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What a recent National Park Service decision means for Ohio's Buckeye Trail

man walks away from camera on a trail in the woods. in the foreground is a blue stripe of paint on a tree base.
Buckeye Trail Association
The "blue blaze" marks the way along Ohio's 1,400-mile-long Buckeye Trail.

Millions of people hike parts of Ohio's Buckeye Trail each year, with some of the most popular sections winding along the Little Miami Scenic Trail, and through Hocking Hills and Cuyahoga Valley National Park. The more than 1,400-mile-long trail circumnavigates the state of Ohio, making it arguably the longest loop trail in the country.

Some 900 miles of the Buckeye Trail overlap with the North Country National Scenic Trail — a 4,800-mile trail crossing eight states from North Dakota to Vermont. The North Country National Scenic Trail is the longest of the United State's 11 National Scenic Trails, which includes the Appalachian, Pacific Crest, and Continental Divide trails. It was recently granted "unit status," providing for more funding, and equal legal standing with other trails and parks administered by the National Park Service.

What does that mean for Ohio?

"It offers [the North Country Trail Association] more opportunities for funding sources and resources in the future, and by our relationship, that means that we would have more eligibility to be supported by our national partner as well," explains Andrew Bashaw, executive director of the Buckeye Trail Association. "Eventually, it could translate into better training opportunities for our volunteers. Perhaps more personal protective equipment for our volunteers; perhaps funding for trail projects on our co-located trail."

Black and white historical photo of five men and one woman on a winter day beside a sign with the shape of Ohio
Ohio History Connection and Buckeye Trail Association
Dedication of the final leg of the Buckeye Trail, March 20, 1981. The trail was completed near Deer Lick Cave in the Cuyahoga Valley National Recreation Area in 1980. Pictured with the new sign (right to left) are Ralph Ramey, Buckeye Trail Association President; Lou Albert of the National Park Service; Emily Gregor of the Buckeye Trail Association; Lou Tsipis, Executive Director of Cleveland Metroparks; Robert Teater, Director of the Ohio Department of Natural Resources and Ed DeLaet, trail supervisor of Buckeye Trail.

The Buckeye Trail was first envisioned in 1958 as a trail connecting Lake Erie to the Ohio River. The Buckeye Trail Association formed the following year, and the first 20-mile segment opened Sept. 18, 1959, in Hocking County. Among those who made the ceremonial first hike was Ohio's Emma "Grandma" Gatewood, who famously became the first woman to solo hike the 2,000-plus mile Appalachian Trail in 1955 at age 67. Then she did it two more times in 1957 and 1964 (in sections). She's considered the most famous Appalachian Trail thru-hiker.

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The trail — currently 1,447 miles (the exact distance varies as portions of the trail are improved) — was completed in 1980, the same year Congress passed legislation authorizing the North Country National Scenic Trail. It's recognizable for the blue paint or "blaze" used to mark the trail. Hikers most often "follow the Blue Blazes" in segments, though Bashaw says around five hikers per year attempt to thru-hike it.

"The No. 1 use of the Buckeye Trail, as you might expect from any long-distance trail, is day hiking," he says. "We have over a million visitors in the Cuyahoga Valley National Park on the Buckeye Trail each year; over 4 million visitors on the Buckeye Trail in the Hocking Hills area each year; and the same, you know, bigger numbers are true for the Little Miami Scenic Trail portion of the Buckeye Trail and other shared, multi-use bike path portions."

snow covers the ground while water falls from a waterfall above a cave-like overhang
Buckeye Trail Association
The Buckeye Trail loops around Ohio, including millions of visitors to Hocking Hills State Park.

A big change could be coming

Beginning in 2024, the National Park Service will commence a feasibility study to determine if the Buckeye Trail should receive the National Scenic Trail designation. Congress in 2022 approved funding for a "Buckeye National Scenic Trail" study. Bashaw says the association will work with the National Park Service (NPS) as needed to facilitate the study and share information.

If the NPS recommends the designation, it would then have to be approved by Congress.

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"If that were to happen, then a federal agency would be assigned to administer [it]. ... Likely the National Park Service or U.S. Forest Service would create an office and a staff to administrate a Buckeye National Scenic Trail, and they would be held to a higher bar of compliance and that sort of thing," says Bashaw.

map of Ohio with blue arrows mapping the trail
Buckeye Trail Association
The Buckeye Trail

"There would also be funding designated ... for general operations and trail projects and volunteer and parks programs, and all those things so there'd be an infusion of investment into Ohio's Buckeye National Scenic Trail."

Bashaw adds the Buckeye Trail Association members have a good relationship with their counterparts at the North Country Trail Association. That could be helpful along the "hike" to national scenic trail status.

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"They really do mentor the Buckeye Trail Association. They provide their staff for technical assistance with our relationship with them and the National Park Service partner. We do receive a lot of trail signage that works for both of our trails, and they have supported us by funding training, etc.," Bashaw concludes. "They've been a really great partner and so any success for them is ultimately a success for us as well."

Senior Editor and reporter at WVXU with more than 20 years experience in public radio; formerly news and public affairs producer with WMUB. Would really like to meet your dog.