Trails on Tribal Lands in the United States

Uses studied:
Region: ,
Place: Tribal lands in the US


This study found that the benefits of trails in Indian Country may be more significant than in other communities that are less culturally or spatially fragmented, less politically and economically marginalized, or less culturally tied to the landscape. Trails can provide particularly valuable benefits to residents of Indian Country, helping to improve residents’ quality of life in several dimensions: connecting tribal members to each other and to culturally significant sites and natural resources; providing safe alternative transportation routes across the reservation; providing opportunities for safe exercise; and providing opportunities for economic development and cultural education.


This study is a unique assessment of the benefits and status of trails on tribal lands. The detailed discussion of issues around trails, including benefits and obstacles to their development, would be relevant for an assessment of trails on reservations across the U.S. or in other rural, under-served, economically depressed areas.


“Indian Country” in the U.S., refers to all land under federal jurisdiction and designated for Indian use, including reservations and other lands. This study covered 18 largely rural areas, and concentrated in the northern and central U.S.: Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument, Bay Mills Indian Community (MI), Lummi Reservation (WA), Lac Courte Oreilles Reservation (WI), Fond du Lac Band of Lake Superior Chippewa (MN), Rocky Boy’s Reservation (MT), Santee Sioux Reservation (NE), Winnebago Tribe of Nebraska (NE), Menominee Nation (WI), Northern Cheyenne Reservation (MT), White Earth Indian Reservation (MN), Lake Traverse Reservation (SD), Rosebud Reservation (SD), Blackfeet Indian Reservation (MT), Pine Ridge Reservation (SD), Tohono O’odham Reservation (AZ), Navajo Nation (AZ), and North Slope Borough of Alaska (AK).

Trail Type

Across the geographical areas surveyed, trails are most commonly pedestrian and bike (16), followed by snowmobile and ATV (8). The remainder are trails used for hunting, logging and fire roads, and nature trails.


This study addresses the unique role that trails play in Indian Country communities due to the specific historical, cultural, and economic conditions in Indian Country. This was an academic study; no funders were identified.


  • Because residents of reservation communities often are spread across the landscape, trails can connect tribal members to one another, tribal offices, schools, and sacred sites.
  • Because walking has been a traditional mode of transportation, trails can help to strengthen and educate members about these cultural traditions.
  • Construction and maintenance of trails provide opportunities to develop a sense of stewardship and community ownership for the landscape, particularly for youth.
  • Trails have some promise for tourism, economic development, and cultural education, but these must be managed carefully to avoid unwanted access to sacred sites.
  • High unemployment and a lack of public transportation mean that many people walk along roads or hitchhike between communities, a dangerous situation on narrow, high-speed roads. Several reservations have developed trails specifically to provide safe pedestrian routes.
  • High rates of diabetes, obesity, and heart disease have led several tribes to develop trail systems with the specific focus of providing safe opportunities for exercise.
  • Funding for trail development is limited primarily to federal sources, and requires developing partnerships with agencies and volunteer organizations.
  • Complex, fragmented land ownership on and near reservations can make trail development slow.


The authors conducted 21 formal interviews consisting of 30 open-ended questions with tribal planners, parks and recreation managers, biologists, trails experts, educators, and business leaders. The researchers identified participants by contacting 33 tribal colleges across the U.S., which then provided referrals to the most appropriate individuals. Of the 21 interviews, 7 were tribal members; the remaining 14 held tribal positions.


Deyo, N., M. Bohdan, R. Burke, A. Kelley, B. van der Werff, E. Blackmer, R. Grese, and N. Reo. 2014. “Trails on tribal lands in the United States.” Landscape and Urban Planning 125 (2014): 130-139.