Long-distance trails as conservation tools


In mid-2019, the IUCN WCPA Urban Conservation Strategies Specialist Group set up an Advisory Group on Long-distance Trails to explore what the World Commission on Protected Areas (WCPA) can do, working with other parts of IUCN, to promote long-distance trails as conservation tools. 

The subject pertains to the brief of the Specialist Group in that it relates to urban people, human settlements, and peri-urban conservation. It pertains to WCPA because long-distance trails typically run through several protected and conserved areas. [Photo: Pacific Crest Trail, Sierra Nevada, California, US]  


Long-distance trails are psychological as well as physical connectors. How people understand their surroundings depends on their mental pictures of where they live. In his classic work The Image of the City (1960), Kevin Lynch argues that paths of all kinds—streets, highways, trails—are "the most potent means by which the whole can be ordered." It follows that well-marked and well-publicized trails connecting urban to natural areas, and between natural areas in and around cities, can be strong psychological connectors to the natural environment. Lynch points out that the best urban paths give those walking on them a sense of progression toward a destination. However, even if people never walk on them, just knowing they are there has value.   

Examples of long-distance trails

Appalachian Trail, US


The A.T. runs for 3,500 km (2,200 mi) along the Appalachian Mountains of the eastern United States. It was started in 1922 based on the influential ideas of forester and regional planner Benton MacKaye, who saw the A.T. as a means of making nature accessible to people in neighboring towns and cities. Website.  

Trilha Transcarioca, Brazil


Completed in 2017, the Transcarioca stretches for 200 km (120 mi) through several mountainous protected areas around Rio de Janeiro that are within a World Heritage Site called the Carioca Landscapes between the Mountain and the Sea. (Carioca is an adjective in Brazilian Portuguese that refers to anything related to Rio de Janeiro.)  Website.

MacLehose Trail, Hong Kong


The MacLehose Trail runs for 100 km (62 mi) across Hong Kong's New Territories. It opened in 1979 when Hong Kong was still a British colony, and is the longest in an extensive network of trails in Hong Kong that are easily accessible by public transportation.  Wikipedia

Rota Vicentina, Portugal


This is a network of over 1,000 km (620 mi) of hiking and mountain biking trails in southwestern Portugal. One long-distance trail runs along the Atlantic Ocean coast; another follows a historic, mainly inland route. Along the way are farms, towns, and villages, as well as open country. Website.

Otter Trail, South Africa


Opened in 1868, the Otter Trail is entirely within Garden Route National Park. A coastal trail, it has many steep ups and downs along its 40 km (25 mi) route. Reservations are required to make the hike, which takes five days, staying in huts for four nights. Website.

Israel National Trail


This 1,100 km (683 mi) trail was inaugurated in 1995. It crosses the entire country from North to South, passing through rugged desert, farmland, and edges of towns and cities. Along the way are numerous structures and ruins representing multiple layers of history and prehistory.  Website.

Steering committee & objectives


  • Pedro da Cunha e Menezes, Brazil (Chair), Diplomat, Brazilian Ministry of Foreign Affairs (resident in Quito, Ecuador). Email: cunhaemenezes [at] gmail [dot] com 
  • Fook Yee Wong, Hong Kong, China, former head of Hong Kong Country Parks  
  • Marta Cabral, Portugal, President, Rota Vicentina Association  
  • Paddy Gordon, South Africa, General Manager, Garden Route National Park
  • Laura Belleville, US, Vice President, Conservation and Trail Programs, Appalachian Trail Conservancy  
  • Galeo Saintz, South Africa, Chair, World Trails Network  


1.  Promote a holistic vision of long-distance trails, not only as recreational infrastructure but also as conservation tools, especially in shaping new conservationists, young and old; and as connectors to places representing cultural, spiritual, aesthetic, and moral values.   
2.  Examine connections between such trails and animals and plants, e.g., in terms of wildlife corridors, human-wildlife conflict, invasive species, and zoonotic disease.  3. Examine whether such trails can generate enough business to be justified from a tourism investment perspective.  
4. Produce a volume in the WCPA Best Practice Protected Area Guidelines Series.