There is something special about completing a thru-hike, but they aren't for the unprepared. Why not challenge yourself?
Thru-hiking purists would say the only true definition of one is a months' long backpacking trip from one end of the trail to the other. Ultimately, it's up to you to define your own challenge.
The popularity of the Appalachian and Pacific Crest Trails has soared in recent years, but if you don't have six months' free time and Elon Musk's budget, here are a few shorter but still challenging alternatives, a few of which link up with those famed trails.
John Muir Trail
You can start this granddaddy of famous trails at 4,000 feet in Yosemite and go straight up from there, spending most of its 221 miles above 8,000 feet. Most hikers travel north to south. Though the elevation is high, it's more gradual an ascent than starting with the 6,000-foot climb up Mt. Whitney in the south. Along the way you'll encounter swollen rivers, astonishing views, and very possibly hungry bears, along with hikers attempting the much longer Pacific Trail, which links up with JMT for 170 miles. Permits go quick for this hike.
Pacific Northwest National Scenic Trail
Starting at Glacier National Park in Montana, you'll cross three national parks and seven forests on this 1,200-mile trail that ends at the misty Washington coast. The trail meanders along the Canadian border through stunning ranges including the Selkirks, the North Cascades, and the Olympics. Lakes, waterfalls, craggy coastlines, and a bald eagle sighting or three await on what might be the most beautiful trail in the country. Expect to take about two months or so to hike the whole thing.
The Long Trail
Here we have the country's oldest long-distance route (construction begain in 1910), and the one that inspired the Appalachian Trail (they share a 100-mile section). It runs the length of Vermont, with most of its 272 miles spent in the Green Mountains. Though less of a mountain hike than dense forest adventure, novice and advanced hikers will find the rugged trails and slippery slopes a challenge for sure.
West Maroon Pass
Ready for the day hike of your life that requires no permit or overnight stay? This iconic Colorado trail links Crested Butte to Aspen and you can start at either end. From Aspen, the 11-mile trek climbs a steep 1,000 feet in one mile, with awe-inspiring views of the Maroon Bells and breathtaking fields of wildflowers. The average time it takes from one end to the other is just five hours, time enough to grab a beer and a good meal at the end of the day.
River to River Trail
If you've always dreamed of hiking the 6,800-mile American Discovery Trail but just don't have the time or means, consider this trail that's an important part of it. It runs 160 miles through southern Illinois, from from the Ohio River to the Mississippi, and should take a week or two. It goes through overgrown forests that in fall offer lovely colors, but all that dense brush can hide the trail that is less maintained than others on this list, so hikers should bring their best navigation skills.
Superior Hiking Trail
National Geographic has called this Minnesota trail the "best long hike in the country between the Continental Divide and the Appalachian Trail," which is saying something. If you have three weeks to spare, this 300-mile hike travels from Duluth to the Canadian border through boreal forests and along bluffs overlooking Lake Superior. It has 94 backcountry, fee-free camping locations and even a few inns along the way if you need a break. Expect to spot moose, bears, and wolves near the trail's babbling brooks and rushing falls. Best of all, this hike is for on-foot only; horses, vehicles, and bikes are not allowed.
For a moderately challenging yet highly rewarding journey that should only take a week, this lesser-known trail in northern Pennsylvania is great for those who want a workout while getting awesome views of the Allegheny Plateau. It follows Loyalsock Creek nearly the entire way where you'll pass landmarks like the Haystacks, pictured above.
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