When adventurer Benton MacKaye conceived of the Appalachian Trail in 1921, he probably had no idea how thru-hiking, long-distance hiking and backpacking would one day take the outdoor industry by storm. But today, thousands grab a backpack, stuff it with a stove, camping gear and food, and take to the hills, canyons, valleys and plains for months at a time. Whether you’re seeking your first or tenth thru-hike, here are our picks for the best long hikes in the U.S.
The Pacific Crest Trail is a showstopper for its rugged beauty © Sean Jansen / Lonely Planet
1. Pacific Crest Trail
The Hollywood star of them all, this most beautiful trail also has a rough side. Spanning the three westernmost states in the lower 48, the 2,650-mile Pacific Crest Trail covers the most variable terrain the planet has to offer – from the Mojave Desert in California, piggybacking on John Muir’s travels through the Sierras, then powering through the volcanos of Oregon and the Cascade Mountains of Washington.
Suitable For: As possibly the most popular long trail in the country, safety measures and information have become readily accessible and even the novice hiker can now attempt the PCT. Other backpacking experience is always a good idea, though.
With many portions over 14,000 feet, the Continental Divide trail is not for beginners © Sean Jansen / Lonely Planet
2. Continental Divide Trail
The Continental Divide is the literal spine of the country – marking the line where water will eventually run to either the Atlantic or Pacific Ocean . Running 3,100 miles from Mexico to Canada through New Mexico, Colorado, Wyoming, Idaho, and Montana, the CDT offers volcano hopping, route finding, altitude sickness and heat exhaustion, coupled with grizzly bears and rattlesnakes. In short, it’s a great adventure.
Suitable for: Only the experienced hiker should attempt the CDT. With many sections of off-trail navigating, elevations over 14,000 feet and variability in both terrain and weather, even the experienced will have to stay on their toes.
3. Appalachian Trail
The ‘granddaddy’ of the first three trails on this list (collectively known as the ‘Triple Crown of Hiking’), and definitely the most user-friendly, the AT is a great place to start a thru-hiking career, as it’s so convenient to civilization. Its long pedigree means there are pages and pages of history and literature for every step of the 2,180-mile trek, which spans from the northern part of Georgia to the middle of Maine.
Suitable For: The perfect trail for the beginner long-distance hiker. There are backcountry cabins, service roads where the trail-weary can make an easy escape, and close proximity to towns and airports for any emergencies.
The Pacific Northwest Trail is the perfect mix of coastal and alpine terrain © Thomas Barwick / Getty Images
4. Pacific Northwest Trail
The name describes where this trail is located of course, but it also describes the geography: Pacific and Northern. This stunner has something few long-distance trails in the U.S. have: a mountains-to-sea approach, encompassing the diversity of ocean and alpine terrain. Spanning 1,200 miles through Montana, Idaho, and Washington, crossing the Continental Divide and Cascade Range, there are curveballs galore on this rugged mountain-goat-infused trail.
Suitable For: Though it is shorter than half the trails on this list, it’s no less demanding. With every mix of weather and climate along the way, not to mention grizzly bears, only avid and knowledgeable hikers should consider this hike.
Alligators share the trail at Big Cypress National Preserve in Florida © Moelyn Photos / Getty Images
5. Florida Trail
Full disclaimer: No other trail in the U.S. carries with it the threat of alligators. The Florida Trail never leaves the state but has no need to. Instead it spans 1,300 miles across the peninsula and panhandle from Big Cypress National Preserve to deciduous forest. Along the way, hikers share the habitat with gators, mountain lions and black bears. It’s an exciting trail, if nothing else.
Suitable For: The Florida Trail is a great trail for all experience levels, as it is a relatively flat and low-elevation hike. But it is humid in Florida, so be prepared for bugs, sweat, and some serious Vaseline use for rash on this pressure cooker of a hike.
The Arizona Trail also includes portions of the Grand Canyon © Matteo Colombo / Getty Images
6. Arizona Trail
Think Arizona is nothing but heat and flat sand? Think again. This 800-mile trail explores deserts, mountains, canyons, and cultures from Mexico to Utah. Endlessly snaking from the state’s southern border to the northern border are grueling mountain switchbacks and the winding Grand Canyon National Park, one of the Holy Grails of hiking experiences.
Suitable For: A great trail for all experience levels. Be prepared to carry water for long, dry sections of trail. Do your homework on when to hike to avoid unnecessary struggles with everything from extreme heat to crowds in the Grand Canyon.
In addition to natural areas, the American Discovery trail goes through cities such as Cincinnati © benedek / Getty Images
7. American Discovery Trail
The only trail in the country that goes coast-to-coast, only the most driven dare to attempt this 6,800-mile behemoth. But for those who do, this trail has it all: city, nature, mountains, deserts, oceans, and plains. Crossing the Appalachian, Continental Divide and Pacific Crest Trails in route from Delaware to California, the wonders and discoveries are endless on this endless trail.
Suitable For: Only the dedicated. This trail will take everything out of you, test every bone and muscle, and try your patience to make you earn your coast-to-coast title.
The North Country trail spans many different types of terrain, from grassland to shoreline to mountain © Corey Hendrickson / Getty Images
8. North Country Trail
From the Grasslands to the lakes to the hills, the North Country Trail meanders from western North Dakota, 4,600 miles to Vermont. Hikers traverse a tirelessly strait trail in the grasslands before transitioning to the winding shoreline of Lake Superior. Whether you’re looking to hike every cardinal direction, see four great lakes, or 8 states, this trail ticks all the items on the list for a classic American thru-hike.
Suitable For: Not for the beginner hiker. The length alone can break the strongest minds, including the most experienced. Though the terrain isn’t necessarily the most grueling (although sometimes challenging) the stamina needed makes this an advanced hiker’s trail.
You can see the impact of eons of geology along the Ice Age Trail in Wisconsin © UWMadison / Getty Images
9. Ice Age Trail
Don’t let the name scare you away. This thousand-mile historic trail in Wisconsin was carved by nature’s glacial forces. Every step takes you back millions of years, when ice up to two miles thick sculpted the landscape. From the shores of Lake Michigan to one of the tributaries of the mighty Mississippi River, the trail winds, turns, and curves its way through forest, grasslands, and rocky outcroppings.
Suitable for: Avid hikers, but not necessarily advanced ones. Geology buffs will especially appreciate a look at the formation of the land. Just pack plenty of water and all necessary creams and ointments. Bugs, chafing, and rashes can ruin a hike.
The Hayduke Trail can get a little tight in the caverns of Utah © Suzanne Stoeer / Aurora Photos / Getty Images
10. Hayduke Trail
Named after a fictional character in ‘The Monkey Wrench Gang’ an infamous novel by Edward Abbey, the Hayduke Trail is a gem. No other trail both starts and finishes in a National Park. The 812-mile trail begins and ends in Utah, dipping into Arizona to join the Arizona Trail through Grand Canyon National Park. Choose this one for the solitude and serenity of the American Southwest.
Suitable For: With elevations from 1,800 feet to well over 11,000, the Hayduke is not for the faint of heart or the novice hiker. Off-trail navigation, altitude, heat exhaustion and water rationing require patience and experience.