The 8 Best Long-Haul Backpacking Trails

Don’t have 5 months to hike the PCT or AT? How about 3 weeks?


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.

adventure journal best long distance hikes arizona trail

AZ Trail. Photo by Charles Miles/Flickr

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.

adventure journal best long distance hikes colorado trail

Colorado Trail. Photo by Ben Freeman/Flickr

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.

adventure journal best long distance hikes hayduke trail

Coyote Gulch, Hayduke Trail. Photo by Jason Corneveaux/Flickr

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.

adventure journal best long distance hikes john muir trail

John Muir Trail. Photo by Peretz Patensky/Flickr

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.

adventure journal best long distance hikes long trail

Long Trail. Photo by Philip Werner/Flickr

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.

adventure journal best long distance hikes ozark highlands trail

Ozark Highlands Trail. Photo by Oakley Originals/Flickr

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.

adventure journal best long distance hikes superior hiking trail

Superior Hiking Trail. Photo by Tim Schleicher/Flickr

Camp Notes is a big high five to the fun of sleeping outdoors and all that comes along with it. You know, camping and stuff.

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Brendan Leonard is a contributing editor to Adventure Journal. Follow him at his blog, Semi-Rad.
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Showing 16 comments
  • chard
    Reply

    not a trail per se (though it follows some and has created a few others), but the Sierra High Route (as delineated in Roper’s book) is about as good of a long-haul backpacking trip as you can get – like the JMT but higher and fewer people.

  • Chris
    Reply

    great…. more trails on my to-do list!

    thanks

  • dan
    Reply

    Ice Age Trail would be a good one to add. 1000 miles following the glacial edge of the last ice age through Wisconsin. Been section hiking it for the last couple years. Nice to see the Superior trail get a mention.

  • Craig Rowe
    Reply

    Can I comment yet?

    • Craig Rowe
      Reply

      Hey! There it is.

      • Craig Rowe
        Reply

        For another moderate long-distance trek, consider the Tahoe Rim Trail as well.

        Bet the Hayduke is a beast.

  • Dan
    Reply

    Though it is just under the 100-mile limit, the 93-mile Wonderland Trail encircling Mount Rainier offers some of the most strenuous on-trail hiking you’ll find in the states. Over the course of that 93 miles, the trail slices through no fewer than 7 distinct ecosystems (from Cascadian Old Growth Rainforest to alpine glaciers). What’s more, the trail covers a whopping 22,000 feet of total elevation gain (and loss)–that’s more than 4 times as much elevation change as you’ll find on the 277-mile Superior Trail.

  • Craig
    Reply

    For those seeking wide open prairies and deep, rugged canyons check out the 97+ mile Maah Daah Hey trail in western North Dakota. Don’t take the trail lightly. It can be unforgiving with sweltering heat, tough terrain and limited water sources, but it is all worth it.

    http://mdhta.com/

  • Abzug
    Reply

    I want to do them all! Starting with the Hayduke Trail of course.

  • Reply

    Would love to do all of these hikes! We really enjoy the Superior area–I love all the woods and cliffs around. I think the John Muir trail would be at the top of my list though!

  • Michael
    Reply

    You also missed one of the best kept secrets, The Ouachita National Recreation Trail. 233 miles starting in the mountains of eastern Oklahoma and ending just west of Little Rock, Ar.

    http://friendsot.org/

  • Matt Atnip
    Reply

    Hi Folks. The connection of the Ozark Highland Trail in Arkansas to the 360 mile Ozark Trail in Missouri has not been blocked by any agency. This is still a viable vision held by both volunteer organizations who maintain the trails. The Corps of Engineers owns the land around Norfork Lake on the Missouri/Arkansas border where the connection will eventually take place.

  • Kim F
    Reply

    I wish people would get the Superior Hiking Trail right. It’s now 310 miles with 93 campsites. It’s also unofficially part of the North Country Trail once Congress gets off it’s ass and approves the new route of the NCT. No one wants to build the original route which would require over 40 miles of boardwalk.

  • Colin Wood
    Reply

    The Theodore Solomons Trail should be added to the JMT-alternative list.

    • Alizarin Wheatfield
      Reply

      +1 for the TST (Theodore Solomons Trail).
      I have the (highly-impacted) JMT on my list (FINALLY!) for this year, but am thoroughly intrigued by the TST, partially because of the mystery and partially because of looking at the possibility of creating a 1,200-mile California Super Loop [HST to JMT to Tahoe Yosemite Trl(PCT) to Tahoe Rim Trl to TYT (Winnett Route) through Yosemite Valley and up the Four Mile Trail to TST to Whitney to Low-to-High reverse route (Whitney to Badwater].

  • jim
    Reply

    not super long but super tough is the west coast trail up on vancouver island in canada.

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