Thru-hiking long-distance trails is an incredible way to test your mental and physical limits, as well as your ability to pack efficiently and effectively.
The challenges of thru-hiking are many—coping with blisters, battling quick turns of weather, rationing out food and dealing with incredibly sore muscles—but the rewards are even greater. Think about the access to remote places that few get to experience and the achievement of powering yourself a great distance with your own body.
Thanks to Hollywood’s interest in movies centered on long-distance hiking—such as the recently released Wild and the soon-to-be-released film based on Bill Bryson’s A Walk in the Woods, about hiking the Appalachian Trail—there has been an uptick in interest in both trails and long-distance hiking in general. In fact, after Wild came out, the Pacific Crest Trail Association has seen a 300 percent increase in traffic on their website and the Appalachian Trail is expecting a record number of hikers this summer.
Planning a thru-hike for the summer? Ditch the crowds. Here are ten options—from longest to shortest—you may not have considered:
American Discovery Trail (6,800 miles)
A road trip across the entire country graces almost everyone’s bucket list. A cross-country bike trip can be a goal, too. How about a crossing by foot? The coast-to-coast American Discovery Trail—the Mac Daddy of thru-hikes—stretches from the shores of Delaware to California’s Point Reyes National Seashore, one of the most wild and beautiful places along the California coast. Hike it, bike it or travel by horseback, but expect to spend 18 to 24 months on the trail, potentially waiting out winter part-way through. As you would expect, the terrain varies from rural Middle America to urban trails along greenbelts in places like Washington, D.C. and Denver.
North Country Trail (4,300 miles)
Just shy of twice the length of the Appalachian Trail, the North Country Trail is best hiked east to west, from New York to North Dakota. Shirk potential snowfall by leaving in the early spring—the fall foliage will welcome you to the finish line. By the numbers, that’s about eight to ten months of hiking through seven states, 10 national forests and 150 public land areas. Another number: a fellow-hiker count that’s exponentially lower than the AT or PCT. Highlights include walking along the shores of the Great Lakes and across the vast rolling grasslands of North Dakota.
Continental Divide Trail (3,100 miles)
Although considered the third trail in the “Triple Crown” of long-distance hiking in America—the other two being the PCT and the AT—the Continental Divide Trail, which extends from the Mexican border to Canada, sees a fraction of the hikers (150 hike it end-to-end each year). Credit its difficulty level: The CDT is strenuous on the thru-hike scale because it traverses some of the highest mountains through New Mexico, Colorado, Wyoming, Montana and Idaho and often sees icy conditions. Elevation can range from 4,000 to 14,000 feet above sea level—but no other trail offers such intimate views into America’s West, including desert, glacial valleys, craggy peaks, Lewis and Clark’s historic route and old mining sites. Sections of the CDT are still in the planning stage, so check the map accordingly.
Pacific Northwest National Scenic Trail (1,200 miles)
Launching from Glacier National Park and landing on the coast of Washington’s emerald green Olympic Peninsula, the Pacific Northwest National Scenic Trail is arguably the most breathtaking thru-hike in the country. Crossing three national parks and seven national forests, the 1,200-mile route, which dances along the Canadian border through stunning mountain ranges like the Selkirks, the North Cascades and the Olympics, takes most hikers 60–70 days. Lakes, waterfalls, woods, alpine terrain, misty coastline and the occasional bald eagle put this near the top of our list.
Superior Hiking Trail (296 miles)
Called the “best long hike in the country between the Continental Divide and the Appalachian Trail” by National Geographic author Robert Earle Howells, Minnesota’s Superior Hiking Trail hugs Lake Superior from Duluth to the Canadian border. Expect to spend three weeks weaving through woods and along streams to bluffs overlooking the lake. You can camp at any of the 93 backcountry sites along the route. And, you can stop in towns that are near 30 of the trailheads and potentially catch zzzs at an inn when the going gets tough. Bonus: wildlife abounds here, including bears, wolves and moose.
John Muir Trail (215 miles)
Okay, so the John Muir Trail overlaps with the Pacific Crest Trail for much of its length, but it’s such a classic, we couldn’t leave it out. Leaving from Yosemite, the trail winds through the Ansel Adams Wilderness, Sequoia National Park and King’s Canyon National Park before culminating at 14,494-foot Mount Whitney. California’s Sierra Nevada range is known for its mild, sunny climate and some of the most stunning scenery in the nation, but leave between July and September to avoid having to lug an ice axe along.
Loyalsock Trail (59 miles)
Pennsylvania’s little-known Loyalsock Trail is the perfect thru-hike for those who can’t put life on hold for months at a time. This week-long trail will give you a solid physical workout as it works its way up and down mountaintops on the Alleghany Plateau (between U.S. Route 220 near Laporte to State Route 87 near Montoursville). Following the Loyalsock Creek almost the entire length, the trail takes you by many waterfalls, ponds and lakes.
Toiyabe Crest Trail (72 miles)
Not for the novice thru-hiker, Nevada’s Toiyabe Crest Trail—a six- to seven-day hike—is dry, isolated and hard to follow. But, if you have tried-and-true navigation skills that you like to employ (and hauling water doesn’t bother you), this one’s for you. Topping out at 10,000 feet for a stretch of 50 miles, the Toiyabe Mountain Range is the highest and longest of Nevada’s 314 ranges. The trail’s eco-diversity spans a wide range—meadows, marshes, sagelands and aspen groves make up the scenery.
Resurrection Pass Trail (39 miles)
Eight public-use cabins line this trail in Alaska’s Chugach Range. Start the Resurrection Pass Trail in Hope, Alaska, and you’ll soon be in spruce and birch forest. The trail connects the towns of Hope and Cooper Landing on the Kenai Peninsula, south of Anchorage, and rises up above treeline to 2,600 feet, offering wide-open wildflower meadows and peak-filled views. Summertime daylight means you can knock this bad boy out in three long days, but if you take your time and summit nearby peaks, you’ll be rewarded with 360-degree views that scan over 150 miles.
West Maroon Pass, Colorado (11 miles)
Not all thru-hikes have to be grueling, long-distance or even require an overnight. The West Maroon Pass famed hike from Aspen to Crested Butte (or vice versa) offers a day’s worth of mileage through some of the most beautiful terrain out there. The trail snags views of the Maroon Bells and Snowmass Wilderness and is a must-do for wildflower hunters. From Aspen, the strenuous trek winds its way up, then steeply climbs nearly 1,000 feet in one mile to the 12,500-foot summit of West Maroon Pass before descending. Call for a taxi at the western end of the trail (Schofield Park, 14 miles from Crested Butte), and head into Crested Butte for a warm meal and a comfy bed before hiking or driving back to Aspen the next day.
Photography by Angela Crampton - REI Employee.