There are certain athletic achievements that always appear on bucket lists: running a marathon, completing a triathlon, or competing in a Tough Mudder. If none of these outdoor challenges interest you, we’ve got another to add to the list: hiking one of America’s 10 best long-distance trails.
The U.S. has some incredible thru-hikes including the Triple Crown of hiking: the Appalachian, Pacific Crest, and Continental Divide trails. The first two have seen an uptick in thru-hiking (that’s hiking a trail in its entirety) in recent years thanks to the movie adaptations of Wild (where a wholly unprepared Cheryl Strayed hikes the PCT) and A Walk in the Woods (ditto for Bill Bryson and Stephen Katz).
Yet there’s more than one way to tackle a long-distance trail. The greatest challenge, of course, is thru-hiking a trail in a single year. Weather, injury, and life circumstances often derail these attempts. (Just 1 in 4 hikers who attempt to thru-hike the Appalachian Trail succeed. And the success rate has been dropping.) But you can also hike a trail in segments over a long period of time or try a few day hikes to scope out the scenery. However you choose to hike, here are 10 of the best thru hikes in the US for to consider for your next adventure.
Total Distance: 6,800 miles
Beginning/End: Cape Henlopen State Park in Delaware to Point Reyes National Seashore in California
Unlike the other trails on this list, the ADT is not a wilderness hiking trail. Instead, it’s a network of preexisting trails that runs through a variety of landscapes including cities. It currently offers a contiguous path from the east to west coasts but supporters of the trail have an even more ambitious plan: to develop a completely off-road trail along the same general route.
Total Distance: 4,300 miles
Beginning/End: Crown Point, New York to Lake Sakakawea State Park in North Dakota
Like the ADT, the North Country Trail is another east-west route across the U.S. It currently travels through eight northern states ending in North Dakota. This scenic footpath was first established nearly 40 years ago and passes through 160 tracts of public land (including assorted state parks and state forests). Depending on which sections you hike, you can expect to see varied geography of prairies, forests, lakes, and streams.
Total Distance: 3,100 miles
Beginning/End: Glacier National Park, Montana (on the Canadian border) to Big Hatchet Mountain, New Mexico
The Continental Divide Trail bills itself as “a living museum of the American West” and it’s easy to see why. This storied hiking trail winds through some the west’s most iconic scenery: rugged mountains, remote deserts, and alpine tundra. It takes a north-south course along the Continental Divide in the Rocky Mountains, connecting Canada and Mexico. It’s considered to be the most difficult (and remote) of all the national scenic trails so if you’re looking for an especially challenging adventure, this could be it.
Total Distance: 2,650 miles
Beginning/End: Manning, British Columbia to Campo, California (on the Mexican border)
The Pacific Crest Trail was first completed in 1993, but its had a recent surge in popularity thanks to Cheryl Strayed’s memoir Wild. Despite its relatively young age, the PCT has been in development since at least the 1930s when surveyors first started plotting its route. Like the CDT, the Pacific Crest Trail runs north-south but most thru hikers travel south to north. Since most of the trail runs through national forest, it offers a true wilderness experience.
Total Distance: 2,200 miles
Beginning/End: Springer Mountain, Georgia to Mount Katahdin, Maine
In A Walk in the Woods, writer Bill Bryson calls the Appalachian Trail “the granddaddy of long hikes,” and for good reason. Although the trail is no longer the country’s longest or most challenging, it is one of the oldest long-distance trails. Built by private citizens throughout the 1920s and 30s, the AT was finally completed in 1937. Unlike its western counterparts, the AT travels near cities and populated areas at times. That said, most of the trail passes through forest and offers abundant opportunities to see wildlife.
Total Distance: 1,200 miles
Beginning/End: Potawatomi State Park, Wisconsin to Interstate State Park, Wisconsin
The Ice Age Trail is a national trail that winds 1,200 miles without even leaving Wisconsin. Beginning in Door County, the trail zigzags across the state as it follows the terminal moraine from the last Ice Age. The result is a forested byway that passes through beautiful hills, rocky outcroppings, and prairies.
Total Distance: 1,200 miles
Beginning/End: Chief Mountain, Montana to Cape Alava, Washington
Officially recognized by Congress in 2009, the Pacific Northwest Trail is one of the newest national scenic trails. It begins on the Continental Divide in Montana and crosses three national parks before it ends at the Pacific Ocean on Washington’s Olympic Coast. Along the way, it traverses three of the country’s biggest mountain ranges and is the only national scenic trail that requires a ferry crossing! (It crosses Puget Sound at the trail’s western end.)
Total Distance: 310 miles
Beginning/End: Jay Cooke State Park, Minnesota to U.S./Canada border
The last three trails on our list are small (compared to the other long-distance trails) but still mighty. The 300+ mile Superior Hiking Trail traces the rugged shoreline along Lake Superior in Minnesota. Since the trail passes through numerous state parks and the Superior National Forest, expect to see plenty of waterfalls, cliffs, and forests.
Total Distance: 272 miles
Beginning/End: Williamstown, Massachusetts to North Troy, Vermont
The aptly named Long Trail is officially the oldest long-distance hiking trail in the U.S. (It was completed in 1930, seven years before the Appalachian Trail.) Starting at the Massachusetts/Vermont border, it follows the ridge of Vermont’s scenic Green Mountains. Like the AT, there are many shelters along the trail for backpackers to stay the night.
10. John Muir Trail
Total Distance: 215 miles
Beginning/End: Happy Isles, Yosemite Valley (California) to the summit of Mount Whitney
What the John Muir Trail lacks in extreme distance, it makes up for in elevation. Although this famous trail in the Sierra Nevadas is just over 200 miles long, it has more than 47,000 feet of elevation change! (Most of the trail is above 8,000 feet so be prepared for high-altitude hiking.) The trail ends at the summit of Mount Whitney, the highest mountain in the continental U.S. Also worth noting? About 160 miles of the trail runs along the same path as the Pacific Crest Trail.