6 of the Most Outrageously Long Hikes in the US
If you’ve ever hiked on the Appalachian or Pacific Crest Trail, you’re probably familiar with the sentiment that “it’s the people that make the trail.” The friendships, relationships, and experiences that you share with somebody on a long hike are an inimitable and cherished part of the whole thing. There’s no denying that.
But on the other hand, if you ever wondered what it would be like to do an absurdly long hike with a decidedly smaller dose of that social aspect while simultaneously waving adios to all of your physical thresholds, then look no further, my friends.
Outside the well-traveled corridor of the “Big Three” (AT, CDT, and PCT) lies a whole country waiting to be explored. These six truly monumental hikes would surely shine as the brightest notches on any long-distance backpacker’s belt. Tackle them in sections or all at once; there’s no right way to do something this huge. Instead of being daunted by that kind of variability and time commitment, let it welcome you into its warm, ambivalent embrace. Each of these hikes has a ton to offer, and none of them will be like any of the others.
1. The Sea-to-Sea (C2C) Transcontinental Route | 7,700 miles
At a Glance:
- Location: Mouth of St. Lawrence River (Canada) to Cape Alava, WA
- Navigation: Maps for the five National Scenic Trails it connects are available on FarOut; the connecting trails are a bit trickier (but here’s more info on Nimblewill Nomad’s website)
Clocking in at a distance that’s just short of the AT, CDT, and PCT combined, this route will probably take most hikers 400 days or more to complete. It was conceived by Ron Strickland, who is also the man behind the Pacific Northwest Trail. I wanted to place it at the top because I think that, as far as egregiously long hiking trails go, this one is the most ambitious and potentially rewarding of any hike in North America.
In his YouTube video about the C2C, Strickland argues that a transcontinental route through some of America’s most rugged and uncharted terrain is “something that’s much bigger than the existing parts.”
The C2C is undoubtedly a romantic way of traipsing across the country (and part of Canada) from sea to shining sea. Two of its constituents are newly minted National Scenic Trails, and others are tried and true slices of pure Americana. There is a lot of upshot to hiking this trail, and many of the sections it includes are seriously underexplored and underloved parts of the country.
That said, the biggest hurdle that the C2C still faces is a long, 800-mile connector between the CDT in western Montana and the NCT in North Dakota. As far as I can tell, the only two people who have posted any information about it (Andrew Skurka and Nimblewill Nomad) used a series of dirt and paved roads to link the two portions together. So, along with exploring some of America’s most rugged terrain, you also get to do a little bit of wayfinding and route creation along the way as well. What’s not to love?
2. The North Country Trail | 4,800 miles
At a Glance:
- Location: Lake Sakakawea State Park, ND to Crown Point State Historic Site, NY
- Navigation: All maps are available for download off the NCTA’s website.
Since the goalposts of long-distance hiking seem to always be moving ever further away, and as we look incredulously at our trails getting longer and longer, what are we to do but watch with surprise when all those distances that once seemed insurmountable become suddenly obtainable?
Enter the North Country Trail: an extremely long journey through some of the most unvisited parts of America. The NCT is America’s longest official “trail” (all five others listed here are technically “routes”) and is the longest National Scenic Trail in the USA. It may not boast the elevation gains that the trails out west or the Appalachians have, but it certainly offers an intimate glimpse into a huge part of our culture and agriculture. It passes through a vast amalgam of farmland, state land, and federal land.
Besides this, there are myriad ecosystems and a huge amount of biodiversity that depend on the corridors that the NCT passes through. The completion of this trail is a huge victory for backpackers and conservationists, and I’m really looking forward to this trail seeing more travel in the future. The infrastructure is already present, as there are, for the most part, blazes, towns, and single track the whole way, along with a very active and fantastic association and network of volunteers.
Furthermore, if for some crazy reason, you can’t quite swing 1+ years off to go hiking but you can manage about nine months, then this could the perfect trail for you. Many of the sections seem fairly easy to cruise, and I think that Michigan’s Upper Peninsula might be one of the most underrated parts of the country. I’m not sure, though, because I’ve never actually been there. But the pictures look sweet.
Apart from this, almost every picture of the NCT on the internet is an oversaturated picture of the exploding fall foliage, so any aspiring thru-hikers would be remiss not to hit the heart of this trail in the autumn. But of course, it’s so long that you’ll inevitably hit some spicy weather.
All this being said, any true sociopath will remind you that the NCT is also technically just a section hike of the aforementioned C2C route, so how lucky are you feeling, punk?
3. The American Discovery Trail | 4,834-5,057 miles
At a Glance:
- Length: The northern route is 4,834 miles and the southern 5,057
- Location: Coast-to-Coast, from Maryland to California
- Navigation: Both Data Books AND .gpx files can be downloaded from the ADT store
OK, y’all, I’m not going to lie. It’s hard for me to imagine what on earth there is to see on the entire middle section of this trail. Almost 1,500 miles through the breadbasket of America seem like a bit of a head-scratcher. But hey, maybe that’s part of what makes it so fun, right? Isn’t it fun to love things that nobody else loves? At least that’s what I told myself through most of Virginia on the AT.
Whether you opt to take the northern or the southern route, I imagine the views in that section to be quite similar: vast, mobius expanses of rolling prairie and cornfields. And, presumably, a level of suburban sprawl that would fill even the most unshakeable of optimists with a certain sense of impending dread. Or maybe I just have PTSD from growing up in Shawnee, Kansas.
