The Best Thru-Hikes You’ve Never Heard Of
The AT isn't the only long-distance hike.
My first backpacking trip at age 14 took me into the woods around Springer Mountain, the southern terminus of the 2,180-mile Appalachian Trail in north Georgia. While my dad and I only did one night and probably less than 10 miles that trip, the experience sparked a lifelong love of ditching the daily grind to carry only what I need on my back in the woods for a period of days. It’s called backpacking. I don’t do it as much as I’d like, but I do try to take at least a few backpacking trips a year. And the idea of a thru-hike, the pinnacle for backpackers, bobs back and forth in my mind.
More Americans than ever are aware of thru-hiking these days thanks to the adaption of two popular creative non-fiction books on the subject: A Walk in the Woods about the Appalachian Trail (love, love, loved the book by the great Bill Bryson, hated and couldn’t even finish the movie by the great Robert Redford) and Wild about the Pacific Crest Trail (enjoyed the book by Cheryl Strayed, so I didn’t see the movie with Reese Witherspoon). In part due to the popularity of these stories, but also due to backpacking popularity in general, traffic on the most accessible trail, the AT, has risen significantly in the last couple of decades, an estimated 700% in 25 years (according to an article by Outside). As a result there has been an increase in things like trash, noise and unprepared hikers, and a diminishment in the peace and solitude that the trail originally promised. The 2,600-mile PCT suffers similarly. (Together with the 3,100-mile Continental Divide Trail, the AT and PCT make up the "Big 3" thru-hikes.)
Knowing this, my eyes have started wandering from the AT and PCT, which has also become quite busy, to lesser known long-distance trails. Not far from where the AT crosses through Great Smoky Mountains National Park in east Tennessee (where I live), the Cumberland Trail promises to offer an experience apart, though it’s not yet complete. The Cumberland Trail Conference manages the building process for what will be a 300-mile trail stretch from Cumberland Gap National Historical Park in the north to Chickamauga-Chattanooga National Military Park in the south, just outside of Chattanooga. In addition to passing through two national parks, the trail will also traverse two National Wild & Scenic River areas. And in addition to being quieter, the Cumberland Trail will be 1,880 miles shorter than the AT, making it possible for a working woman like me to potentially tackle it in a long vacation without ditching my day job. To date, 190 miles have been constructed but they’re divided into 15 segments, making it hard to truly thru-hike.
Other options are more complete. On the West Coast, the 211-mile John Muir Trail and 195-mile Sierra High Route provide shorter but still life-changing alternatives to the PCT. In the Southwest, the Arizona Trail (800 miles) winds through the wilderness in its namesake state and the Hayduke Trail (also 800 miles) in Utah and Arizona introduce thru-hikers to some of the most remarkable national parks: Zion, Grand Canyon, Bryce, Capitol Reef Canyonlands and Arches. Other lesser-known thru-hikes traverse the Northeast, North Woods and Deep South. Click on the gallery below to check several of them out and start planning your own escape.
Thru-Hikes Across the U.S.
Pacific Northwest TrailThe Pacific Northwest Trail spans 1,200 miles -- including 3 national parks and 7 national forests. To tackle this route, which runs through Montana, Idaho and Washington, you'll have to keep a pace of 20 miles per day. That'll get you to the trail's end in about 60 days.
Best times to hike:Year-round at lower elevations, summer and fall at higher elevations. 960 1280
Appalachian TrailThe famed Appalachian Trail spans more than 2,180 miles. A thru-hike usually takes between 5 and 7 months, cutting through 14 states between Georgia and Maine. Along the way, enjoy views of pink rhododendrons along the trail’s Tennessee-North Carolina state line and in southwest Virginia, from late spring to early summer.
Best times to hike: Spring to fall. 960 1280
John Muir TrailNaturalist John Muir loved this area of California’s Sierra Nevada mountain range. Today, the trail named in his honor runs 211 miles, from Yosemite Valley to Mount Whitney (the highest point on America’s mainland). Most hikers start their trek at Yosemite’s Happy Isles or Tuolumne Meadows.
Best times to hike: Generally July to September. 960 1280
Hayduke TrailUber-hiker Andrew Skurka calls Hayduke Trail “one of the finest ways to discover the Colorado Plateau … and get away from it all.” No wonder. The 800-mile trail running through Utah and Arizona covers the area’s big national parks: Zion, Grand Canyon, Bryce, Capitol Reef, Canyonlands and Arches.
Best times to hike: Spring and fall. 960 1280
Pacific Crest TrailThe massive Pacific Crest Trail covers more than 2,600 miles, from California, Oregon and Washington to British Columbia. The trail is among the “Big 3”: If you hike the Pacific Trail, as well as the Continental Divide Trail and the Appalachian Trail, you’ll get the American Long Distance Hiking Association’s Triple Crown Award.
Best times to hike: Late April to late September. 960 1280
Sierra High RouteThe Sierra High Route is one of pro hiker Andrew Skurka’s favorite trails. The 195-mile trail in California’s Sierra Nevada Mountains offers amazing views of meadowlands, lake basins and mountain peaks. Keep a pace of roughly 20 miles per day, and you’ll complete the trail in a little over a week. Also, keep in mind logistical considerations.
Best time to hike: Depends on skill level. 960 1280
Arizona TrailThe 800-mile Arizona Trail runs north and south through the state, and showcases some of the region's most unspoiled terrain: ridges, mountains and wilderness areas that have remained untouched since Arizona became a territory in 1863. That remoteness also means hikers must stay current on Arizona Trail conditions.
Best times to hike: Year-round at lower elevations, summer and fall at higher elevations. 960 1280
Long TrailKnown simply as the Long Trail, this route runs 273 miles through Vermont -- the whole length of the state. The trail also happens to be America’s first long-distance hiking trail. Construction began in 1912 and continued for nearly 20 years. Today, hikers can enjoy short day hikes and extended treks (including to Mount Mansfield, Vermont’s highest mountain).
Best times to hike: Late spring through late fall. 960 1280
Continental Divide TrailAt 3,100 miles, the Continental Divide Trail is not for the faint of heart: Only about 25 people a year attempt to hike the entire trail, which runs between Mexico and Canada. Some areas can only be traveled by bushwacking, aka make-your-own-trails, and roadwalking.
Best times to hike: April to October. 960 1280
Superior Hiking TrailEveryone loves Superior: Hiker Andrew Skurka ranks the trail among his 10 favorite US hikes, Readers Digest ranks it among its top 5. The 275-mile footpath showcases scenic views -- boreal forests, rushing waterfalls and the 30-mile-long Sawtooth Mountains are among the attractions -- as well as 81 campsites for a little R&R.
Best times to hike: Late spring to early fall. 960 1280
Florida TrailAlligators are among the wild critters that hikers can encounter along the Florida Trail. The 1,400-mile trail starts at Big Cypress National Preserve (about 45 miles west of Miami) and ends in the Pensacola, FL, area. And if you see a gator along the way? Give it space, circling around its tail end so it doesn’t feel threatened.
Best times to hike: Year-round. 960 1280
Colorado TrailHikers, horse riders and bicyclists, the Colorado Trail is calling your name. The 486-mile trail runs from the Denver area to Durango, CO, with some of Colorado’s most beautiful scenery in between: wildlife (marmots, deer, sheep and more), as well as wildflowers, forests, lakes and streams ideal for fishing. A thru-hike generally takes 4 to 6 weeks to complete -- a feat accomplished by roughly 150 people per year.
Best times to hike: Primarily July and August. 960 1280