A Thru-Hike for Everyone: 5 Trails Under 200 Miles

Recent books and movies have inspired countless hikers and potential hikers to dream about thru-hiking one of the “big three” of America’s long trails: The Appalachian Trail, Pacific Crest Trail, or the Continental Divide Trail. However, for many people the feat is just not feasible. Perhaps there’s that pesky job or mortgage. Six months may be too much time away from family and the lives they’ve built. Still others may want an epic hike, but just aren’t interested in one that’s 2,000+ miles.

Here are five trails under 200 miles (yes, the John Muir Trail is 210) that will satisfy the need for adventure without being too much of a commitment.

Looking for something longer? Check out Part II, five trails over 200 miles

 

Shawnee State Forest Backpacking Trail

Photo courtesy of Jim Rahtz

Best For: The rugged “Little Smokies” is a great spot for midwestern flatlanders to practice for backpacking trips to the mountains.
Distance: 40 miles, loop
Location: South central Ohio
How to Get There: From Cincinnati, take Rt. 125 east to the trailhead.

Description: In his book, “Backpack Loops and Long Day Trail Hikes in Southern Ohio” Robert Ruchhoft describes the hills of the Shawnee State Forest Backpack Trail as arduous, struggle, exhaustive frustration, lung buster and more. Compared to most other trails in Ohio, he is right. As the trail meanders through the 63,000 acre state forest in the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains, it is obvious the designers thought the direct route up and down the slopes was the best route. The reward for the steepness of the trail is great scenery without the crowds.

Self-registration permits are available at the trailhead at no cost. Seven camp areas are located along the loop and contain tent areas, a latrine and (at six of the areas) potable water. Winter is a great time to hike as the leaf free views are more open and there will be few, if any other backpackers. A map and brochure on the trail is available on the web.

Greenstone Ridge Trail

Photo via

Best For: Those wanting an adventure on a remote island where there are no roads.
Distance: 40 miles with opportunities to add loops and mileage.
Location: Isle Royale, Michigan

Getting There: Boat or seaplane shuttles are available from Grand Portage, MN and Houghton or Copper Harbor, MI

Description: The Greenstone Ridge Trail runs the length of this 210 square mile remote island surrounded by Lake Superior. If the scenery of the big lake wasn’t enough, there are also inland lakes and streams throughout the isle’s forested interior. Rather than an out and back hike, additional trails such as Minong and Feldtmann Ridge create loops that allow for exploring more of the island while adding mileage.

There are 36 camp areas on the island, available first come, first serve. There’s a $7 per day fee for visitors. The Park Service annually creates a planning guide that contains much of the info needed to prepare to visit.

Wonderland Trail

Photo courtesy of the National Park Service

Best For: Those looking for mountain scenery, but can handle a fairly regimented hike. While there is no high altitude hiking, there is considerable elevation change and a good possibility of dealing with snow.
Distance: 93 miles
Location: Southeast of Seattle, Washington
Getting There: From Seattle, take I-5 south to S.R. 512 east to S.R. 7 south to S.R. 706 east to park entrance. Other options can be found at the National Park Service website.

Description: John Muir climbed 14,411 foot Mt. Rainier in 1888. While he appreciated the grandeur of the view, he felt, “more pleasure is to be found at the foot of the mountains than on their tops.” The Wonderland Trail provides that experience by circling, rather than climbing Mt Rainier while staying within its namesake national park. The mountain, considered an active volcano, hosts 25 named glaciers and is one of the snowiest spots on earth. The Wonderland Trail stays at a lower elevation, between 2,300 and 6,750 feet, but is considered difficult as it repeatedly bounces between low forested valleys and stretches of sub-alpine and alpine habitat. One thing that’s consistent however, are the great views of all sides of massive Mt. Rainier.

The Wonderland Trail is extremely popular, which makes getting a permit for the hike difficult. What makes it even more difficult is the requirement to stay in one of 21 camp areas each night, and to have a permit for the correct specific camp area for each night of the trip. In other words, you need to know how far you are hiking each day and also to score the permit for each and every camp. Reservation requests are accepted each year starting March 15. On April 1, the park service begins filling available slots. If you did not get a permit in this first batch, you are probably not getting a permit. Being flexible with hiking direction, nightly campsites and starting point can all increase your odds. The trail is generally snow free from mid-July through Mid-September, also the time with the most competition for permits. Planning info and the specifics of the required permits can be found at the NPS website.

Tahoe Rim Trail

Photo courtesy of Jim Rahtz

Best for: First time thru-hikers or those that want simple logistics
Distance: 170 miles, loop
Location: California-Nevada border, circling Lake Tahoe
Getting There: There are two cities on the trail, Tahoe City and South Lake Tahoe. The closest major city is Reno, NV. From Reno to Tahoe City, take I-80 West to CA-89 South.
Traveling from Reno to South Lake Tahoe, the best route is US-395 South to US-50 West. Transit is available to a half mile side trail that takes you to the TRT.

Description: A great trail for someone that thinks they “might” want to try thru-hiking a “long” trail. The TRT is extremely well marked, easy to navigate and rarely confusing. Signage is ample and well located. Logistics are simple as the trail is a big circle and it travels by two, well spaced resupply towns.

There is still the matter of walking the distance however, and that part of the challenge shouldn’t be underestimated. You are walking through the Sierras, so there’s some considerable up and down. However, unlike the more famous John Muir Trail in the same range to the north, the elevation change is less dramatic. Tahoe’s shoreline is around 6,300 feet and the high point on the trail tops out at 10,330 feet.