On the other hand, the ADT is the only trail on this list, and the only trail of any sizeable distance really, that passes through Utah, which should be an essential stop on any hiker’s bucket list. Especially southeast Utah, which ADT hikers will have the privilege of exploring quite extensively. That alone is something that really sets it apart.
It can’t be denied that anybody who deigns to tackle this beast of a trail will indeed discover a thing or two about America that they didn’t know before. Fellow Trek writer and current ADT thru-hiker Briana DeSanctis did a great interview with former ADT thru-hikers that sheds a ton of light on some of the things you can expect along the trail. And, besides this, from a cultural standpoint, this trail might also be one of the most varied in many ways. The old money of the east coast, the bluegrass of the Appalachians, the hospitality of the Midwest, the grandeur of the Rockies, the desolation of the Great Basin, and, well, California.
4. The Great Western Loop | ~6,875 miles
At a Glance:
- Location: Pretty much everywhere west of the Rocky Mountains
- Navigation: Maps for the PCT, CDT, AZT, and PNT sections are available on FarOut. And although the other segments are listed on Skurka’s website, it’s up to you to plan your exact route on those other portions.
A route that was first dreamed up by former National Geographic Explorer of the Year, Andrew Skurka, you know just by looking at the map that this one is going to be crazy. And oh, how the chalice of mountain vistas overflows along this route, as it was designed specifically to traverse as many mountain ranges of the west as possible. Skurka himself says that the GWL is “an immersive experience in the full range of Western landscapes (harsh desert to alpine mountain tops, and everything in between),” and there’s no denying that this is a beer flight of every tap that the West has to offer.
The GWL seems to be one of the better known and more aspired-towards of the crazy long hikes. Perhaps this is due in part to Skurka’s celebrity in the thru-hiking community, and perhaps it is supplemented by Jeff “Legend” Garmire’s meticulously documented hike of it back in 2018. Beyond that, the route itself just looks downright appealing. I think that the Grand Enchantment Trail, which this route follows in the southwest, is a seriously underrated part of the country. And the wayfinding portion west of the AZT encourages hikers to plot their own routes over to the PCT, which hits that sweet spot of mixing established and unestablished trails.
5. The Eastern Continental Trail | ~5,700 miles
At a Glance:
- Location: Key West, Florida to Belle Isle, Newfoundland and Labrador
- Navigation: An incredibly dispersed amount of information that has been beautifully and meticulously collected on Jupiter’s hiking blog, as well as on Nimblewill Nomad’s website.
If you are the kind of person that took one look at the Appalachian Trail and thought, “nah too short fam,” then the ECT is a perfect way to supersize your AT thru-hiking experience.
The route was conceived by Nimblewill Nomad himself and links together the Florida, Pinhoti, Appalachian, and International Appalachian Trails and some other small connectors to form one long super-trail.
Resident Trek sweetheart Owen Eigenbrot, who is currently hiking the ECT, says that the international factor is one of the most convincing reasons to hike the ECT: ” I’m not sure who is stranger, Floridians or the Quebecoise, but they could not be more different. The refuges and French language in Quebec also create an international vibe that is closer to the Alps than Maine. That has been one of the coolest parts of the ECT for me, feeling like I’m hiking in Europe, yet being able to follow the memory of my footsteps all the way back to the deep south. It’s hard to believe that my feet carried me all that way.”
As is the case with any of the other routes listed here, the ECT has a lot of curb appeal both as thru-hike or a section hike. Given that so much of it follows some fairly well-worn and inhabited areas, there is quite a bit of straightforward infrastructure surrounding it (at least until you’re well into Canada). “The 185 miles through New Brunswick is literally all on road, and probably better suited to bike packing. In Quebec, the booking system is rigid and expensive, making it difficult and costly to plan for ahead of time. But if you pull it off, the Chic-Choc mountains of Quebec and the refuges/facilities are top notch,” says Eigenbrot.
6. The Calendar Year Triple Crown | ~7,950 miles
At a Glance:
- Location: Across 22 states in the USA
- Navigation: All 3 trails contained in the CYTC are available separately on FarOut
Although the CYTC may be the most logistically and physically demanding (how to get to and from each trailhead, how to budget that many miles for 365 days, how to not completely destroy your body, etc.), it is nonetheless gaining quite a bit of traction in the backpacking community. And for good reason as well.
The CYTC covers such an immense amount of ground that it’s impossible not to see an abundance of amazing stuff. As kickass Trek writer, and CYTC correspondent, Carl Stanfield puts it: “What you lack in quality of experiences you make up for in quantity. I may not get to stop at every shelter, summit, and town I want to on the AT, but I do get to see THREE trails’ worth of views.”
If you’re looking to spend your whole year hiking, there is definitely a tangible, objective appeal to the CYTC. An upshot for a lot of people is that you get that fix of an insanely long trail without sacrificing all of the social aspects of hiking. “I’ve still been pleasantly surprised by how much time I’ve gotten to spend hiking with other people. Every once in a while you just come across another person/people with similar goals for a few days or weeks and you get to share the challenge of big miles,” says Stanfield.
Apart from all this, it’s also technically the most miles of any on this list. So if you’re looking for a super long hike in order to push yourself to your ultimate limit, then it makes sense to start here, at the end of this article, as well.
Also worth noting that Carl is doing a CYTC on steroids, subbing the ECT for the AT for a total of some 11,000 miles, which he believes would be the most miles anyone’s ever hiked in a single year. All this as a reminder that, while these six hikes are among the longest recognized routes in North America, with enough determination (and road walking), you can create your own insanely long adventure just about anywhere.
Featured image: Graphic design by Jillian Verner (@yourstrulyjillian).
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