5 Shorter Thru-Hikes for 2021: Trails Brace for Increased Use

With COVID-19 far from over, many are rethinking their plans to thru-hike any of the Triple Crown trails this year. This comes after the Appalachian Trail asked hikers to limit travel and said they will not recognize thru-hikers in 2021. The Pacific Crest Trail announced a similar plan and asked hikers to reevaluate and hike in 2022 instead. Meanwhile, the Continental Divide Trail has said they will not provide assistance to hikers in New Mexico and will discontinue their southern terminus shuttle due to safety concerns. 

This is now the second year in a row many are abandoning their plans. But as we saw last year, there was a shift to shorter thru-hikes and some, like the Colorado Trail, even saw record numbers of hikers in 2020. With many believing regional hikes are a safer option, the people behind these trails are putting in work to make sure they’re ready.

Evaluating 5 Shorter Thru-Hikes for 2021

Colorado Trail

  • 486 miles
  • Denver to Durango

The Colorado Trail is a nearly 500-mile path from Durango, CO to Waterton Canyon, just southwest of Denver. The trail, which shares a section with the CDT, saw large numbers last year, especially with late summer being some of the peak times to thru-hike the trail. This year, the Colorado Trail Foundation is preparing to see a similar surge of visitors.

We are upbeat about 2021 on The Colorado Trail and finalizing our schedule of Volunteer Trail Crews to keep the CT in good condition,” said Bill Manning, the CTF’s Executive director. “We suggest people plan to not come if they’re sick or exposed, bring a mask to help with hitchhiking, and consider bringing more spending money than normal for things like a motel room in case hostels are full up.”

There are a few notes for anyone planning to hike the trail, including the ongoing closure of Waterton Canyon and that section of trail. Hikers should be prepared to find a more rugged trail with added down trees, as COVID restrictions have kept some volunteers off the trail. Manning and his team also suggest people budget more for the hike this year with the chances of hostels filling up sooner and hikers may need to pay for hotels as an alternative.

The Colorado Trail Foundation also thinks the hike may take longer for some. There may be fewer options for hitchhiking and shuttles with drivers worried about the pandemic, adding some miles for hikers looking to resupply. However, the trail passes within walking distance of towns, resorts, and post offices frequently enough that thru-hiking should be possible without ever seeing the inside of a stranger’s car. One long road walk, 10 miles to the town of Creede from San Luis Pass, would be necessary for most hikers.

The Long Trail

  • 273 miles
  • MA-VT border to VT-Canadian border

The Long Trail, the oldest established long-distance hike in the country, is also preparing for a popular summer. The 273-mile path runs north and south through Vermont, sharing a section with the Appalachian Trail. 

This trail is overseen by the Green Mountain Club and they say they’re also preparing for another busy year. Overall, the trail is open, including shelters and privies, but they are not cleaned or sanitized so the GMC suggests bringing your own hand sanitizer and toilet paper. They’re also asking hikers to be more self-sufficient this year to cut down on resupply and the need to stop in towns along the way.

Another important note: Vermont has strict quarantine guidelines that require visitors and those returning to the state to quarantine for either 14 days or seven days with a negative COVID test at the end. Those who have been vaccinated do not need to quarantine. 

Avoiding hitchhiking on the Long Trail would be non-trivial and would likely require longer road walks. There are a handful of establishments near the trail that accept mail drops. Notably, The Inn at Long Trail and Stowe Mountain Resort have historically accepted mail drops for guests.

Similar to last year, restrictions blocking some volunteers may also lead to some issues from lack of trail maintenance, with a GMC representative saying, “In a normal year, Green Mountain Club staff and volunteers would be preparing trails for the upcoming hiking season right now and hikers would be getting ready to start their thru-hikes after mud season.  But we all know that this is not a normal year.”

The John Muir Trail

shorter thru-hikes

Photo via Jim Rahtz.

