I’m always looking for ways to lead a healthier, happier life, whether it’s making sensible changes to my eating habits or finding time to fit a workout into my day. But I’m also a big believer in disconnecting from the daily grind occasionally, spending a few days, a week, or even longer away from the pressures and temptations of the modern world.
One of the healthiest and most affordable ways to do this is to embark on a long-distance hike, taking advantage of the tens of thousands of miles of hiking and multiuse trails crisscrossing the United States’ vast wilderness areas.
It helps that many long-distance trails and trail networks run close to major cities. There are probably a few, including some you’ve never heard of, within easy driving distance of your hometown. And since trail accommodations are typically rustic campsites and shelters that cost less than budget hotels and motels, the experience may not cripple your wallet.
If you’re fit enough to handle an extended period of exertion; like the idea of trekking through beautiful, quiet landscapes with few other human occupants; and don’t mind a sleeping bag and tent at night, consider taking a long-distance hike for your next vacation.
Long-Distance Wilderness Hikes in the U.S.
1. Appalachian Trail, Georgia to Maine
One of the oldest long trails in the U.S., the Appalachian Trail is the quintessential long-distance hike. The AT, as it’s known, stretches from Georgia’s Springer Mountain to Maine’s Mount Katahdin. Every year, thousands of through-hikers assemble at Springer Mountain and March and begin the long slog up to Maine, where they end – if they’re lucky – by mid-October. But the entire trail is beautiful and surprisingly accessible, so you don’t have to commit six months of your life to a 2,200-mile through-hike.
- Fees and Permit Requirements: Certain parks along the Appalachian Trail require backcountry permits for overnight visitors. These include Great Smoky Mountains National Park ($4 per person, per night, and 20 maximum per person), Shenandoah National Park (free), and Baxter State Park (also free, but backcountry camping fees may apply) along the trail.
- Best Segments: In Virginia, Shenandoah National Park harbors lush deciduous forests and incredible mountaintop views within easy driving distance of Washington, D.C. The trail spends about 100 miles in the park, so you can hike part or all of this length and double back, or use connecting trails inside and adjacent to the park to loop back to your starting point. Assuming a pace of 6 to 8 miles per day, it takes 13 to 15 days to walk the whole segment one way and 26 to 30 days to start and end in the same location. In New Hampshire, the Presidential Range is perhaps the most otherworldly section of the trail, with more than 10 miles of alpine tundra and around 85 total miles of rugged mountain traverses through the White Mountains. The heart of the Presidential Range is basically a long, high ridge with steep drop-offs on either side, so the views – especially above the treeline – are continuous and panoramic. This rugged section takes about 13 days one way and 26 days if retracing your steps.
- Best Time to Go: Altitude and latitude play a huge role in any Appalachian Trail experience. The southern third is generally passable and comfortable between late March and late November, though higher elevations can be cold and icy in the spring and fall. The middle third, including the Shenandoah segment, is best between mid-April and late October, when fall colors create a real treat. In the northern third, where higher elevations are icy, wet, or muddy most of the year, shoot for late August or early September if possible.
- How to Get There: The Appalachian Trail’s southern terminus is about two hours northeast of Atlanta, and the trail mostly runs within easy driving distance of major East Coast cities. If you’re keen on the Shenandoah or Presidential/White Mountains sections and don’t live within driving distance, fly into Washington-Dulles (Shenandoah) or Boston‘s Logan Airport (Whites). Both are between two and three hours from the destination, depending on where you start your hike. Nonstop and one-stop flights from major cities start at around $175 to Dulles and $200 to Logan, depending on your origin city. For the White Mountains section, the best starting trailhead is the large parking lot where the trail crosses NH-112, a scenic mountain byway. Take I-93 north to exit 32, then drive northwest on NH-112 for about 6 miles. In Shenandoah, Skyline Drive (a ridgetop byway) follows the AT for most of the park’s length and intersects multiple trailheads. If you’re starting in the south and walking north, park at the Turk Gap parking area, between 10 and 15 miles north of I-64.
- Accommodations and Cost: There are thousands of campsites, huts, cabins, and other rustic accommodations along the Appalachian Trail’s length. In national and state forests, which encompass much of the trail’s length, campsites generally cost between $5 and $30 per site, per night, depending on location and season. National park campsites, including Shenandoah, can cost between $10 and $50 per site, per night. For more upscale accommodations, the eight AMC White Mountain Huts span the Presidential segment and boast dinner and breakfast prepared by onsite staff during the summer, as well as running water, gas heat, cooking facilities, composting toilets, and real beds with comfortable bedding. But you have to pay handsomely for these amenities, as AMC huts can cost more than $100 per person, per night during the summer, though rates may be cheaper if you’re an AMC member. (Note: The AMC White Mountain Huts system is closed for the 2020 season due to the COVID-19 pandemic.)
