8 Hikes on American Indian Footpaths

PHOTO BY WILL PARSON/CHESAPEAKE BAY PROGRAM VIA FLICKR COMMONSVisitors take in the view at Virginia’s Natural Bridge State Park, near where Capt. John Smith first encountered Indigenous People in North America.

Have you ever wondered who used a trail before you—or maybe how a trail first came to be? These eight routes were initially traveled by American Indians who created the paths for travel, trade, and spiritual connection long before European settlement. Pick one or several for the chance to walk in the footsteps of this land’s earliest inhabitants, surrounded by history. 


1. Salt Bay Heritage Trail, Newcastle, Maine

This loop hike traces the shore of a peninsula between Great Salt Bay and the Damariscotta River, where the Abenaki once hunted and fished. From the parking area on Mills Road, follow the trail east along the shore then take a left on a side trail, about 1.5 miles into the hike. You can’t miss the Glidden midden, a 30-foot-high heap of oyster shells, on the riverbank. Estimated at around 2,400 years old, the pile marks a once-popular feasting spot. Return to the main trail to complete the loop. Because the Damariscotta is tidal, plan to hike this route at low tide for best visibility. 

DISTANCE: 3-mile loop

INFO: AMC’s Best Day Hikes Along the Maine Coast (AMC Books); damariscottariver.org 


2. White Rocks Cliffs Trail, Wallingford, Vt.

Ice-age glacial activity exposed the Cheshire quartzite that makes up these white cliffs—a rock of special value to the Abenaki, who chipped away at the mountainside some 12,000 years ago, collecting shards for tools. To get a closer look, park in the lot on Sugar Hill Road and find the trailhead at the far end, marked by blue blazes. Follow Keewaydin Trail around the northeastern side of the cliffs then turn right at a stone cairn marking the Greenwall Shelter spur trail; take that to White Rocks Cliffs. Soak up the history embedded in the rocks and the beautiful views of the surrounding Adirondack and Taconic mountains. 

DISTANCE: 3.2 miles round trip

INFO: AMC’s Best Day Hikes in Vermont (AMC Books); fs.usda.gov


3. Mahican-Mohawk Trail, Charlemont, Mass.

Multiple American Indian nations followed this route for travel and trade over thousands of years. It earned its lasting name after the Mohawk used it to reach the Pocumtuck of Deerfield for a 1664 battle. Parts of the trail remain open for public use today. To hike a scenic Massachusetts section, start at the trailhead on Route 2. Take Nature Trail toward the Mahican-Mohawk junction; from there, Mount Todd rises to the east and Mount Clark to the west. To summit either mountain, hike out and back from the junction. To finish the loop, take Indian Trail from the junction back to the trailhead. 

DISTANCE: 3-mile loop

INFO: Massachusetts Trail Guide (AMC Books); mass.gov


4. Mattabesett Trail , Durham, Conn.

Coginchaug Cave, a special point of interest on this trail, contains a rich history: The Mattabesett people, who frequented the area while hunting, once used the rock formation as a shelter and meeting place. Marked by blue blazes, Mattabesett Trail begins off Old Blue Hills Road. Follow the trail 1.5 miles to the cave, along a path lined by wildflowers and blueberry bushes, then retrace your steps back to the trailhead. Mattabesett Trail makes up one section of the New England Trail, a 215-mile National Scenic Trail that traverses Connecticut and Massachusetts. 

DISTANCE: 3 miles out and back

INFO: AMC’s Best Day Hikes in Connecticut (AMC Books); newenglandtrail.org


5. Indian Ladder Trail, Voorheesville, N.Y.

Much of Thatcher Park’s present-day trail system originated hundreds of years ago, including one particularly notable feature. The Mohawk-Iroquois used a wooden ladder to climb the cliffs for travel and trade, providing a route up and down a steep, 100-foot rock wall. Today a steel staircase spans the same drop. At the Indian Ladder trailhead, descend a northern set of stairs to walk below the cliffs then climb back to higher ground via a southern staircase. From there, you can choose between a longer and a shorter option to complete the loop. The trail recently reopened following safety-related repairs but does close annually from mid-November through the end of April. 

DISTANCE: 2- or 4-mile loop

INFO: AMC’s Best Day Hikes in the Catskills & Hudson Valley (AMC Books); parks.ny.gov


6. Laurel Highlands Hiking Trail, Ohiopyle, Pa.

Long before European settlers arrived in the area, the Monongahela lived in small villages along the Youghiogheny River. After cultivating a riverside civilization that lasted approximately 12,000 years, the people vacated the region. Ohiopyle State Park now contains 79 miles of trails, including the southern end of Laurel Highlands Hiking Trail. The trail starts in Ohiopyle and follows Laurel Ridge, heading north to Johnstown, Pa. Start at the Ohiopyle Park Office. From there, either hike out and back or opt for a longer backpack, staying at overnight shelters every 8 to 10 miles along the trail. 

DISTANCE: 6.3 miles out and back; longer routes available

INFO: dcnr.pa.gov 


7. Susquehanna Ridge Trail, Havre de Grace, Md.

Like many American Indian tribes, the Susquehannock of eastern Maryland depended on a river for their way of life. They used the Susquehanna for food and transportation, building communities along the shore from present-day New York to Maryland. Today the trail follows the western ridge above the water, offering incredible views of the river valley. Start at the ranger station off Stafford Road to hike the challenging trail out and back. If a one-way hike sounds better, spot a second car at the parking lot on the southern end of the hike and shuttle back when you’re done. 

DISTANCE: 6 miles out and back

INFO: dnr.state.md.us


8. Cedar Creek Trail, Natural Bridge, Va.

Located in Virginia’s newly designated Natural Bridge State Park, Cedar Creek Trail offers a tour through history. The trail passes both a replica of the ancient Monacan Village, where modern-day visitors learn how indigenous people once lived, and the 215-foot-high Natural Bridge, a limestone formation carved by Cedar Creek that was a sacred place for the Monacan. Pick up Cedar Creek Trail at the park visitor center and follow it to Natural Bridge. From there, continue on to view the scenic, 30-foot Lace Falls before returning the way you came.

DISTANCE: 1.4 miles out and back

INFO: dcr.virginia.gov


John S. Burk, Peter W. Kick, Carey Michael Kish, René Laubach, Jen Lamphere Roberts, Charles W.G. Smith


About the Author…

Kelly Thomsen

AMC Outdoors inspires people to engage in outdoor conservation and recreation through meaningful stories.

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