  • 211 miles
  • Yosemite Valley to Mt. Whitney (CA)

For much of its length (170 miles), the John Muir Trail (JMT) follows the route of the Pacific Crest Trail. The Forest Service, National Park Service, and the nonprofit JMT Wilderness Conservancy all play roles in managing the trail. Still, the Pacific Crest Trail Association’s (PCTA) pandemic guidance is the best resource for hikers considering a thru of the JMT this year.

“2021 will not be a normal year on the Pacific Crest Trail,” said Scott Wilkinson, the director of communications for the PCTA. “The Covid-19 pandemic and closures from 2020 wildfires will present challenges to long-distance PCT travelers.”

The PCTA is suggesting hikers stick to regional hikers and paths close to home. They would prefer that hikers stick to sections close to them, whether that’s the JMT or a different section. This way hikers can limit resupplies and how far they’re traveling. There’s also quarantine guidelines for each state and some like California do suggest first quarantining for 14 days. Finally, the PCTA wants to remind everyone to wear a mask.

The type of permit you need to hike the JMT depends on which trailhead you plan to start at and the number of hikers allowed to start each day is tightly controlled by a quota system, but the quota has not been reduced in 2021.

If you do end up on the JMT, be cautious of crowds when you resupply, as many food stops are also bustling tourist resorts/shops. Long off-trail detours on foot will sometimes be necessary. (But in fairness, this is par the course for hiking the JMT even in a non-pandemic year).

Arizona Trail

shorter thru-hikes

Photo via Abigail Kessler.

  • 800 miles
  • Mexico-AZ border to AZ-UT border

The increasingly popular Arizona Trail is far from short at 800 miles from Mexico to Utah. Parts of the trail even remain popular throughout the winter. The Arizona Trail Association (AZTA) is expecting to see big numbers on trail this year.

“With more people working remotely, unemployed, or reprioritizing their lives, we anticipate record numbers of northbound thrus on the AZT this season, in addition to the ever-growing number of day trippers and weekend warriors who are section hiking and riding the AZT,” the Association said.

“With increased use comes potential impacts to the fragile natural resources that make the AZT experience so special. Please take extra care to recreate responsibly, leave no trace, protect water resources, and don’t leave a mess for anyone else to clean up.”

Officials with the AZTA believe it is safer to be on trail than in most public places, but people still need to follow basic safety protocols that have been in place over the last year to make sure the trail stays that way.

However, with the length of the AZT, there will need to be a lot of resupplying. The trail frequently passes through or very close to towns and post offices. This makes it easy to pick up supplies without needing to hitchhike or shuttle.

Besides that, they do have some warnings when it comes to water. The AZT Association says water is always tricky on trails, but after the hottest and driest recorded summer ever followed by the hottest and driest winter, water will be especially scarce this year.

“For day hikers, this isn’t a big deal. For thrus, it could be extremely dangerous, even fatal,” says Kessler. “Planning where to tank up on water days in advance will be vital to staying hydrated and healthy.”

Trail officials suggest that anyone on-trail should have storage for two to four gallons of water on them at all times. Therefore hikers need to be prepared for some extra weight if they’re hiking in Arizona.

Wonderland Trail

shorter thru-hikes

  • 93 miles
  • Loop around Mount Rainer (WA)

Finally, the Wonderland Trail (WT), a 90-mile hike around Mount Rainier, requires most hikers to enter a lottery.

This trail is completely within Mount Rainier National Park and therefore is overseen by the National Park System. Every year they hold a lottery for permits to thru-hiker the entire trail. That’s not new due to COVID but it will certainly help limit the number of hikers on-trail during the pandemic. Others can attempt to get a walk-up permit, but it’s not easy.

“My first advice would be to enter the lottery between March 2-March 14,” said Sarah Pigeon, the supervisor of visitor services at Mount Rainier NP. “If you are attempting a walk-up permit, I highly recommend coming with a lot of flexibility including starting trailheads, daily mileage, and hiking direction. If you are planning on attempting to receive a walk-up permit I suggest you come to the Wilderness Information Center before they open the day before you want to start your hike.”