- Pickup and Transportation Considerations: Though much of the Appalachian Trail is fairly close to populated areas, good cellular service isn’t guaranteed. If possible, arrange transportation ahead of time to and from your desired trailhead. Check the Appalachian Trail transportation options page for details and costs. Most road-accessible trailheads have shuttle service. In the Presidential section, the Mount Washington Auto Road Hiker Shuttle ($30 per adult, one way) runs scheduled service between Mount Washington’s summit and the Pinkham Notch trailhead. WhiteBlaze, a hiker forum that (among other things) connects hikers with drivers willing to provide their services at low cost (some drivers just ask for gas money), serves the entire AT corridor.
2. Ouachita Trail, Arkansas and Oklahoma
The Ouachita National Recreation Trail (ONRT) straddles the spine of the low, rugged Ouachita Mountains in Arkansas and Oklahoma, roughly bisecting Ouachita National Forest from east to west. Along its 223-mile length, the trail winds through lush forests, past burbling streams, and across rocky crags.
Despite its beauty and convenient location – the eastern terminus at Pinnacle Mountain is less than a half-hour drive from Little Rock – the ONRT remains a well-kept secret. Backpacker Magazine ranked it the third-best U.S. long trail for solitude.
- Fees and Permit Requirements: None. However, for safety, overnight hikers are encouraged to register at any registration boxes they pass, typically at parking lot trailheads and major trail intersections.
- Best Segments: If you’re a capable hiker, you can probably hike the trail’s entire length, one way, in 15 days. For a scenic, representative segment, start at Pinnacle Mountain State Park and head west, ending at Blue Mountain Shelter near mile marker 143. This stretch takes 10 to 12 days one way or 20 to 24 days both ways. One-way hikers can drive out near mile marker 147 on FR-1007, a two-lane rural road.
- Best Time to Go: Summers can be brutal and dry in this part of the country, so avoid hiking between June and September. Mid- to late October offers the best combination of mild weather and beautiful foliage.
- How to Get There: The trail’s western terminus is at Oklahoma’s Talimena State Park, which is two to three hours from Tulsa and Oklahoma City. The eastern terminus is just a short drive from Little Rock, Arkansas, at Pinnacle Mountain State Park. Nonstop and one-stop flights to these airports start around $150 (for short-haul flights) and rise to $300 or $400 (for flights from coastal cities). If you live in the south-central U.S., driving may be cheaper. To get to the trailhead at the Pinnacle Mountain Visitor Center parking lot, take I-430 northwest from Little Rock, get off at AR-10, turn north on AR-300, and take the park road to the visitor center.
- Accommodations and Cost: Unusually for long trails in the United States, it’s possible to hike the entire length of the ONRT without paying to stay overnight. Friends of the Ouachita Trail maintains a network of rustic, fee-free shelters along the trail’s entire length. Many Ouachita National Forest campgrounds – some of which have running water and toilets – are free too. The most popular cost between $8 and $30 per site, per night. Particularly popular sites include Lake Sylvia Campground ($10 to $25 per site, per night), near the eastern end of the trail, and Winding Stair Campground ($3 to $16 per site, per night, depending on campsite and season), near the western end.
- Pickup and Transportation Considerations: Cell service is usually reliable at Pinnacle Mountain, so you may be able to call a cab or hail an Uber as you walk out of the woods there. You can also schedule a local cab pickup in advance in this area, which isn’t particularly well-served by Uber and Lyft, but taxi service is less reliable in the western two-thirds of the trail.
3. Colorado Trail, Colorado
The Colorado Trail traverses about 500 miles of Rocky Mountain wilderness between Denver and Durango. At an average elevation of 10,300 feet and with several truly remote stretches, this is a trail for serious hikers. And if you’re coming from a lower-elevation area, you should take some time to acclimate before setting out. Spend a couple of days in Denver (unless you live there already), then spend an active day at a moderate elevation (6,000 to 8,000 feet) before going higher and beginning your hike in earnest.
Once you’re mentally and physically prepared, the Colorado Trail is well worth the effort. It boasts stunning views from its high peaks, plus countless lakes, streams, and flower-studded alpine meadows. And though it doesn’t technically summit any “14ers” (as 14,000-foot peaks are known locally), it passes close by 14,005-foot Mount of the Holy Cross, which can be reached by an aggressive day hike (or more leisurely overnight jaunt) on the Half Moon Pass Trail.
