You can probably name The Big Three long-distance trails in the U.S. by their acronyms: the AT, the PCT, and the CDT. They’re all thousands of miles, life-list items, and personal-paradigm-shifters. But you don’t have to walk for half a year to have a formative experience (although it’s probably nice) – there are plenty of tremendous 100-plus-mile trails in the U.S. that will kick your ass and adjust your attitude, and you won’t go through six pairs of shoes on your way to mental clarity.
Here are our favorites:
1. Arizona Trail
Almost no state in the U.S. can beat Arizona’s north-to-south eco-diversity, from saguaro-lined desert floor to 12,000-foot peaks. Oh, and there’s the Grand Canyon, too. The Arizona Trail does its best to take in as much of that terrain as possible, stretching 817 miles from Coronado National Monument near the Mexico border all the way to the Utah line, through the Grand Canyon on the same trails used by hikers doing the classic Rim-to-Rim hike.
2. Cohos Trail
The Cohos Trail, a 33-year vision of New England hiker Kim Nilsen, was finished in 2011. It starts near Crawford Notch, New Hampshire, in the White Mountains, and heads toward Canada, delivering over its 150 miles the solitude that can’t be found in other, more popular hiking destinations in the Northeast. Nilsen and his friends started cutting it in 1996 and celebrated its completion three years ago.
3. Colorado Trail
Colorado’s 486-mile Denver-to-Durango trail is probably the most oxygen-starved trail on this list – most of it is above 10,000 feet. Thru-hikers who take 40 or so days to complete the trail get all of Colorado except the flat part, crossing eight mountain ranges and climbing and descending 89,000 vertical feet along the way.
4. Hayduke Trail
The Hayduke Trail began as a secret project two hikers dreamed up to pay tribute to Ed Abbey’s writing – obvious now in the naming of the trail after one of Abbey’s most famous characters, George Hayduke. The route, probably the toughest on this list at 800 miles of desert terrain, starts in Arches National Park and ends in Zion National Park, crossing through Canyonlands, Capitol Reef, and Bryce Canyon national parks, as well as the Grand Canyon.
5. John Muir Trail
Most strong hikers can finish the 210-mile John Muir Trail in under three weeks-just about the amount of time most of us can take off work without losing our jobs. The trail stays high, traversing the white granite and alpine lakes of the Sierra through three national parks (Yosemite, Sequoia, and Kings Canyon), and summits the highest peak in Lower 48, Mt. Whitney.
6. Long Trail
Vermont’s 273-mile Long Trail is the grandaddy of them all – the oldest long-distance trail in the United States, completed in 1930 thanks to the Green Mountain Club. It follows the Green Mountains from Vermont’s southern border with Massachusetts all the way to Canada, and believe it or not was the inspiration for the Appalachian Trail-which Benton MacKaye dreamed up after a visit to Vermont in 1922. The AT shares the southern 100 miles of the Long Trail.
7. Ozark Highlands Trail
The 253-mile Ozark Highlands Trail winds through what they say is some of the best and wildest scenery in the Ozark Mountains, running across northwest Arkansas. The trail crosses more than 60 creeks, rivers, and streams, hundreds of waterfalls, and runs along and over the sandstone bluffs that make up the Ozarks. The worst part of the OHT is that it could be way longer – the National Park Service nixed a plan to connect it to the Ozark Trail in Missouri, which would have created a 700-plus-mile trail through both states.
8. Superior Hiking Trail
Author Robert Earle Howells calls Minnesota’s 277-mile Superior Hiking Trail “the best long hike in the country between the Continental Divide and the Appalachian Trail.” The trail runs along the ridgeline overlooking Lake Superior for most of its length, popping in and out of the woods and hugging cliffs, and is broken up by 80-plus backcountry campsites.