You can find more about entering for a permit here.

While the park limits the number of WT hikers, they did see an increase in general visitors last year. They expect that trend to continue in 2021. Because this trail is so short, you may not need to resupply. And if you do, you’ll have to cache food along the trail anyway so you can limit social interactions.

The National Park System does want to remind visitors that a mask is required at all park facilities. They suggest hikers wear a mask when passing by others outside their party.

Featured image via Jim Rahtz.

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Comments 9

  • Shannon : Mar 11th

    Awesome article! I’ve never heard of the Wonderland Trail but read more about the trail, it sounds really nice! I just entered the lottery, I doubt I’ll have any luck but it’s good to now know about it for the future. I intend to hike the second half of the Colorado Trail in late July, I anticipate it being very busy but it’s my alternative to my AT thru-hike this year, and am looking forward to it! The Arizona Trail sounds great, I imagine that will continue to soar in popularity especially since there is a lot of flexibility with when people can start given the mild weather conditions unlike many of the other trails. Thanks for the informative article and for including the expectations and nuances of each trail!

  • Stiff Sox : Mar 11th

    Why isn’t the Cohos Trail on this list? 170 miles through New Hampshire

    • Heat Lightning : Mar 14th

      Its a 25 year old trail that isn’t super well known and has a decent amount of road walk miles and not a lot of trail infrastructure north of the Whites. It’s gonna get super popular in 10-15 years probably as it becomes more well known

  • Terry Warren : Mar 12th

    The River-to-River (R2R) in Illinois’ Shawnee National Forest is another shorter thru-hike.

    From the US Dept of Ag: Spanning from the Ohio River to the Mississippi River, this 160-mile trail passes through some of the most scenic areas of southern Illinois, including upland forests, wetlands, grasslands and bluffs. The trail leads through some of the most remote areas of the Shawnee as it passes through five of the seven nationally designated wilderness’, designated natural areas and several state parks. Abundant with wildlife you may see bald eagle, red-tailed hawk, bobcat, armadillo, red fox and is home to some 250 bird species.

    Most of the trail is on public lands (national forest or state parks), however some segments are along roads and across private land (where allowed). Enjoy tranquil locations such as bluffs overlooking Cedar Lake, painted sunset sky at Garden of the Gods, or migrating waterfowl resting in the floodplains of the Mississippi River.

    Download Geo-referenced River to River Maps to use them on your tablet or smartphone for GPS navigation along the trail.

  • Scott Douglas : Mar 12th

    Although the mountains are kind of whimpey, the Florida trail (and Florida) are wide open.
    I live in the panhandle so I’m partial to the north Florida section.
    Ya’ll come see us!

  • Schmiddyjk : Mar 14th

    Awesome article. Keep in mind. The Appalachian trail conservancy sold out to natural gas. So don’t get to caught up in them saying it’s a good idea to stay off the trail. It should stand to show that anyone able to traverse trails safely should do so. Just like any other year. I plan to continue my journey on the AT. It is possible to do so even while maintaining “covid protocol”. Just need to get creative. Point is. Don’t forget how important trail time is. Just because you never know if you, the trail, or this wonderful natural world will be there tomorrow. Peace.

  • Kevin Busko : Mar 21st

    Those are all great suggestions. For something different in the Mid-Atlantic area check out Jeff Mitchell’s PA Wilds Trail which showcases a little of everything north central Pennsylvania has to offer. It is a “choose your own” adventure route that connects several of Pennsylvania’s sub 100 mile hiking trails into a 200+ mile route. Last summer we spent 17 days backpacking 225 miles from Parker Dam S.P. to the north terminus of the West Rim Trail on a route that included parts of the Quehanna Trail, Donut Hole Trail, Susquehannock Trail, Black Forest Trail, Mid State Trail and the West Rim Trail. There were several small villages along the way where we could mail resupply boxes to and a hotel at Slate Run for a zero day.


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