It’s important to note that the Colorado Trail is also open to mountain bikers and equestrians. Don’t be surprised if you’re overtaken by faster users during busy periods.
- Fees and Permit Requirements: There are no fees or formal permit requirements for hiking the Colorado Trail. However, if your hike takes you through one of the wilderness areas along the trail (such as Holy Cross Wilderness), you’re required to check in at the registration station. There’s no fee to do so.
- Best Segments: The Colorado Trail is helpfully divided into 28 segments. If accessibility is a priority, start at Waterton Canyon (the eastern terminus) and follow the first four or five segments, ending at Long Gulch or Kenosha Pass. You’ll traverse 60 to 75 miles total, likely taking nine to 13 days one way.
- Best Time to Go: This high-elevation trail isn’t snow- and mud-free until July in some years, and winter weather typically begins again by early to mid-October. For the best chance of dry, comfortable conditions, plan your trip for mid-August to mid-September. However, weather on Colorado’s high peaks can be unpredictable at any time of year. Sudden summer thunderstorms, typically flaring in the afternoon, are a matter of life or death above the treeline. For alpine sections, begin each day’s hike before dawn (buy a headlamp – bargain versions cost as little as $10), and wrap up early in the afternoon to avoid the most active part of the weather day.
- How to Get There: Waterton Canyon near Denver is the most accessible trailhead on the Colorado Trail. It’s just off Waterton Road (CO-121), which can be reached from CO-470, Denver’s outer loop freeway. From Denver International Airport or central Denver, you can use RTD (total cost: less than $10, depending on the time of day) to get within 10 miles of the trailhead, then walk or hail a ride with Uber or Lyft for the remaining distance. Denver’s airport has nonstop flights from dozens of U.S. cities, including San Francisco, Chicago, and New York, starting at $100 or less round-trip.
- Accommodations and Cost: With the exception of Waterton Canyon, where overnight use is restricted by Denver Water, you can pitch a tent on any of the public lands along the Colorado Trail (no closer than 100 feet to marked trails, in most cases) at no cost.
- Pickup and Transportation Considerations: Cell service is good at Waterton Canyon, and the area is well within range of Denver’s taxi services, so it may be possible to call a cab if you end your route here or schedule one in advance. For other trailheads, the Colorado Trail provides a list of local shuttle services.
4. Long Trail, Vermont
Touted as the country’s oldest long trail, the aptly named Long Trail follows the north-south spine of Vermont’s Green Mountains from the Massachusetts border to Canada. The main trail is about 270 miles, with an additional 175 miles of spurs and side trails. Panoramic views of lush valleys and rugged mountains abound from its countless peaks. Road crossings are few and far between. And unlike some other long-distance hiking trails, the Long Trail remains a true footpath – no bikers or horseback riders here.
- Fees and Permit Requirements: None.
- Best Segments: Weather permitting, capable hikers can tackle the entire Long Trail in 20 days or less. If you don’t have that much time, the southernmost segments offer an ideal combination of great views and relatively gentle terrain. Start at the Pine Cobble trailhead, which is actually in Massachusetts just south of the Vermont border. From there, hike north to Vermont Highway 30, a roughly 55-mile trek that takes about seven days.
- Best Time to Go: Vermont is beautiful at any time of year, but snow and mud typically cover the Long Trail from November through May (and sometimes into June, depending on spring precipitation and the previous winter’s severity). Many Green Mountain National Forest campsites are closed until late May too. For the best weather and accommodations, shoot for July through early September. If you don’t mind cold nights and crowds, aim for the peak foliage season – early to mid-October, depending on latitude and elevation – when the leaves turn brilliant golds, oranges, and reds.
- How to Get There: If you live in the Northeast, driving is the best way to reach the Long Trail. Otherwise, fly into Burlington (direct and one-stop flights to Chicago, Atlanta, Philadelphia, and other cities starting around $150 or less round-trip) or Albany (direct flights from about a dozen U.S. cities starting at around $175 round-trip). From there, use local bus routes (cost varies) to get as close as possible to your desired trailhead, or check ridesharing options with local hiker interest groups such as WhiteBlaze (cost varies). The Pine Cobble trailhead is off Pine Cobble Road, about 3 miles from MA-2, a major two-lane highway. There’s a trailhead where the Long Trail crosses VT-30 as well.
