The 7 Best Long-Distance Thru-Hikes in the USA


, by Greg Heil

Pacific Crest Trail. Photo: Tobin Akehurst, Shutterstock

The United States of America is crisscrossed by some of the most epic long-distance backpacking routes on Earth. Unlike most famous European treks, which constantly switch back and forth between narrow singletrack trails, dirt farm roads, and even pavement as they navigate through towns, America's best hikes are almost entirely on rugged, beautiful singletrack. The vast expanses of untrammeled wilderness still found in "the New World" provide pristine backpacking experiences.

On these seven fabulous long-distance thru-hikes (all over 500 miles long), you'll experience everything that the USA has to offer. The Appalachian Trail runs through one of the oldest mountain ranges on the planet, with hikers navigating the "green tunnel" through the East Coast's dense undergrowth. The Arizona Trail couldn't be more different, as it negotiates expansive deserts in one of the most arid states in the union.

The Continental Divide Trail—arguably the most difficult in this roundup—runs along the very spine of the continent. Rain falling on the divide splits, with the eastern half running to the Atlantic Ocean and the western half running to the Pacific. However, the Pacific Crest Trail might be the most magnificent of all, traversing everything from low desert to the rugged Sierras and the rainforests of Oregon and Washington.

The scale of the American landscape is vast, majestic, and often overwhelming. The only way to truly immerse yourself in it is to tackle at least one—if not several—of these majestic thru-hikes.

1. Pacific Crest Trail - 2,650 miles

It's tough to select a "best" trail when this list is so chock-full of epic adventures, but if most people had to choose one, it would be the Pacific Crest. Running from Mexico to Canada, this is likely the most diverse thru-hike on this list. It begins in the low desert among the Joshua Trees of Southern California, quickly climbing into the Sierras and passing the tallest mountain in the Lower 48. It traverses one of the most famous national parks—Yosemite—before reaching the towering pine forests of Oregon and Washington. If you have to pick just one trail to hike before you die, this is it.

2. Appalachian Trail - 2,198 miles

Even though the Pacific Crest might be best, the Appalachian Trail is far and away the most famous. It's one of the oldest national scenic trails in the nation, running through one of the oldest mountain ranges on Earth. While much of the viewscape consists of the "green tunnel" of trees and undergrowth, never fear: there are plenty of vistas from high points along the way, and the White Mountains of New Hampshire even offer true alpine terrain.

3. Continental Divide Trail - 3,100 miles

The Continental Divide Trail rounds out the Triple Crown of Backpacking in the USA, and of the big three, it is by far the most difficult. Traversing the spine of the continent, the CDT reaches the highest elevations by far (topping out at 14,278ft on Gray's Peak) and has dramatically more elevation gain and loss due to climbing numerous mountain peaks and rugged high alpine passes. Thru-hiking the CDT is a truly epic challenge that few people have accomplished.

4. Pacific Northwest National Scenic Trail - 1,200 miles

The Pacific Northwest National Scenic Trail, or "PNT" for short, traverses east to west from the Continental Divide to the Pacific Ocean, running through Montana, Idaho, and Washington along the way. This lesser-known thru-hike will get you away from some of the crowds on the Triple Crown while providing a spectacular array of terrain not seen on other thru-hikes. Most notably, the trail visits three national parks: it begins in Glacier and then passes through North Cascades and Olympic. Some sections of the PNT still follow road alignments, but the vast majority is singletrack.

5. North Country Trail - 4,800 miles

The North Country Trail is the longest national scenic trail in America at an astounding 4,800 miles long. The trail passes through 8 states: North Dakota, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Michigan (both parts), Ohio, Pennsylvania, New York, and Vermont. The "north country" area of the nation it visits is characterized by endless forests and countless lakes, and it is often ignored by many hikers and tourists. While this route does defy our singletrack trail focus with numerous road alignments along the way, there's still an astounding amount of truly wild singletrack to be savored.

6. Colorado Trail - 567 miles

The final two selections on this list don't boast the vast mileage of the thru-hikes mentioned above, but they are still far and away two of the best trails in the nation! The Colorado Trail is the shortest on this list at "just" 567 miles, but mile-for-mile, the COT has better views and more majestic mountains than any other trail on this list. There's a reason Colorado is such a famous mountain destination, and the Colorado Trail puts that fame on display!

7. Arizona Trail - 800 miles

While the Colorado Trail only runs through the Rocky Mountain portion of the state, the Arizona Trail is a true border-to-border thru-hike. Beginning on the Mexican border and running to the Utah border, the AZT traverses vast expanses of Arizona's arid desert landscape. It also climbs through several different mountain ranges, providing a shockingly diverse backpacking experience in a state that most people write off as solely consisting of desert. One of the top highlights along the AZT's 800 miles is crossing one of the most famous national parks in the USA—the Grand Canyon.

Are there more long-distance thru-hikes in the USA that could make this list? Most definitely. But will you even be able to get through just these seven spectacular hikes in one lifetime? Most likely not... but that doesn't have to keep you from trying!