The American landscape has always provided ample fodder for traveling spirits. Following in the footsteps of strangers, past, present and future, helps shed light on who we really are. Perhaps that’s why fitness enthusiasts, naturalists, artists, students on a gap year, people recovering from a loss, or those who just want to hit the pause button for a while can all find interest in engaging in a long-distance hike. No matter who you are, crossing any part of the country will be a harrowing experience. But perhaps the biggest challenge is just beginning; the first step is to choose your path. So here are 11 of the biggest and best treks to choose from.
North Country Trail
Traversing 4,800 miles through the Northeastern United States, the North Country National Scenic Trail is the longest entry in the National Trails System. The NCT covers large portions of eight states, as well as the entire 310-mile Upper Hiking Trail, the majority of the 1,445-mile Buckeye Trail, and about half of the 560-mile Finger Lakes Trail, all of which are well-deserving of their own projector. Between North Dakota and Vermont, NCT visits the shores of three Great Lakes (Superior, Michigan, and Huron), protected forests, open prairies, and dense cities.
American Discovery Trail
This colossal, almost unimaginably long trail stretches 6,800 miles from coast to coast in the heart of the country, from Cape Henlopen State Park, Delaware, to Point Reyes National Seashore (near San Francisco), California. Along the way, the entire ADT passes through 16 states. That said, there is a north and south option throughout the central region, and so anyone crazy enough to tackle “the whole thing” will most likely choose a route, avoiding certain states and total mileage. The northern route is 4,834 miles, while the southern route is 5,057 miles. Regardless of the path, most hikers also choose to walk from east to west. Given the vast expanse of the trail, dozens of unique ecosystems (natural and man-made) and conditions can be expected along the way.
Bringing the scale down to a digestible level, The Wonderland Trail takes the itch out of long-distance hikes while still being a reasonable undertaking for many people. This 93-mile hike gains 22,000 feet in cumulative elevation as it skirts Mount Rainier in Mount Rainier National Park, Washington. The circuitous route and 18 backcountry campsites that provide plenty of options to break up the trip make planning this hike instantly easy. Each day promises to reveal new aspects of pristine nature, including crusty glaciers, verdant meadows, roaring waterfalls and volcanic ridges extending from the ubiquitous and iconic Mount Rainier.
At over 2,180 miles, the Appalachian Trail is the longest hiking trail in the country and the world. The approximately 4,000 annual hikers who (attempt to) conquer this famous trail meander through 14 eastern US states, from Georgia to Maine or vice versa. Completed in 1937, the Appalachian Trail owes its longevity to the National Park Service, US Forest Service, Appalachian Trail Conservancy, and countless state-level organizations/volunteers. Vast tracts of ubiquitous woodland, hidden lakes, farmland, rolling hills, rugged mountains, and intermittent splashes of towns, quirky communities, and popular national parks are among the many features to be expected throughout of the trek. If that’s still not enough, zealous wanderers can add the Pinhoti Trail, which stretches an additional 339 miles south of the Georgia trailhead.
Pacific Northwest Trail
The Pacific Northwest Trail is considered “America’s Wildest National Scenic Trail” not only for its immense distance (1,200 miles), but also because of the rugged and remote terrain it traverses. The TNP bridges the gap between the Continental Divide and the Pacific Ocean. Along the way, it passes through seven mountain ranges, three national parks, and deep sections of national forests. Hikers can also discover hidden trail towns and pretty riverside communities. Among the many challenges the TNP presents to would-be hikers, transportation and resupply rank high on the list, but perhaps surpassed by bear preparation. Over 400 miles of the trail passes through grizzly bear territory and black bears frequent 94% of the established route.
