Anyone who’s ever read “A Walk in the Woods” or “Wild” has had one of two reactions. Many become enthralled by the magic of long-distance footpaths — the natural beauty of the Appalachian Trail and Pacific Crest Trail and the wondrous spiritual adventure offered to those who walk them — and decide that completing a thru-hike is something they simply must do during their lifetime. The others (the more rational-thinking among us) tend to resolve, “Well, that sounds grueling and miserable. I’m never going to do that. Good book, though.”
Despite my better judgment, I found myself in the former camp, marveling at how spectacular it must be to strap on a backpack, start at a trailhead in Georgia, and then emerge from the woods in Maine six months later, scraggly-bearded and full of a newfound appreciation for life. Like many of my fellow aspiring thru-hikers, however, I faced a few logistical obstacles, the most important of which was time. Not many of us have the type of schedule that allows us to take half a year off to go on a trek through the wilderness.
Luckily for us, even though it’s the AT and PCT that get all the press, the U.S. is actually criss-crossed with ample other trails that, though long enough to be considered thru-hikes, take considerably less time to complete. If hiking a long-distance trail is high on your bucket list, but you doubt you’ll ever have the time or endurance to cross it off, here are seven shorter (and more manageable) treks to consider.
Length: 273 miles (438 kilometers)
Traversing the spine of the Green Mountain Range from Vermont’s southern border with Massachusetts to its northern border with Canada, the Long Trail is the oldest long-distance hiking trail in the U.S (it was completed in 1930). For its first hundred miles or so, it follows the Appalachian Trail, before continuing north while the AT veers off toward New Hampshire. After that, the trek becomes significantly more difficult, with lots of elevation change, rough terrain, and dramatic summits such as Camel’s Hump and Mount Mansfield. It’s well worth the grind, however. Almost every day on the trail, you’ll be rewarded for your efforts with sprawling views of the enchanting Green Mountain State. Plus, when you finish, don’t forget to celebrate with an official Long Trail Ale.
John Muir Trail
Length: 210 miles (338 kilometers)
Named after the famous naturalist and environmentalist, the JMT is one of the more well-known long-distance trails in the country. The path winds through the beautiful backcountry of the Sierra Nevada mountain range, terminating at the summit of Mount Whitney, the highest peak in the continental United States. Despite its considerably short length, don’t expect your thru-hike to be too easy. The terrain here is exceptionally difficult; over a third of the trail lies above 10,000 feet and it challenges with a total elevation gain of over 47,000 feet (14,000 meters). As with the Long Trail, however, the splendor of the countryside will make your daily toil worth it. For a better understanding of the beautiful journey, check out “Mile, Mile and a Half,” a documentary about a group of hikers who attempt it.
Superior Hiking Trail
Length: 310 miles (499 kilometers)
Minnesota may be the Land of 1,000 Lakes, but this trail, which stretches from Duluth to the Canadian border, overlooks just one — albeit a very large one. The Superior Hiking Trail runs along a ridge above the eponymous Great Lake, offering plenty of rocky outcroppings and cliffs with spectacular views. Though it’s nowhere near as mountainous as the Long Trail or the JMT, it passes through its own gorgeous countryside, where hikers encounter lush woodlands and wildflowers, as well as deer, moose, beavers, eagles, and even black bears. If you’re lucky, you might happen upon some wild blueberries or raspberries to provide fresh energy for your thru-hike.
Length: 59 miles (95 kilometers)
With its total distance clocking in at less than 60 miles, you might not even be on the Loyalsock Trail long enough to acquire a trail name. But that doesn’t mean it’s not worth your time. This trail, for which you only need to allot five to seven days, is the perfect beginner’s thru-hike experience. It cuts through the mountainous woodland region of north-central Pennsylvania, presenting the difficulty of erratic elevation change (12,000 feet/3,660 meters total) without the lengthy commitment of a multi-week endeavor. Along the way, you’ll even hit 31 different waterfalls — so don’t forget to pack a swimsuit!
Oregon Coast Trail
Length: 382 miles (615 kilometers)
Few regions of the U.S. are more scenic than the Pacific Northwest, and this trail guides you along almost 400 miles of its coastline. Unlike most long-distance trails, which tend to traverse mountainous, heavily wooded terrain, the Oregon Coast Trail sticks mainly to the beach, taking its hikers along sandy cliffs and headlands, while still ducking into the occasional forested corridor. If “Wild” enchanted you with its wondrous depictions of the Pacific Northwest, but the unrelenting heat of southern California has steered you away from the PCT, opt for a thru-hike of the Oregon Coast Trail instead.
Length: 486 miles (782 kilometers)
In addition to being the longest trail on this list, the Colorado Trail is by far the most strenuous for a thru-hike. The average elevation along the path is 10,300 feet (3,139 meters) — which means that hikers will have to contend with the difficulties of trekking at high altitude — and the total elevation gain is over 89,000 feet (21,127 meters). But there’s a reason hundreds of hikers still push through to the end each year. The trail, which stretches from Durango to Denver, navigates some of the most breathtaking country in America, with alpine meadows and high-altitude vistas visible around every bend. Not to be taken lightly, the Colorado Trail is an absolute must for any outdoor adventurer willing to put the extra effort in.
Length: 93 miles (150 kilometers)
The gargantuan profile of Mount Rainier hovers over Seattle, seemingly beckoning to the adventurers of the Emerald City, ushering them to its summit. Unfortunately, scaling that peak is no small feat, as it requires the skill and knowledge needed to navigate glaciers and crevassed snowfields. Much more accessible is the Wonderland Trail, which encircles the mountain from below, offering all of the beauty and majesty of the mountain without the technical climbing needed to reach the top. To be sure, there is still climbing to be involved, as the trail cycles through alpine valleys and high-altitude terrain, but as long as you have the strength and endurance to trek uphill with a heavy pack on, you’ll be able to conquer it.
Know of another great thru-hike? Let us know what we missed in the comments below!
Header image by Danka & Peter