Hiking in the US has been around for generations, although distinguished hiking trails didn’t emerge until the turn of the 20th century. Today, with the rising popularity of hiking and fitness in the media, what was once a task left to the ‘fittest’ is now a trendy outdoor activity for all ages. From the Pacific Crest Trail in California to Vermont’s Long Trail, the US is teeming with trails traversing through the many unique landscapes that characterize the nation today: read on to discover the beauty of the eight best long-distance hiking trails in America.
John Muir Trail, California
The John Muir Trail, or JMT, is one of the most popular trails in America; discovered by 19th-century naturalist John Muir, the JMT covers 211 miles of terrain from Northern California‘s Yosemite National Park to Mount Whitney, the highest peak in mainland America. The JMT also has some of the most scenic views in the country, including the Sequoia National Park, Ansel Adams Wilderness, and Kings Canyon National Park; plus, this region has the best weather out of any other major mountain range in the world, making it an ideal trail for even the inexperienced. Peak season is July through September; though, keep in mind that permits are needed, so plan accordingly.
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Pro tip: Hike the trail from north to south, ending your hike with the most rugged parts of the terrain at Mount Whitney.
Appalachian Trail, Georgia to Maine
The Appalachian Trail, along with the Continental Divide Trail and the Pacific Crest Trail, is part of the ‘Triple Crown‘ of long-distance hiking. Starting from Georgia‘s Springer Mountain, the AT travels 2,175 miles through 14 states, eight national forests, and six national parks, finally ending at Mount Katahdin’s summit in Maine. Because the trail traverses through many small towns, it’s one of the easiest to access; even if it’s for a short day hike, visitors can experience the beauty of this scenic hiking trail in just a few hours – just follow the white markers, called ‘blazes.’ If you’re planning to thru-hike, be sure to plan ahead before making the trek.
Pro tip: Start in the south – the most difficult part of the hike is the northern stretch from the Hundred-Mile Wilderness to Mount Katahdin.
Hayduke Trail, Arizona & Utah
The Hayduke Trail is not an easy trail by any means; starting in Arches National Park, Utah, this 800-mile-long backcountry route travels through some of the most rugged terrain in the Southwest, including Canyonlands National Park, Capitol Reef National Park, Bryce Canyon National Park, Grand Canyon National Park, and finally ending in Zion National Park in northern Arizona. Trails can be hard to find, and water is scarce along the way; however, the Hayduke plays host to stunning views of Redrock country.
Pro tip: Thru-hiking is the most challenging, with less than ten people successfully completing it in its entirety; instead, opt for various sections along the route that are easily attacked in a weekend’s time.
The Ice Age Trail, Wisconsin
Thousands of years ago, most of the northern US was buried under a sheet of ice, and at the end of the last Ice Age, the ice melted, leaving behind glacial landforms like boulders, potholes, and lakes. The Ice Age Trail is a national scenic trail. The active building of the Ice Age Trail began in the 1960s and continues, enthusiastically, to this day.
While only a handful of people complete the entire trail in a single year, 134 hikers have achieved “Thousand-Miler” status.
Pro tip: The trail is open year-round, so snowshoeing, cross-country skiing and even biking are allowed in certain sections of the trail.
The Long Trail, Vermont
Built between 1910 and 1930 by the Green Mountain Club, the Long Trail is America’s oldest long-distance hiking trail. Named the ‘footpath in the wilderness,’ the Long Trail covers 272 miles of varying terrain, from pristine lakes to alpine forests. Starting near the southern border of Massachusetts, the trail runs along the ridge of the Green Mountains through the heart of Vermont to its terminus near the Canadian border. While the trails are marked with blazes, it’s known to host rugged terrains like high mountainous peaks and muddy paths. For the most breathtaking views, head here during late summer to fall when the changing colors of the leaves make for a vibrant background.
Pro tip: There are over 70 campsites and backcountry shelters along the trail, which makes for easy planning.
The Grand Enchantment Trail, Arizona and New Mexico
The Grand Enchantment Trail – a 730-mile loop-style hiking route between Phoenix, Arizona and Albuquerque, New Mexico – plays host to some of the most beautiful views in the Southwest’s wild backcountry. Made from existing trails, dirt roads, and cross-country hiking routes, the GET is not an officially ‘sanctioned’ hiking trail; however, it’s known to boast an array of landscapes, from desert lands to pine forests. Head here during spring when water sources are at their peak after the winter’s snow has melted.
Pro tip: Don’t miss the Gila Cliff Dwellings National Monument along the way, an old village built by the Pueblo people of New Mexico.
Continental Divide Trail, New Mexico, Colorado, Wyoming, Idaho, and Montana
The Continental Divide Trail, dubbed the ‘King of Trails,’ is the mac daddy of long-distance hiking – it’s considered the highest, most difficult, and most remote of any other scenic trail in the States. Designated in 1978, the CDT travels 3,100 miles from Canada to Mexico, passing through the Rocky Mountains and five states on its route, with further construction to come. Despite its difficulty, the CDT is considered one of the best long-distance hiking trails in the world, highlighting the diversity of America’s landscapes, ecosystems, and wildlife. Nearly 150 hikers attempt to thru-hike every year; but due to snow and lightening, only a handful are successful.
Pro tip: Don’t miss the half-million acre Weminuche Wilderness in Colorado where hikers can see glacial valleys and views of the Needle Mountains.
Pacific Crest Trail, California, Oregon, and Washington
The Pacific Crest Trail, a 2,650-mile-long hiking and equestrian trail that travels from Mexico to Canada, is one of the most scenic trails in the West – beautiful high-desert, rugged mountain peaks, lush forests, and scenic volcanos reveal why this trail is so loved. As one leg of the Triple Crown of Hiking, and part of the Great Western Loop, the PCT represents the beauty of the western US, passing through the Cascade Range, the Sierra Nevada, 25 national forests, and seven national parks. Conceived by Clinton Churchill Clarke in 1932 (officially completed in 1993), the PCT has been a longtime favorite amongst long-distance hikers. For thru-hikers, it usually takes four to six months to complete; however, there are plenty of areas to pop onto the trail for a short hike.
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