At 10:30am Pacific Standard Time on Tuesday, January 14, the Pacific Crest Trail Association’s online permit portal sprang to life. Hopefuls from around the world formed a digital queue, eager to snap up one of the 1,350 long-distance permits remaining for a northbound trek along the famous trail; an additional 3,150 were doled out back in October. Together, this meant that every day between the first of March and the end of May, fifty lucky hikers would tuck their permits into their packs, pose for an obligatory photo at the PCT’s southern terminus in Campo, California, and point their trekking poles toward Canada, some 2,650 miles beyond.
Winning one of hiking’s most golden tickets is, of course, cause for celebration. But for every person currently planning to drain their entire savings into the nearest outdoor shop before hitting the trail, another is left disappointed. Crushed. Sad. Angry, even. The PCT is the kind of bucket list goal that slips under your skin and stirs deep emotions at all points of the spectrum. So, what do you do when such enormous dreams feel out of reach? Shake them up.
Being denied an attempt at the PCT or any other dream adventure can feel like a heavy steel door slammed shut. But once you peel back the blinders and shift your expectations, it can also offer an opportunity to get just as psyched about channeling your energy (along with your hard-won time off work, your gear stockpiles, and the forty pounds of ramen holding court in your garage) into something that can be equally or even more satisfying.
Dig deep into your motivations—what attracted you to this experience in the first place? What did you hope to accomplish? And more importantly, how did you think it would make you feel if you did just that? Then consider the suggestions below to shift your no-permit blues to something more like sky-high psych.
Pick another long trail
If your dreams involve nothing less than stretching your legs along an undulating strip of dirt for weeks on end, the good news is that there are a whole lot of other long trails besides the PCT. Hopefuls might instead head east to hop on the iconic (and quota-free) Appalachian Trail, though its popularity creates a bottleneck along its southernmost miles in early spring. The Continental Divide Trail, which stretches between New Mexico’s border with Mexico and Montana’s with Canada, is more sparsely populated, but its length (3,100 miles), difficult terrain, and incomplete status (only three-fourths of the trail is technically complete) make for a real challenge.
While the PCT, AT, and CDT comprise the famed Triple Crown of hiking, there are plenty of other options scattered around the country. If distance is your thing, follow a glacial path along Wisconsin’s 1,200-mile Ice Age Trail. History buffs should tackle Vermont’s Long Trail—at 272, it’s relatively short despite its name, but the route is considered the oldest thru-hike in the United States. Dial in your navigation and scrambling skills to hit the Hayduke Trail, less a prescribed pathway than a choose-your-own-adventure route across, through, over, under, down, and around the incredible landscapes that comprise the Colorado Plateau. Or you can hang with gators on the Florida Trail, soak in the sun on the Arizona Trail, chase waterfalls on the Ozark Highlands Trail, discover the more arid side of the Pacific Northwest on the Oregon Desert Trail, bag some fourteeners along the Colorado Trail…you get the picture. PCT who?
Lest you think that the U.S. holds some sort of patent on long-distance hiking, the globe is actually hatched with incredible treks. The Te Araroa (“The Long Pathway” in Maori, New Zealand’s native language) is something like the PCT of the South Pacific, a roughly 1,864-mile tramp across both of the country’s scenic islands. Chile’s new La Ruta de los Parques (“The Route of Parks”) promises 1,700 miles of dramatic scenery, including 17 national parks. Lighten your pack by looping through the Alps on a hut-to-hut journey along the Tour du Mont Blanc, by bedding down in Himalayan villages along the Annapurna Circuit, or by resting your bones at refuges located along Corsica’s famously difficult GR20.
Want to go even bigger? Trek past the AT’s northern terminus at Maine’s highpoint, Mount Kahtadin, to embark on the International Appalachian Trail, which currently curls along Canada’s Maritime provinces before skipping the pond to continue in fits and spurts across England.
Choose your own adventure
But then again, why tether your dreams to existing “thru-hiking” routes? As long as you’re armed with navigation and cross-country travel skills, along with excellent backcountry ethics, the (hiking) world is your oyster. Think about an area you’d like to visit, then bust out some maps and begin daydreaming. When you lift the expectation of following a single trail, you begin to see the possibility in section-hiking smaller portions, linking together other trails, or even creating your own routes, both on- and off-trail, depending on your available timeframe, skill level, and imagination.
Need inspiration? Treeline Review founder Liz “Snorkel” Thomas has made her name both as a long-distance hiker (she logged the Fastest Known Time on the AT back in 2011) and as an urban hiking aficionado—she’s developed what she calls “urban brew thrus,” creating sudsy routes linking breweries in beer-loving cities, and she explored New York City’s green spaces on a 225-mile urban hike earlier this year. She’s applied that same creative ethos to the backcountry, notching a solo traverse of Utah’s Wasatch Range and joining two others in the first expedition along the Chinook Trail in the Columbia River Gorge. And fellow long-hauler Andrew Skurka has made something of a career out of crafting innovative long-distance routes, from various alpine routes in Yosemite, Kings Canyon, and the Wind River Range, to the nearly 7,000-mile Great Western Loop (repeated only once, by Jeff “Legend” Garmire).
Still want to crush miles, but not wedded to the idea of accomplishing them on foot? Stick with a human-powered ethos by hopping on a bicycle. Bikepacking does require some skill beyond simply riding your bike—you’ll need to learn how to balance your gear load, how to pedal under the weight, and how to repair common (and perhaps not-so-common) issues while out in the wilderness, but the outcome is the same as backpacking—you can get way out there.
Just as with backpacking, the two-wheeled version allows plenty of room to dream up your own routes. But you’ll be forgiven if you choose an adventure that’s already been done, since a lot of incredible routes already exist. Like, say, traversing Cuba. Or cruising the super-bike-friendly Colorado Trail. Or rolling along the west coast on the Oregon Timber Trail. Or cruising through the Italian Alps. Or maybe just going rogue and knocking out all 2,700 miles of the brand new Wild West Route. It’s okay to abandon your backpack for a while, we promise.
Dig deeper into your bucket list
You’ve saved money, stockpiled gear, and took time off work (or maybe even quit altogether)—don’t let all of that effort go to waste just because you didn’t get one specific permit. Think BIG. Have you always wanted to traverse the Grand Canyon Rim-to-Rim…-to-Rim? Or hit all the high points in your state? Or visit every national park? Or watch sunrise from Mount Kilimanjaro? Take a road trip to visit all of your family members? Make like Forrest Gump and jog across the country? Suddenly your options become limitless. Go get ‘em, tiger.