- Accommodations and Cost: In Green Mountain National Forest, which encompasses the bulk of the Long Trail, no-cost dispersed camping (primitive sites) is permitted at least 100 feet from a marked trail and 200 feet from surface water sources. Busier organized campgrounds, such as those at Hapgood Pond Recreation Area ($20 and up per site, per night), typically cost between $5 and $50 per site, per night, depending on the season. Less-frequented campgrounds may be free, especially during the offseason if they’re open. Many campgrounds in this region close or restrict operations outside the high season.
- Pickup and Transportation Considerations: Cell service isn’t always reliable along the Long Trail, and local cab services can be spotty. However, the trail – especially in the southern sections – often coincides with or travels close to the Appalachian Trail. If local bus routes or WhiteBlaze don’t produce results, check the Appalachian Trail’s transportation options page. The AT runs close enough to the Long Trail to make this a worthwhile move.
5. Mountains-to-Sea Trail, North Carolina
At its eastern edge, North Carolina meets the Atlantic Ocean with hundreds of miles of nearly unbroken white-sand beach. Along its western border, the state harbors the highest elevations east of the Mississippi. The Mountains-to-Sea Trail‘s 1,000-mile length covers both extremes, from Clingman Dome in Great Smoky Mountains National Park to Jockey’s Ridge, a majestic Outer Banks sand dune.
The Mountains-to-Sea Trail is still a work in progress. About half the trail has a dedicated right of way, but the rest still utilizes country roads and rural tracks, so use caution on these segments. Given the trail’s length, most hikers don’t complete the entire thing in one go anyway.
- Fees and Permit Requirements: Aside from the stretch in Great Smoky Mountains National Park, which requires a $4 per person, per night backcountry permit, there aren’t any fee or permit requirements for the Mountains-to-Sea Trail. However, much of the trail’s eastern half passes on or near privately held land, so be sure to obey any posted warnings, including “No Trespassing” signs.
- Best Segments: The westernmost segment, in Great Smoky Mountains National Park, offers stunning vistas and a wealth of campsites. But it’s also crowded and less accessible if you don’t have your own car. Near the trail’s midpoint, a highly accessible segment runs for more than 75 miles between Falls Lake and Greensboro Lakes, passing close to Raleigh, Durham, Greensboro, and other sizable cities. This segment takes 10 to 12 days to hike one way and 20 to 24 days as a round trip.
- Best Time to Go: The eastern stretches of the trail are passable almost year-round, though winters can be chilly and sometimes icy. In the higher-elevation western stretches, aim for mid-April to late October. Note that the highest peaks, such as Clingman Dome and Mount Mitchell, are prone to ice, thunderstorms, and high winds even when it’s nice in the valleys below. The mountains may be more crowded during the October foliage season when the trees’ color displays rival Vermont’s.
- How to Get There: If you’re not driving from within North Carolina or surrounding states, Raleigh-Durham International Airport and Greensboro/Piedmont Triad International Airport (U.S. nonstops and one-stops from under $200 at both) have the best flight selection. From both airports, the closest trailheads – Falls Lake in Raleigh and Greensboro Lakes in the Piedmont Triad – can be reached by taxi or rideshare ($30 to $70, depending on route). The best trailheads in the Falls Lake area are at Creedmoor Road (NC-50) and Baptist Road (off NC-98).
- Accommodations and Cost: Free dispersed camping, at least 100 feet from any marked trails, is permitted in Nantahala National Forest and certain other state and federal lands along the trail. Organized campsites are widely available as well. For instance, in the Raleigh-Greensboro corridor, Falls Lake Recreation Area has primitive and modern (including running water and electricity) sites from $20 to $50 per site, per night. (Note: Before you go, check with North Carolina’s state parks authority for opening information and restrictions, including bans on overnight camping, for the parks and protected areas you plan to transit on your hike. Many North Carolina parks remain restricted due to the COVID-19 pandemic.)
- Pickup and Transportation Considerations: In the trail’s central and east-central stretches, especially in the Raleigh-Durham-Greensboro corridor, cell service is reliable, and cabs and ridesharing services are plentiful. However, the far western and eastern areas are more isolated. In the Great Smoky Mountains, the A Walk in the Woods Hiker Shuttle (cost varies) may be your best bet.
6. Oregon Coast Trail, Oregon
Oregon’s coastline isn’t as sandy as North Carolina’s, but that doesn’t make it any less attractive for serious hikers. The Oregon Coast Trail (OCT) covers its entire length, from the California border to the mouth of the Columbia River, drawing a fraction of the foot traffic of the better-known nearby Pacific Crest Trail. Though it stays at low elevations and rarely loses sight of the Pacific Ocean, this trail does cover some rugged hills and headlands, and the region’s wet climate can make for tricky going over smooth shoreline rocks.
