The chalk-white bluffs rose 300 feet high on either side of the river. To explorer Meriwether Lewis, they looked like the ruins of some magnificent ancient city. “It seemed as if those scenes of visionary enchantment would never have an end,” Lewis wrote in a journal entry from May 1805. With his friend William Clark, Lewis had set out to explore the vast stretch of land newly acquired by United States president Thomas Jefferson in the Louisiana Purchase.
People can still experience the enchantment of those cliffs. They are located on the upper Missouri River, in Montana. The area is just a small section of the Lewis and Clark National Historic Trail, which winds more than 3,700 miles from Illinois to the Pacific coast in Washington state. The pathway is a legacy of the National Trails System Act. This year, the trail system celebrates its 50th anniversary.
In 1968, Congress passed the act to “provide for [Americans’] ever-increasing outdoor recreation needs.” But national trails do more than get us outdoors, says Jaime Schmidt of the U.S. Forest Service. “Trails connect people with their communities, locally and across the country,” she told TIME for Kids. “They connect people to the land and to their heritage.”
Trace the wagon ruts of early American settlers along the Oregon Trail. Follow the footsteps of fortune seekers during the Gold Rush on the California Trail. Or just take a bike ride on a local path. How you explore public lands is up to you. The National Trails System is made up of footpaths, roads, and waterways in all 50 states. Some are thousands of miles long. A few are only a mile or less.
Of course, you don’t have to go looking for gold to have an adventure on America’s trails. Rita Hennessy is a program manager for the National Trails System. She says your favorite trail could be one you walked with a friend. It might also be one where the unexpected happened. For example, Hennessy says, imagine “getting caught in a thunderstorm on Franconia Ridge, in the White Mountains. You made it, and you’re so proud of yourself. What matters is the experience. Everyone’s is different.”
Ready to explore? You can find your nearest trail at trails50.org.
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