Thru-hiking has been “in” for a few years now, and visitation of the long-distance routes on the East and West coasts have jumped accordingly. But hey, guess what? While it’s great to see these trails get the appreciation they deserve, it certainly changes the experience of the thru-hike to have a herd of companions to accompany you along the way. Whether or not you prefer this type of experience, a surprising diversity of thru-hikes across the country offer the opportunity to achieve the sense of accomplishment of a long-distance trek in a new place with new terrain and a new story.
In other words, be different; You could hike the Pacific Crest Trail or the Appalachian Trail, or you could take a stab something novel like Andrew Skurka, who hiked the West on a 6,800-mile loop that began and ended at the Grand Canyon.
Just kidding. Kind of.
Think of this: In the planning stage is a trail called the Ice Age Floods National Geologic Trail that connects parts of the Columbia River Gorge to the Columbia River Basin and the ancient floodplain west of ancient ice-age era Lake Missoula; its ice dam broke dozens of times over a couple thousand years and created the Columbia River Basin in the first place. The terrain includes places like the Dry Dam, a ridge of several miles that, at the time of the Missoula Floods, became a massive waterfall the scale of which dwarfs the total volume of the world’s rivers—like, all of them. Someone needs to make a movie about that.
Yes: hike the John Muir Trail, the PCT, the AT, go and see. When you realize you can keep your job and do the same thing on shorter trails in places befitting your wildest imagination—New Mexico!—come back and read about these.
The 486 miles of the Colorado Trail traverses the San Juan Mountains and the Collegiate Peaks on their way north to the trail’s terminus south of Denver. Alpine vistas, the incomparable San Juan Mountain wilderness, wildflowers, the Rocky Mountain monsoon season, and 89,000 feet of elevation gain await. The window to thru-hike the extent of the route is relatively narrow, beginning in late July or early August and ending before the first snows accumulate in early October.
Think the John Muir Trail without the companions—or, you know, the trail. Its 210 miles traverse the Sierra Nevadas in parallel with the JMT from Kings Canyon to its terminus at the Twin Lakes north of Yosemite, but only rarely does it follow established trails. Only a handful of hikers make the trek every year.
One of the newest trails to the network of national scenic trails, the Pacific Northwest National Scenic Trail’s 1,200 miles skirt the Canadian border from Montana to the Olympic Peninsula. Think Glacier National Park’s rugged peaks, the remote plains of northeastern Washington, the North Cascades, Olympic National Park, and the scenic coastline on the Pacific.
In the style of Edward Abbey’s Hayduke—more on that momentarily—the 2,223 miles from Mexico to the border of Canada traverse some of the nation’s driest, most solitary deserts. This is a walkabout of epic proportions, a trail that leaves Baja, California bound for Death Valley, the no man’s land of western Nevada, Steens Mountain, and north through eastern Washington. A challenge logistically, mentally, and physically, this is as much a journey of the soul.
Aficionados of red rock country: This is for you. Over 800 miles, the aptly named Hayduke Trail touches six national parks in canyon country on the Colorado Plateau along unmarked trails, backpacking just like George Hayduke would. The trail begins at Zion, traveling south to the Grand Canyon before turning its course back north for Bryce Canyon, Grand Staircase-Escalante, Glen Canyon, Capitol Reef, Canyonlands, and Arches National Park.
The Oregon coast is 382 miles of sea stacks, sand dunes, Douglas fir, and sea spray, and you can soak up every drop along the Oregon Coast Trail. Many highlights to choose from here, but we’re spotlighting the Samuel H. Boardman State Scenic Corridor on the trail’s southern stretch.