Like the Mountains-to-Sea Trail, parts of the Oregon Coast Trail still follow other rights of way, mostly county roads. Stay on the shoulder wherever possible, observe posted warnings, and wear bright colors to enhance your visibility in frequent coastal fogs.
- Fees and Permit Requirements: While there aren’t any fees or permits required to walk the OCT, protected areas along the route may charge usage fees. For instance, through-hikers may need to pay a $7 entrance fee at Humbug Mountain State Park, even if they don’t camp there.
- Best Segments: Though it’s farther from the heavily populated Willamette Valley and Portland’s busy international airport, the southernmost segment of the Oregon Coast Trail is worth the trip. Start at or near the Oregon-California border and walk up to the picturesque town of North Bend along Coos Bay. (Trail veterans swear that walking south is easier, due to prevailing winds out of the north and northwest. If you believe them, start at North Bend and work south.) This route covers a bit more than 100 miles, passes through or near protected areas such as Humbug Mountain State Park and Cape Sebastian State Park, and takes less than two weeks to complete one way.
- Best Time to Go: The Oregon coast has pronounced wet (mid-fall through mid-spring) and dry (late spring through early fall) seasons. June, July, and August afford the best combination of low precipitation, ample sunshine, and moderate temperatures. Even in summer, be prepared for rolling Pacific fogs that create slick conditions on rocks, limit visibility, and drop temperatures rapidly. (Note that the National Coast Trail Association advises out-of-state hikers to cancel or postpone overnight through-hikes scheduled for 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The OCT technically remains open in 2020, but support is limited along the trail and some campsites may be closed.)
- How to Get There: For nondrivers, the OCT can be tricky to reach. Along the southern coast, the most affordable flight option is Rogue Valley International-Medford Airport (MFR), with direct flights to Seattle, San Francisco, Denver, and seasonal destinations from $100. From there, take a Greyhound bus (about $30 to $50 one-way) to Crescent City, California, then ride Curry Public Transit’s Coastal Express route ($4 to $24, depending on destination) to your desired trailhead. Along the southern coast, the best place to begin is at the Harris Beach State Park parking lot, located right off US-101, the major coastal highway in this region.
- Accommodations and Cost: Oregon state law permits camping on public beaches, as long as campers are out of sight of residences (not a high bar on desolate coastal stretches). If you prefer organized campgrounds, possibly with running water and electricity, state parks have numerous affordable options. For instance, Humbug Mountain State Park’s hiker tent sites cost $7 per night. To stay at high-use parks, including Humbug, you should call ahead to reserve a site.
- Pickup and Transportation Considerations: Even in populated areas, cell service can be spotty along the Oregon coast. Cab services are thin to nonexistent outside towns as well. And, with few hikers, there’s no organized hiking shuttle for the Oregon Coast Trail. As such, your best bet for transportation is to start and end near a town served by a regional transit service such as Curry Public Transit or a bus company such as Greyhound.
7. Pacific Northwest Trail, Montana to Washington
The Pacific Northwest Trail (PNT) stretches for about 1,200 miles from the Continental Divide in Montana to the Pacific Coast in Washington State’s Olympic Peninsula. Along the way, it passes through more than a dozen national parks and forests, including Glacier National Park.
Though the trail passes through generally rugged and remote areas, mostly within a day’s walk of the Canadian border, it’s well worth the effort to reach. Since the Pacific Northwest Trail is a dedicated footpath for the majority of its length, you probably won’t have to worry about jockeying for position with other users.
- Fees and Permit Requirements: While the trail itself doesn’t have any permit or fee requirements, certain protected areas do. For instance, Okanagan and Wenatchee National Forest requires a permit, though there’s no charge to obtain one. In Olympic National Park, backcountry permits (which confer dispersed camping rights) cost $8 per person, per night, plus a base cost of $6 for the entry permit. Glacier National Park charges $20 per walk-in.
- Best Segments: It’s hard to choose the best Pacific Northwest Trail segment. The easternmost 80 to 100 miles, from Glacier National Park to Lake Koocanusa, pass majestic snowfields and afford stunning alpine views. Toward the midpoint, in northeastern Washington, the nearly 100-mile segment from Kettle Falls to Oroville (mostly along the Kettle River Range) is breathtaking as well. And in the west, Olympic National Park spans lush mountainsides, snow-covered summits, and panoramic ocean views. Depending on your exact starting and end points, these segments can take between 14 and 17 days one way.
