Arteries of Vibrant Communities

5 Rivers and Trails Where Communities Converge
Katherine RivardNPF Blog
Mississippi National River and Recreation Area at St. Paul, Minneapolis
Mississippi National River and Recreation Area — NPS

Trails and rivers have always been crucial centers of human interaction, providing a means of transportation for people, goods, and ideas. Though this remains true in the 21st century, the national and historic rivers and trails maintained by the National Park Service also play a pivotal role in community building. From creating opportunities to engage in recreational sports to preserving local traditions, these pathways, connecting through every part of America, are the arteries of vibrant communities, bringing together people from all walks of life.

Kayaking the Minnesotan Landscape

Canoers paddling on the Floodplain River, a wooded swamp on the Mississippi National River and Recreation Area
Gordon Dietzman/NPS

The Mississippi River was historically important for its use as a trade route, but its role in the daily life of local communities located up and down the river is what make it of lasting importance today. Minnesota’s 72-mile Mississippi National River and Recreation Area is particularly focused on allowing more visitors to take part in its many educational and recreational activities. Such programs provide a sense of stewardship in participants and plant a newfound appreciation for their local historic places.

Creating recreational opportunities for locals to enjoy their national parks in new ways is one way to grow the park community. In 2016, the Trails Today Program at Mississippi National River and Recreation Area further engaged locals by expanding the park’s kayak share program. Now, a greater number of Twin City residents and visitors to the area can explore the park as they kayak along the river.  In addition to the on-river paddling opportunities, the park has a popular bike share program for those who’d prefer to explore by land.

Along the Glacier’s 1,200-Mile Route

Green grassland of Lodi Marsh State Wildlife Area as part of the Ice Age National Scenic Trail
National Park Service

Every Tuesday afternoon and Wednesday morning, locals near Wisconsin’s Ice Age National Scenic Trail meet for weekly hikes of varying lengths. The almost 1,200-mile trail follows the entire length of the moraines left behind by the last glacier in Wisconsin and is much beloved by those in the communities it cuts through. Its very creation was a community effort, as volunteers organized in the 1950s to work on the trail. In 1980, it was officially designated as a national scenic trail.

Since 2008, the Saunters program has encouraged younger generations to also take advantage of the trails in their community. Organized by the Ice Age Trail Alliance, the program works with 17 school districts and community groups in Wisconsin to sponsor day hikes, backpacking, and service learning. Children and their families come away from the program with a whole new appreciation for their local trail and a new understanding of the many incredible resources provided through this nearby treasure.

Rivers and Rocks Down in Tennessee

A group of kids in helmet learning how to rock climb from a park ranger at Obed Wild & Scenic River
National Park Service

Nothing brings communities together like a shared appreciation for someplace special. Proving this theory, the Tennessee Citizens for Wilderness Planning and other committed conservation groups worked with state and federal legislatures to ensure that Obed Wild and Scenic River, and the many stories it preserves, remains pristine. One of the many natural beauties preserved in the park are the expanses of rock and cliffs that create a perfect spot for bouldering and rock climbing.

Imagine being 10 years old and going rock climbing outdoors for the first time, not on a plastic slab at the mall’s sporting goods store, but in your nearby national park! Locals can try rock climbing outside, just miles from home. Still, many do not know about this opportunity or how to start. Luckily, programs like “Urban Kids Rock the Obed” ensure that more members of the community are able to participate, bringing local children to the park, often for the first time, and teaching them about the sport. This and other opportunities, such as photography in the park, show local youth the many ways to get involved, thus creating stronger, engaged communities who understand the many resources available to them through their national park.

Where Two Worlds Collided on the Chesapeake Bay

A dusting of snow on the huts of the Powhatan Village at Jamestown along the Captain John Smith Chesapeake Trail
National Park Service

From the annual Gloucester Daffodil Festival to “Weekends at the Zimmerman Center” (free public programs to learn more about the local American Indian populations and the nature and ecology of the river), Captain John Smith Chesapeake National Historic Trail offers visitors a wealth of ways to get involved. The park keeps alive the histories of both the local Native Americans, as well as Captain John Smith and the European explorers that traversed the area beginning in the 1600s. These historical events are part of the authentic Chesapeake Bay experience.

Place-based educational opportunities for local youth allow them to learn more about the lands right in their vicinity. Today the park works with friends groups, nonprofits, and schools to host student programs and field trips. By reaching out and teaching youth about their area’s incredible natural and historic landmarks, the park creates a more sustainable funding base for future projects and builds an active community that is aware of all that its local park offers.

175 Miles of History on the Big Island

Hawai'ian canoes in the ocean along the Ala Kahakai National Historic Trail
National Park Service

The long trail network known as Ala Kahakai National Historic Trail passes through more than 200 traditional land divisions (ahupua’a) and hundreds of ancient Hawaiian settlement sites. The trails within the park range from rocky paths, to worn lava flows, to sandy shores and everything in between. Locals and visitors alike can appreciate the many changing sceneries as they travel the trail’s paths, which meander through four of Hawaii’s national parks.

Community engagement projects are ongoing as the park reaches out to connect with residents and visitors alike. From families of ancient Hawaiian lineage to resort managers, everyone can participate in community walk and talks and community discussion forums. Perhaps one of the most beloved ways to come together and keep alive Hawaiian traditions are the park’s music events. Music is used as a common link while preserving and sharing Hawaiian culture. Despite an influx in new residents from near and far, events like these inspire pride in the local music, create a shared sense of place, and offer an apolitical setting for the community to bond as one.

whitewater kayaker running the rapids on the Abed Wild and Scenic River in Tennessee

Whitewater kayakers on the Obed Wild and Scenic River

National Park Service

Sixty-six million people live within a mile of a national river or trail. This means that for many Americans, the chance to get active or learn more about their local history is just around the corner (or river bend). Tie on your boots or grab a paddle to #FindYourPark/#EncuentraTuParque and engage more deeply with your community today!

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