Pacific Ridge Trail
The Pacific Crest Trail is one of the most romantic treks in the country. It’s not just the sheer scale of this 2,650-mile (4,265 kilometer), point-to-point, 4-6 month effort that makes the PCT intriguing, but the range of conditions also keeps hikers on their toes. The trail crosses the Mojave Desert, long stretches of dense forests, and the snow-capped peaks of the Sierra Nevada and Cascade Range. This presents ever-changing weather conditions, as well as logistical challenges regarding equipment and provisions. Even if everything goes according to plan, the PCT still requires a stoic heart to transcend not only all of California, but also Oregon and Washington. Few people can say they have walked from Mexico to Canada, let alone mountains and deserts.
John Muir Trail
For an immersive taste of PCT that doesn’t require a midlife crisis, take the John Muir Trail. This 211-mile hike, which parallels a portion of the PCT that stretches from Yosemite Valley to Mount Whitney, can be done on a standard 2-week vacation (if you hurry). This trek is named after the legendary ecologist and nature-inspired writer. Muir was so taken aback by the beauty of Yosemite Valley that he became a lifelong champion for the creation of national parks and the preservation of America’s organic wonders. JMT hikers can expect generally pleasant weather, but strenuous exertion, as the trail climbs six mountain passes in the High Sierra range.
Continental Divide Trail
East of the PCT is another north-south Trans-American Trail known as the Continental Divide National Scenic Trail. The 3,100-mile journey crosses most of New Mexico, Colorado, Wyoming and Montana, as well as part of Idaho. It also includes a significant portion of the 567-mile Colorado Trail, which is another great addition to the long list of long-distance trails across the country. The CTC traces the backbone of the Rocky Mountains and, as its name suggests, follows the Great Continental Divide. Of the other 10 National Scenic Trails, the CTC is the highest, the farthest, and therefore one of the most difficult. Each year, several hundred daring hikers set out, and only about a third successfully reach the end.
Tahoe Rim Trail / Tahoe 200
Have you ever looked at the majesty of Lake Tahoe and thought, “I wonder if I can hike around everything?” Well, the good news is you can! But the sad news is that it will take a big effort. Over the course of approximately 10-15 days, you will need to cover 173.6 miles, with a total elevation gain of 28,053 feet. As a point of reference, Mount Everest is 29,029 feet tall. Cruising altitude is no slouch either, meaning hikers will want to take some time to acclimatize before heading out. The elevation ranges from 6,231 feet at Tahoe City (a common starting point) to the 10,285-foot Relay Peak (which is in Nevada). For those looking to climb even higher, the Tahoe 200 (205.5 miles) is an annual ultramarathon that also circles Lake Tahoe, with a few extra twists and turns for good measure.
The Florida National Scenic Trail stretches just over 1,500 miles from the Big Cypress National Preserve (south) to the Gulf Islands National Seashore (north), near Pensacola. This lesser-known mega-trail can be broken down into four sections. The Panhandle region crosses the Gulf of Mexico, bringing sandy stretches and also a stark contrast between the hills (including the highest points in the state) and the low, swampy areas. The northern section is reminiscent of 18th century plantations and Civil War battlefields interspersed with flat timber forests before splitting into one of two east/west options. The central region circles Orlando, presenting different characteristics depending on which branch hikers choose to take. The southern region brings swamps, old-time cattle country, and another prime fork of your own adventure in the trail.
Path from the mountains to the sea
And finally, if you hike the Mountains-to-Sea Trail as the name suggests, hikers will cover the 1,175 miles beginning in the Great Smoky Mountains and ending at the Outer Banks on the North Atlantic Coast. Unlike many extra-long entries on this list, the entire MST is in a single state, North Carolina. This fact in no way diminishes the diversity of the landscape, again, as its name suggests. Currently, about 725 miles of the hike is on marked wilderness trails, with the rest of the impressive network made up of back roads, bike paths, and even an optional paddle segment.
As you can see, there are enough long-haul trails across the United States to cover multiple lifetimes. And that only scratches the surface. Fortunately, there are no wrong answers.
Each of these stunning hikes will bring out the ups and downs, the elation and the exhaustion, the bug bites, the bruises, the friendships and the personal revelations. Undoubtedly, embarking on one of these hikes will mark an important chapter in one’s personal history.