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.)

The Cumberland Gap National Park, Kentucky 

The Cumberland Gap National Park, Kentucky 

The Cumberland Trail begins at Cumberland Gap, the historical route travelers took from the east to the frontier. The gap lies at the spot where Kentucky, Virginia and Tennessee meet.

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.

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