- Best Time to Go: Few Pacific Northwest Trail sections are heavily traveled, so crowds aren’t an issue here, but weather is a major complicating factor. In the interior Northwest, higher peaks may sport year-round snowpack, and lower-elevation areas can become impassable with mud or swollen rivers after rainstorms. If you’re doing an inland segment, shoot for mid-August to mid-September, the driest and mildest stretch. On the Olympic Peninsula, July is the driest month – though, as much of the peninsula is covered by a temperate rainforest, heavy precipitation can occur anytime and with limited warning.
- How to Get There: If you live in the Pacific Northwest, driving is the easiest way to access the PNT, especially in more remote sections. If you’re flying, Spokane International Airport (nonstops to Denver, Oakland, Phoenix, Las Vegas, Chicago, and Minneapolis from $200) is the closest major airport. From there, the Gold Line Shuttle to Kettle Falls or Colville ($26 per person to both destinations) drops you within a day’s walk of the PNT crossing at Sherman Pass on WA-20 – a good place to start a hike heading westward. If you’re starting in Glacier National Park, you can park or get dropped off at the Logan Pass Visitor Center, also less than a day’s walk from the trail.
- Accommodations and Cost: Aside from permit fees, dispersed camping is generally permitted at no cost in national forest lands along the trail, except for wilderness areas such as the Pasayten Wilderness. Overnight camping at organized sites in Olympic National Park costs between $10 and $22 per site at select sites, depending on the location and season, with some free sites scattered about the park. In Glacier National Park, organized campgrounds generally cost less than $10 for walk-in campers. (Note that some Glacier National Park campsites remain closed through the 2020 season due to the COVID-19 pandemic.)
- Pickup and Transportation Considerations: Don’t expect to get reliable cell reception along the Pacific Northwest Trail or to find reliable cab or rideshare service. There’s also no reliable hiking shuttle in this region. Regional bus lines, such as the Gold Line Shuttle, and private vehicles are the best transportation options.
8. Pacific Crest Trail, California to Washington
Stretching from southern California to the Canadian border, the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT) is the Appalachian Trail’s West Coast cousin. Its 2,600-mile length mostly follows the rugged ridges and mountains that stretch from south to north in this region, hitting literal high points along the Sierra Nevada and Cascades. More than a dozen distinct biomes – from lowland deserts and scrubby steppes to mountain forests (including majestic sequoia and Douglas fir groves) and alpine tundra – are represented here. Despite the Pacific Crest Trail’s impressive biodiversity and solitude, it passes within a few hours’ drive of more than 50 million people.
- Fees and Permit Requirements: While you can hike much of the PCT (including most national forest lands and tracts owned by the Bureau of Land Management) without a permit, some protected areas require one. For instance, overnight hikes through Yosemite National Park require wilderness permits ($5 per reservation, plus $5 per person). If you plan to hike more than 500 miles on the PCT, you need to obtain a special Long Distance Pacific Crest Trail Permit (free) from the National Forest Service.
- Best Segments: In the south, the PCT follows the spine of the San Bernardino Mountains and nearby ranges for nearly 100 miles. This rugged stretch affords occasional views of the L.A. Basin and Mojave Desert, plus more consistent views of alpine forests and lakes in the higher elevations. In Oregon, the segment between the Three Sisters and Mount Hood (or the Columbia River’s deep gorge, a day’s hike to the north), passes through lush forest, high desert, and otherworldly volcanic landscapes. This segment stretches between 150 and 200 miles, depending on your exact starting and ending points, and takes 20 to 30 days one way. (Be aware that the Pacific Crest Trail Association advises against long-distance hiking during the 2020 season due to the COVID-19 pandemic, though the trail remains open to through-hikers.)
- Best Time to Go: In the trail’s arid southern section, late winter and early spring – after the rainy season and before the long, hot summer – is a favorable period. (Be sure to carry plenty of water at any time of year in this region, though.) In the higher elevations of the Sierras and Cascades, late summer is best, though the weather gets less hospitable the higher and farther north you go. Due to the short season, crowds may be a factor along the trail’s more accessible segments, especially in Yosemite and near Mount Hood, less than an hour east of Portland by car.
- How to Get There: If you live anywhere along the West Coast, you can likely drive to the Pacific Crest Trail in four hours or less. If you’re flying in, choose the closest city to your desired segment. For instance, you can access segments in northern Oregon and southern Washington by flying into Portland International Airport (nonstops to San Francisco, Denver, Chicago, and more than a dozen other cities from $175) then taking TriMet to Gresham Central Transit Center and a local bus toward Mount Hood. The Welches Road/Mount Hood Highway SAM stop is about a mile from Zigzag Mountain Trail (which crosses Mount Hood Highway). Zigzag Mountain Trail connects with the PCT trailhead a few miles north of Mount Hood Highway, at the base of Mount Hood (total cost is $10 or less, depending on the time of day).
