The Appalachian Trail, Pacific Crest Trail, and Continental Divide Trails form the backbone of thru-hiking in the United States, but they aren’t the only options. Not only does the increased use of the Triple Crown Trails push hikers to look elsewhere, but finding multiple months to hike is often not possible. Shorter trails with more unique challenges than “The Big 3” exist throughout the country and are worth considering when it is time to set off on a thru-hike. Here are 10 alternative thru-hikes.
The longest trail on the list, the Florida Trail currently runs 1,000 miles with 300 more planned. The unique environments on the trail and the ideal time of year cause the most southern National Scenic Trail to stand out. The Florida Trail crosses urban and remote areas and passes through many unique tropical ecosystems. Thru-hikers often remember the swamps that require wading through. It is the only national scenic trail with true beach hiking. With wildlife ranging from alligators to bears and including six species of venomous snakes, the long route is surely an adventure!
Length: 1000 Miles (This number varies with different routes, roadwalks, etc.)
Camping: Depending on the section and time of year, designated campsites need to be used. Dispersed camping in other areas.
Time of Year: Late Fall through Early Spring (Late October through April)
Permit: A myriad of permits to cross private lands and primitive camping (info here)
This circumnavigation of Mt. Rainier racks up the elevation with numerous short ascents and descents. Offering a scenic way to see the popular national park in Washington, the Wonderland Trail continues to grow in popularity. Lowland forests, subalpine meadows, and epic alpine views distinguish the route as one of the best in the country. Although shorter, the loop is extremely strenuous and takes most people 10-14 days to complete. The resupplies, camping, and permit system is very regimented, regulated by the national park in which the trail completely resides.
Length: 93 Miles
Camping: Camping sites are reserved on the permit to hike the trail.
Time of Year: Late July to end of September
Permit: A permit is needed from Mt. Rainier National Park. Walk up permits usually are available.
The highest trail on the list, the Colorado Trail crosses the majority of the state after which it’s named, connecting Denver to Durango. The trail is largely above 10,000 feet with dips into and out of the treeline. It passes through eight mountain ranges and six wilderness areas with unmatched exposure and expansive views. Thunderstorms are common throughout the route and hikers often experience a daily afternoon storm. Between ski resorts, historic mining towns, and massive mountains, the trail is a challenging yet rewarding endeavor.
Length: 486 Miles
Camping: Dispersed camping throughout with the exception of small areas of private land
Time of Year: Late June to the end of September
A 335-mile trail that crosses Alabama and Georgia. This trail might be considered the “Lost 335 miles of the AT.” Starting at the southernmost 1,000-foot peak in the Appalachian Mountain Range, the trail connects a series of rugged ridges, peaks, and wilderness areas, eventually ending at the Benton MacKaye Trail. The Pinhoti Trail offers a rare shoulder season thru-hike with the best time to complete the route being in the fall and spring. It is a great first long distance hike with shelters along the way and short resupply stretches. For ambitious Appalachian Trail hikers, this route can be combined with the Benton MacKaye Trail to traverse the entire Appalachian Mountain Range.
Length: 335 Miles
Camping: Dispersed camping and shelters
Time of Year: November to April
A rugged trail accentuating the northeast style, the Long Trail traverses the length of Vermont. It is a trail of two halves, with the northern portion constructed so steeply that ladders are a normal part of travel. When the trail eventually connects to the Appalachian Trail (about halfway) the travel immediately becomes easier on the longest hiking-only footpath in the world. Resupplies are short but the miles are difficult through the Green Mountains. What the climbs lack in true elevation, the ascents up Camel’s Hump and Mount Mansfield make up for in ruggedness.
Length: 272 Miles
Camping: Dispersed below alpine zones and frequent shelters
Time of Year: June to Mid-October
Traveling from the Mexican Border to the southern border of Utah, the Arizona Trail offers numerous mountain ranges, desert walking, and a healthy dose of the Grand Canyon. Arizona is a lot more than sprawling desert and cacti. In the first miles, the trail ascends to over 9,000 feet along the shoulder of Miller Peak, where snow can remain late into the season. The diversity of the dry state trail sets it apart. Arizona is full of Sky Islands, mountain ranges that sit alone in the middle of the desert, and the trail crosses many of them. The Saguaro cacti and the crossing of two national parks (Saguaro and Grand Canyon) add to the diversity of both mountains and desert, offering an action packed 800 miles.
Length: 790 Miles
Camping: Dispersed and designated sites in Grand Canyon and Saguaro National Parks
Time of Year: October-November or March to April
Permit: Permit to camp in Grand Canyon and Saguaro National Parks
Grand Enchantment Trail
The most rugged trail on the list, the Grand Enchantment Trail connects mountains, deserts and multiple historically and culturally significant sites. Similar to the Arizona Trail, rugged ascents and descents across the Sky Islands add elevation to largely flat and expansive desert walking. Deep canyons, intense sun, and thorny deserts encompass the majority of the challenges hikers face. The communities are small and the resupplies need careful planning, but the route is rewarding with its remoteness. The route connects roads, rugged right of ways, defined trail, and extensive bushwacking. Map and compass skills are helpful in the completion of the GET! The route has been called, “The Southwest’s most stunning hike.”
State: Arizona/New Mexico
Length: 770 Miles
Time of Year: Spring or Autumn
Permit: Largely permit free, two small sections (Aravaipa Canyon Wilderness and Arizona State Land Trust) require individual permits
A loop hike around the base of the tallest mountain in Oregon (Mt. Hood), the Timberline trail is short, easily accessible, and offers magnificent views of the Columbia River Gorge, Willamette Valley, and numerous stand-alone volcanoes in the Cascade Mountain Range. The trail shares 11 miles with the Pacific Crest Trail and stays true to its name by continually dropping just below and rising just above treeline. Stream crossings are the major hazard on the route, especially during peak melt.
Length: 40.7 Miles
Camping: Dispersed with a few restrictions along the route
Time of Year: Summer to Early Fall
Permit: Free permit to be filled out at the trailhead where you begin
Superior Hiking Trail
Overlooking Lake Superior, the SHT travels through dense forests and rocky ridges, and offers spectacular views from a relatively low altitude (1,829-foot high point). The trail contains more than 90 backcountry campsites, making camping easy and planning simple. The Superior Hiking Trail has consistently been rated one of the best hikes in America. Motorized vehicles, bikes and horses are prohibited from using the trail, offering the comfort and serenity of a backpacking-only route.
Length: 310 Miles
Camping: multiple established sites
Time of Year: Late Spring to Early Fall
Ice Age Trail
The National Scenic Trail follows the terminal moraine (edge of the glacier) of the last Ice Age. The trail passes through 30 of Wisconsin’s 72 counties, connecting state parks, forests and national public lands. The trail boasts unique topography created by glaciation along with a diverse array of animals. Bears, wolves, porcupine and foxes are common along the route through Wisconsin.
Length: 600 Miles Completed (1200 Miles Planned)
Camping: Designated sites along most of the route
Time of Year: Late Spring to Early Fall with the possibility of a winter hike