles. To the south, the pathway meanders a mind-boggling 2,099 miles through 14 states to Springer Mountain in northern Georgia.
To the west, the hump of Big Moose Mountain was prominent, while closer in, Elephant and Indian mountains, Rum Mountain and Blue Ridge, multisummited Baker Mountain and nearby Lily Bay Mountain stood out. The four peaks of the White Cap Range, each traversed by the AT, dominated the northern vista, from Gulf Hagas and West Peak to Hay Mountain and the open top of White Cap. To the northeast, the trail-less Little Spruce and Big Shanty mountains, and then the sharp profile of Saddleback Mountain filled the view.
Directly eastward, connected by white blazes, was Columbus Mountain, while glancing the other way, Fourth Mountain loomed. Sprawling below was Long Pond and the valley of the West Branch of the Pleasant River.
Given the bounty of natural beauty before us, and with our feet firmly planted on America’s most beloved long footpath, the Appalachian Trail, it was an appropriate time and place to mark the 50th anniversary of the monumental legislation that forever altered the landscape of trails and hiking and backpacking in this country.
On Oct. 2, 1968, the National Trails System Act, passed earlier by Congress, was signed into law by President Lyndon Johnson. The Act authorized three types of trails, National Scenic Trails, National Recreation Trails, and National and Connecting Side Trails “to promote the preservation of, public access to, travel within, and enjoyment and appreciation of the open air, outdoor areas and historic resources of the nation.”
The National Trails System Act most importantly established the Appalachian Trail and Pacific Crest Trail as National Scenic Trails, thereby launching the determined efforts to safeguard and popularize these long-distance footways. Both trails were continuously marked at the time, but lacked adequate protection for much of their lengths and were therefore subject to the whims of private landowners and developers. Fifty years later a protected corridor exists along the entire 2,190-mile AT, while just 10 percent of the 2,650-mile PCT remains unprotected.
In addition to the Appalachian and Pacific Crest trails, nine other long trails are now designated as National Scenic Trails, including the Continental Divide Trail, Arizona Trail and Florida Trail, as well as the new and lesser-known New England Trail, which extends 215 miles from Long Island Sound to New Hampshire through Connecticut and Massachusetts.
The 1968 act also notably authorized a network of National Recreation Trails, shorter length trails of outdoor recreation significance. The National Recreation Trails Database, administered by the nonprofit group, American Trails, lists five such trails in Maine, including the Timber Point Trail and Carson Trail along the southern Maine coast in the Rachel Carson National Wildlife Refuge, and Johnson Brook Trail in the Sunkhaze Meadows National Wildlife Refuge in Milford northeast of Bangor.
National Historic and National Geologic trails were added to the system in 1978 and 2009. Today there are an astounding 50,000 miles of national trails.
Celebrate the spirit of the National Trails System Act and the remarkable conservation accomplishments over five decades, along with the tireless trail builders and dedicated trail maintainers, by getting out for a healthy hike this fall and winter.