- Accommodations and Cost: The Three Sisters-Mount Hood-Columbia Gorge stretch is almost entirely within two national forests, Mt. Hood and Willamette, where dispersed camping is permitted at no cost. Organized campsites, some of which have showers and electricity, range from free to $21 per night in this area. If you’re driving in and beginning your hike here, you’ll pay another $5 for your car.
- Pickup and Transportation Considerations: You can get reliable cell service and schedule or call a cab pickup at the Welches Road/Mount Hood Highway trailhead. However, long stretches of the Pacific Crest Trail don’t have this luxury. The best option for more remote areas is parking your own vehicle or securing a drop-off/pickup from a friend or via a website such as WhiteBlaze.
9. North Country Trail, New York to North Dakota
From New York State’s Adirondack Mountains to the Missouri River in western North Dakota, the North Country Trail‘s meandering route covers nearly 5,000 miles and seven states: New York, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Michigan, Wisconsin, Minnesota, and North Dakota. Much of the trail connects smaller segments and networks, such as the Finger Lakes Trail in New York and the Superior Trail in Minnesota, making it easy to take side trips off the main stretch. And the North Country Trail passes along or close to all five of the Great Lakes, plus countless smaller lakes, so there are plenty of water views to be had no matter where you are.
Much of the North Country Trail runs along designated rights of way, but there are some busy road tandems and crossings. Use cautions in busier sections near populated areas, especially near Lake Erie and in lower Michigan.
- Fees and Permit Requirements: The North Country Trail covers a hodgepodge of jurisdictions. There aren’t any fees or permits required to hike the trail itself, but it passes through many state and national protected areas – such as Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore in Michigan ($5 for a backcountry permit) and Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness in Minnesota ($16 per person during the high season and $6 per person during the low season) – that assess fees.
- Best Segments: The North Country Trail overlaps with and connects several shorter trail systems. Two are particularly popular: the Superior Hiking Trail (through Superior National Forest in Minnesota along Lake Superior’s northern shore) and the Finger Lakes Trail in upstate New York. The Superior Hiking Trail is about 250 miles long, but the 60- to 70-mile stretch from Duluth’s urban Lakewalk (just off I-35) to Tettegouche State Park/MN-1 (a big parking area on the main highway) is beautiful and not overly challenging, with near-continuous views of the largest Great Lake. You can probably complete it in seven to 10 days, weather permitting. The Finger Lakes Trail section includes more than 500 miles of the North Country Trail, plus an additional 400 miles of adjacent spurs and loops. Try the rolling, 100-plus-mile segment from the Interloken Trail intersection, which is served by a parking area on NY-79 (in the Seneca Lake area), to the Letchworth Trail intersection, west of Hornell, New York. It takes 11 to 15 days one way and 22 to 30 days as a round trip. This is a well-known wine-growing region, so feel free to budget extra time and money for a tasting or two. The trail passes fairly close to some wineries in the Finger Lakes area, but it may be less complicated to add a day or two to your trip either before or after your hike and drive between the wineries.
- Best Time to Go: June through September is the best period on the North Country Trail, though summer thunderstorms and muggy weather can pose problems if you’re hiking in the afternoon. Foliage season runs from late September in the northern stretches to mid- to late October in the Ohio segments. Due to the trail’s length, crowds aren’t really an issue at any time of year.
- How to Get There: If you live in the Northeast or Midwest, you’re not more than a few driving hours from a North Country segment. If you’re coming from farther away, fly into the closest major airport and take a shuttle or taxi to your desired trailhead. For instance, the Superior Trail segment requires a flight into Duluth International Airport (nonstops from Chicago, Phoenix, Las Vegas, Detroit, and Minneapolis-St. Paul starting at $250) and a taxi ride (about $20 to the Lakewalk trailhead) or Superior Hiking Shuttle ride (cost varies, depending on your starting and ending trailheads). Since you can arrange for pickup at any point along the trail, the Superior Hiking Shuttle is a good bet if you don’t want to retrace your steps.
- Accommodations and Cost: The national and state forest lands, including Superior National Forest, along the trail allow dispersed camping at no charge. In the Finger Lakes segment, free camping at primitive sites is available at Hemlock Glen and Spruce Pond, in addition to dispersed camping.
