Tired? Stressed? It’s time for a change of scenery. Escape the rat-race, get off the beaten path, and catch your breath by exploring one of America’s best long distance hiking trails.
To set out on a long distance hiking trail - also known as thru-hikes - takes careful planning and preparation.
Intrepid thru-hikers and campers need to understand the time commitment required; the geographical and environmental challenges; the necessary permits, rules and regulations; and the accommodation options along the way.
There are several truly incredible long distance hiking trails to consider in the US. Here’s five of our favourites:
© Frank Schulenburg. Chimney Rock, Point Reyes National Seashore, American Discovery Trail
6,800 miles. The American Discovery Trail (ADT) runs between Point Reyes National Seashore, California, and Cape Henlopen State Park, Delaware.
Expect to encounter breathtaking diversity in topography - the trail traverses an epic mixture of urban parks, waterways, abandoned railway lines, plains, mountains and desserts. It crosses California, Nevada, Utah, Colorado, Nebraska, Kansas, Iowa, Missouri, Illinois, Indiana, Kentucky, Ohio, West Virginia, Maryland and Delaware.
If you have ever wanted to walk, ride a bike or ride horseback from one coast of the US to the other, then this might be the trail for you. Even if you aren’t looking to do a transcontinental trek, you can escape on the American Discovery Trail for an afternoon, a few days, or even several months. The trail is easily accessible in numerous places so that you can spend as much or little time as you like exploring its natural treasures.
ADT splits between Ohio and Colorado into a northern and southern route for crossing the Midwest. The northern route will take you through Indiana, Iowa, Illinois and Nebraska. The southern route will take you through Kentucky, Illinois, Missouri and Kansas. Portions of the trail pass through lower level mountains in the eastern portion and high level, alpine settings in the western portion.
Skill Level: Varies from easy to difficult.
Some sections can be visited year-round, but mountainous regions might be inaccessible during the late fall, winter and early spring months.
Maps and routes for the portion of the trail crossing through each state are provided on the official ADT website. This information also includes necessary permits, regulations and trail closures. Accommodation is limited in the most remote regions, so check before you go where the trail lodges are and where camping is available.
Acton, California, Pacific Crest Trail
2,650 miles. The Pacific Crest Trail (PCT) stretches between the Mexican and Canadian borders. Most sections follow along the Pacific coast mountain ranges in Washington, Oregon and California.
Encompassing mountain hiking and breathtaking ocean vistas, the PCT is a challenging trail not to be taken lightly. Consider your physical fitness and hiking capabilities before attempting long or remote sections. With that said, it’s easy enough to complete shorter, more accessible routes for as little as a few hours.
In higher elevations, the trail is covered in snow during most of the year. Snow can also present a challenge in June and July during some years, so hikers need to be prepared for issues related to freezing conditions. Fresh water is not always easy to find along the trail especially in areas in south and far north California, and central Oregon. Be sure to bring plenty of water with you and double check local conditions before you set off.
Skill Level: Not for novice hikers in most places. Difficult and dangerous alpine conditions are encountered along this trail, meaning the entire length can rarely be accomplished in a single season.
If travelling from south to north, you can begin in April and end in September. Optimum seasons in the higher elevation segments are June through August.
Water and extremes in temperature are the two major concerns on the PCT throughout the year. Being adequately prepared for rapid weather changes is a must. Accommodation options are limited, so carrying proper equipment for comfort (and emergencies) is essential. Permits are required in various segments and can be obtained from state agencies where necessary. Permits, trail conditions, closures as well as proper preparation tips are included on the PCT website.
Olympic National Park, Hurricane Ridge, Pacific Northwest Trail
1,200 miles. The Pacific Northwest Trail (PNT) begins near the Canadian border at Washington’s wilderness coast and runs all the way to Montana’s Rocky Mountains and the Continental Divide Trail. Between its two extremes, the PNT crosses the Olympic Mountains, the Northern Cascades, the Pasayten Wilderness and the Selkirk Mountains.
This is truly a wilderness escape along the lines of the Lewis and Clark Expedition. Since PNT crosses through three national parks and seven national forests, it is highly remote and a great wilderness experience for adventurous hikers. This trail combines the challenges of coastal hiking with forests, stream crossings and alpine ruggedness.
Small communities are few and far between, so preparation for longer periods away from civilisation and resupply opportunities is vital when planning to follow this trail. More experienced hikers can traverse the trail’s entire length in 60 to 70 days in mid to late summer. Snow in the high mountain elevations can present challenges to hikers and cold weather conditions need to be considered even if you are planning a shorter hike.
Skill Level: Much of the PCT is remote and therefore requires significant wilderness skills.