Overall, for the effort, the rewards are great. The trail has daily mountain views, numerous small alpine lakes and countless views of the largest alpine lake in North America. The path often passes through open forests consisting mainly of various pines, firs and occasional aspen. Much of the trail is in National Forest or one of three Wilderness Areas. Desolation Wilderness is aptly named as a glacier once scraped most of the soil from the area and left the terrain beautifully stark. A permit is required to camp within the wilderness, but as a thru-hiker, the quota limit is not an issue. Start your research at tahoerimtrail.org.

John Muir Trail

Photo courtesy of Jim Rahtz

Best For: Those that are looking to hike some of the most spectacular miles of the Pacific Crest Trail along with scoring bragging rights for having summited the tallest peak in the continental United States. Prospective hikers need to be flexible and persistent to acquire the needed permit.
Distance: 210 miles
Location: From Yosemite National Park to Kings Canyon National Park in California
How To Get There: From the San Francisco area take I-580 East to I-205 East to I-5 North to CA-120 East. Follow signs to your chosen entrance from there.

Description: Sharing 170 miles with the PCT, the JMT runs from Yosemite Valley to the top of Mt Whitney, traveling through the Sierra Nevada or “Range of Light” (per John Muir). Along the way is one jaw dropping, iconic view after another. Starting at Happy Isles in Yosemite Valley, Half Dome, Nevada Falls, Cathedral Peak and more are all in the first 20 miles of the trail. And it continues throughout. As the trail is entirely within either National Park or wilderness area, the wildlife sightings are just as impressive.

While the trail is well constructed, the hike has its challenges. The route climbs up and over 11 high passes, not to mention 14,505 foot Mt Whitney. From the last semi-convenient resupply to the parking lot at the finish is a distance of 110 miles, and all your food needs to fit inside a bear resistant canister.

Perhaps the biggest challenge with the JMT is getting a permit. If you want to start at Happy Isles in Yosemite, plan on faxing in an application 24 weeks before your planned start date. Per the National Park Service website, over 97% of all applications are denied. In my case, after being turned down a few times, I changed my plan. I was able to secure a permit starting from Tuolumne Meadows, 20 miles down the trail. I turned the hike into a mini-flip flop by covering the first 20 miles as a day-hike. Was it perfect? No, but it was the only option to walk the entire trail within my timeframe. You’ll need to plan ahead, yet be very flexible. Start that planning at the NPS website.

Featured graphic courtesy Katie Bumatay

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Comments 11

  • Nate : Sep 28th

    Hiked Isle Royale earlier this year and it was phenomenal. We went out right after Memorial Day weekend and there were barely anybody around.

    Reply
    • Jim Rahtz : Sep 28th

      Good to hear. I typically wait until late summer or fall for my “north woods” trips to avoid the biting insects. Any issues with skeeters or black flies on your trip?

      Reply
      • Nate : Oct 3rd

        We had some issues with gnats while out there that dive bombed our faces constantly while we were camping a East Chickenbone but they weren’t biters, just very annoying and aggressive. Had to dig a few out of my eyes when we stopped in the evening and again in the morning. But there weren’t any biters that we had to deal with.

        Reply
  • John Edward Harris : Oct 2nd

    Western Pennsylvanias’s Laurel Highlands Hiking Trail, at only 70 miles long, can be travelled in a week or less but can also be very challenging, and serve as a good warmup and shakedown before making a longer commitment to a longer trail.

    Reply
  • Rhinestone : Oct 3rd

    I’m glad that you wrote this blog. I am looking to start my backpacking career soon. The Ohio trail sounds like a good winter starting trail. If you read about a frozen rhinestone don’t blame yourself, just know that I didn’t prepare enough. Thanks for the blog and I would like to hear if you have gone to any trails out of the country?

    Reply
    • Jim Rahtz : Oct 11th

      I haven’t yet. Other than momentarily stepping into Canada at the end of the Long Trail, all of my backpacking has been in the U.S.

      Reply
  • Ray H. : Oct 4th

    The Knobstone Trail (58 miles) in southern Indiana is another one to check out. It isn’t nicknamed the “little A.T.” for nothing.

    Reply
  • Jeff A : Oct 6th

    Another longer but not epic trail is the Cohos Trail that runs from Crawford Notch in the White Mountains north to the Canadian border with New Hampshire. I section hiked it this summer as a tune-up to tackle the AT next year. The terrain is incredibly varied, many beautiful views – but different from the typical White Mountains views – and there is very little foot traffic. The CT winds through remote country and if not for moose, the trail would not exist in many sections. It’s a great thru-hike or section hike. Log shelters in most sections, and camp sties elsewhere. I highly recommend the CT as a wonderful alternative to the overused and overpopulated trails in the Whites.

    Reply
  • Joanna D. : Oct 6th

    The Zion Traverse is another good one for beginners as long as you don’t mind trekking through a little bit of sand every once in awhile. About 50 miles. Permits for camp spots aren’t that difficult to obtain. My partner and I did it at the end of April and the temperature was perfect. Loved the solitude the most as we rarely saw anyone until getting closer to the Main Canyon near Angel’s Landing.

    Reply
  • Bob T : Oct 11th

    Lone Star Hiking Trail, north of Houston, just about 100 miles overall. Hiking? In Texas? Who knew?!

    Reply
  • Jim Rahtz : Oct 11th

    Thanks for all the great suggestions for additional trails. My bucket list just keeps getting longer.

    Reply

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