- Pickup and Transportation Considerations: Cell and cab service are reliable in the more populated sections of the trail. But in more isolated regions, such as the Adirondacks, northern Michigan, and North Dakota, a car (either yours or someone else’s) is the best way to get to the trail. In the Adirondacks and Finger Lakes regions, you may be able to find rides on WhiteBlaze.
10. Tahoe Rim Trail, California and Nevada
The Tahoe Rim Trail, a 165-mile loop trail that mostly follows the crest of the ridges surrounding Lake Tahoe, affords near-nonstop views of the mountain peaks, alpine forests, and impossibly blue waters that define this special region. It’s also a strenuous, high-elevation trek that’s popular with trail runners and, in the winter, skiers. As in Colorado, you should take a couple of days to acclimate here before jumping into the hike. The Tahoe Rim Trail coincides with the Pacific Crest Trail along the western shore of the lake, so it’s a popular starting and ending point for section hikers on that trail.
- Fees and Permit Requirements: Part of the Tahoe Rim Trail’s western section passes through the Desolation Wilderness, a high-altitude, stunningly beautiful, and mostly untouched part of Eldorado National Forest. Overnight permits ($6 for one night, per person, $10 for two or more nights) are awarded on a quota system here. They may sell out quickly in the high season, so plan ahead. Open campfires are prohibited in Desolation Wilderness, so use a gas-powered camp stove ($30 to more than $150) instead. Elsewhere along the trail, campfires are permitted in designated fire rings but always require California Campfire Permits. (Expect significant restrictions on camping in Eldorado National Forest through 2020, as some campsites did not open for the warm season.)
- Best Segments: If you have three weeks and the weather holds up, you can likely hike the entire Tahoe Rim Trail loop. Experienced hikers can finish it in as little as 12 days, weather permitting.
- Best Time to Go: Snow can persist in the Tahoe Rim Trail’s highest elevations until June or July and may return as early as October. August and the first half of September are ideal. Be on the lookout for rogue thunderstorms, especially above the treeline. As on other alpine trails, consider limiting your hike to the predawn and morning hours on peak risk days. If you’re skiing part or all of the trail, January and February are the best months for deep, stable snow.
- How to Get There: Lake Tahoe is about three and a half hours’ drive from San Francisco and an hour from Reno. If you live in northern California or northern Nevada, driving is your best bet. Otherwise, fly into Reno-Tahoe International Airport, which serves about a dozen nonstop destinations (including Chicago, Dallas, and Los Angeles) from $130 per person. From there, take an airport shuttle such as the South Tahoe Airporter (cost varies, depending on route) or North Lake Tahoe Express (cost varies, depending on route and occupancy). In the south, the trailhead at Adventure Mountain Lake Tahoe isn’t far from South Lake Tahoe – though, as there are daily parking costs at the lot here, it’s best to walk in or get dropped off. In the north, the Brockway Summit trailhead is just off CA-267 (North Shore Boulevard), not far from Tahoe Vista and right on the North Lake Tahoe Express route.
- Accommodations and Cost: Dispersed camping (100 feet minimum from marked trails) is permitted in Eldorado National Forest, except in Desolation Wilderness, at no cost. Developed campgrounds, such as Zephyr Cove in Nevada and Bayview in California, typically start at $10 per site, per night for walk-ins. In Desolation, there are about 45 primitive campgrounds with varying numbers of sites, some reservable and some available only on a first-come basis. Each camper must buy a separate backcountry permit.
- Pickup and Transportation Considerations: Despite its somewhat isolated location, the Tahoe Rim Trail’s loop structure and airport shuttle service make it surprisingly easy to get to without a car. However, the North Lake Tahoe Express and South Tahoe Airporter don’t directly serve the trail, so you can’t schedule pickups. And while cabs do serve the Lake Tahoe area, especially closer to population centers, you shouldn’t count on cell service at any particular trailhead, so scheduling a ride ahead of time is a must. If you have the time and stamina, completing the entire loop may be logistically easier (and less stressful).
In today’s fast-paced world, not everyone has a week – let alone a month – to get away from civilization with an outdoorsy fitness vacation. But if you’re lucky enough to have a generous vacation allowance at your job or make your own schedule as a freelancer, spending an extended time away from the pressures of the daily grind can be a truly life-changing experience.
If you make time for one of these long-distance hikes every year, you’ll hit all 10 in a decade. And you’ll come away fitter, wiser, and with a lot of great stories to tell your loved ones.
What’s your favorite long-distance hike? What do you like about it?