Late June through September are the best times to negotiate the PNT trek.
Official campsites are limited on this trail, so you will need to carry camping, food supplies, water and survival equipment. A guide to what you need in order to be well prepared as well as regional and sectional maps are available on the PNT website. Included on the website, you will also find information on necessary permits by region as well as trail conditions and closures.
By Jeff Pang. The Appalachian Trail along Franconia Ridge in New Hampshire
2,190 miles. The Appalachian Trail (AT) is the longest foot-traffic only trail in the US. It spans from Baxter State Park in Maine to the Chatahoochee National Forest in Georgia. The AT crosses through Maine, New Hampshire, Vermont, Massachusetts, Connecticut, New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Maryland, Virginia, West Virginia, North Carolina, Tennessee and Georgia. The White Mountains, the Appalachian Mountains, the Blue Ridge Mountains, and the Great Smoky Mountains can all be found along this classic American trail.
The AT allows hikers to set out on a historical journey through a mountain wilderness without the arduous challenges of alpine hiking. Furthermore, it is easily accessed from the East Coast’s large population centres, making it a very popular hiking destination. Be prepared to have a lot more human company than you would expect to see along trails in more remote parts of the US.
Though many sections of the AT are more accessible and more easily traversed by inexperienced hikers, there are long stretches of the trail which require a greater knowledge and understanding of wilderness and survival skills. The trail is well maintained by 30 different clubs as well as the National Park Service and the Appalachian Trail Conservancy. Thru-hikers can complete the trek in five to seven months, though most users only concentrate on shorter sections of the trail at a time.
Skill Level: Moderate to experienced hikers are better suited to this trail, though there are portions where a novice will get along just fine on a shorter duration hike.
Most sections are open throughout the year, but access is often limited in northern areas and higher elevations during the winter months when conditions can be cold and icy.
Permits for access to the AT are issued in each state at the numerous access points along the trail. There are frequent accommodation options with thousands of campsites, huts and cabins available along the route. Availability can be limited in the summer months, however, so be sure to book ahead at some of the more popular spots.
Being properly prepared for camping under a variety of wet and dry weather conditions is a must if you plan to be out on the trail for days rather than hours. Trail conditions, closures, wildlife and fire precautions, as well as maps and further practical advice can be found on the AT website.
And our AT guide provides even more essential info.
By Wesley Fryer. View from Cottonwood Pass, Colorado, Continental Divide Trail
3,100 miles. The Continental Divide Trail (CDT) follows along the Continental Divide of the Americas along the Rocky Mountains from Canada to Mexico. It passes through the states of Montana, Idaho, Wyoming, Colorado and New Mexico. Most of the trail from northern New Mexico to the Canadian border is in an alpine or sub-alpine setting.
Together with the Appalachian Trail and the Pacific Crest Trail, the CDT forms what thru-hikers affectionately term the Triple Crown of US long-distance hiking. One CDT highlight is the Triple Divide Peak in Montana, the hydrological apex of the North American continent - rainwater falling on the peak can flow either to the Pacific, Atlantic, or Arctic oceans. In some places, you might even find pools which are flowing in both directions.
The CDT provides a significant range of challenges for an experienced hiker; from the arid regions of the northern portion of the Chihuahua Dessert in New Mexico to alpine, snow conditions in the Rocky Mountains.
One of the great challenges of this trail is the fact that, though its path is designated in all five states, there are sections in each of the five states which have not yet been completed. Because of this, navigation becomes an added skill requirement for those who might take on the entirety of this mammoth trail. It can be conquered in five months by beginning at the Crazy Cook Monument on the border with Mexico in mid-April, and ending in mid-September in Glacier National Park, Montana.
Skill Level: This trail ranges from difficult to expert due to the extreme, remote wilderness conditions that are involved in traversing it, including navigation of rugged alpine regions. Hikers should not take attempting this trail lightly.
Most sections are not accessible from late September to mid-May, making it necessary to start at the southern terminus in mid-April if the trek is to be completed in a single season.
Preparation for numerous climate and water conditions is an essential element in conquering this extreme trek. A solid understanding of wilderness survival, wilderness navigation and both alpine and dessert challenges are also a prerequisite. Camping options and resupply points are few and far between, so much of what you will need will have to be carried with you. Before taking on the Continental Divide Trail visit its website and become very familiar with trail conditions, closures, maps and the necessary permits required.
No list of the best long distance hiking trails in the US would be complete without mentioning the Mountains-to-Sea Trail in North Carolina, and the Ouachita National Recreation Trail of Oklahoma and Arkansas. Let us know about your favourite trails and thru-hikes. =ZIP=