There’s magic and mystery in a long-distance footpath, and America’s blessed with some of the finest—and most famous—in the world. From the rhododendron tunnels of the Appalachian Trail to the lined-up volcanoes of the PCT, stupendous landscapes and stupendous adventure await on these backcountry (and frontcountry) traces, whether you’re hopping on for just a couple of days or doing an ambitious thru-hike. And you’ll certainly appreciate your Mountain House along the way…
Let’s take a freewheeling tour of America’s National Scenic Trails: hopefully spurring some fond memories for anyone who’s hoofed it on one or more of them, and otherwise sowing some seeds of bucket-list inspiration! These formally designated routes don't by any means exhaust the list of long-distance hiking paths in the country; we'll list just a few of the many others at the end.
Note: Many of these great American hiking trails aren’t completely linked together in a continuous span yet, so it’s important to study the maps and consult the given managing agency and/or trail association to plan your hike. (The agency responsible for a given trail's management is listed after the trail's name in the list below.)
Close to 2,200 miles long, threading 14 states as it traces one of the Earth’s most venerable mountain ranges from Georgia to Maine, the “A.T.” is likely the best-known of all the country’s long-distance hiking routes. Highlights are too many to number, although the McAfee Knob’s stirring prospect of the Catawba Valley is the most famous view along the way.
A thousand miles longer than the Appalachian Trail and many thousands of feet higher in places, the Continental Divide Trail shadows the crest of the Rocky Mountains for most of its Mexico-to-Canada mileage in New Mexico, Colorado, Wyoming, and Montana. It tops out on the 14,278-foot crown of Grays Peak in the Colorado Front Range, and along its 3,200 mostly wilderness miles hits up three stunners of national parks: Rocky Mountain, Yellowstone, and Glacier.
The scenic and ecological variety of this 2,650-mile-long route is dazzling: from the desert mountains of Southern California and the brushy woodlands of the Klamaths to the granite battlements of the Sierra Nevada and the glacier-hung horns of the North Cascades. The misty conifer forests and stratovolcanoes of the Cascade Range and the broad Columbia River Gorge (crossed on the Bridge of the Gods) are among the enchantments. The PCT's the only National Scenic Trail other than the CDT to link two international borders: Mexico and Canada.
The 1,200-plus-mile Pacific Northwest National Scenic Trail bridges the Continental Divide and Pacific Crest trails in its wild, rugged span between the Northern Rockies and the Pacific coast. It links Glacier National Park in Montana with Cape Alava on Washington’s Olympic Peninsula, cutting through the densely forested mountains of the Idaho Panhandle and northeastern Washington, the big, sharp, sweeping terrain of the North Cascades, Salish Sea islands, and the Olympic Mountain high country in between.
Get to know just how wild the Sunshine State’s tropical and subtropical backlands can be on the Florida National Scenic Trail, which when complete will run some 1,300 miles between Big Cypress National Preserve in South Florida and Gulf Islands National Seashore along the Florida Panhandle. You’ll dodge gators and venomous snakes (neither of which typically mess with people), get your feet wet, and gain a whole new appreciation for the utter uniqueness and jungly beauty of America’s southeastern toe.
You may be surprised to learn that the longest National Scenic Trail in the country isn’t one of the “Triple Crown of Hiking” north-south mountain routes (the AT, CDT, and PCT) but rather this 4,600-mile transect of the Upper Midwest and Northeast. The North Country National Scenic Trail links Upstate New York with north-central North Dakota, journeying through northern mixed-hardwood and boreal forests as well as tallgrass prairie in its northwestern reach and spending some quality time with several Great Lakes.
Wisconsin hosts a fairly short (but lovely) portion of the North Country Trail in its far northwest; the Ice Age Trail, meanwhile, loops through the heart of the Badger State. Some of the world’s finest examples of landforms sculpted by continental glaciation—moraines, eskers, drumlins, kettles, etc.—edge this route between Potawatomi State Park on the Door Peninsula in the east and Interstate State Park along the St. Croix River (and Minnesota border) in the west: 1,200 miles in total but not yet fully connected.
Mostly composed of the long-established Mattabesett, Metacomet, and Monadnock trails, the New England National Scenic Trail runs 215 miles from Connecticut’s Long Island Sound shore to the Massachusetts-New Hampshire border, tracing the traprock spine of the Metacomet Ridge. Long views over the Connecticut River and Pioneer valleys, deep forests, unique cliff-top ecosystems, and history-laden countryside—not to mention a little supernatural spice courtesy of the Black Dog of the Hanging Hills—distinguish the route, which can be continued into New Hampshire on the northerly length of the Metacomet-Monadnock Trail not included in the National Scenic Trail designation.
Another history-awash route, the Potomac Heritage Trail runs some 700 miles north from Chesapeake Bay, across the Piedmont uplands, and over the Blue Ridge and Valley-and-Ridge provinces of the Appalachians to the Allegheny Plateau, following the mighty Potomac upstream and then dropping down into the basin of the Youghiogheny as it does. Near Harper’s Ferry, where the Shenandoah runs into the Potomac, the “PHT” cuts the Appalachian Trail.
Some of the most head-spinning desert scenery in the world awaits along the Arizona Trail, which runs more than 800 wide-open, up-and-down miles between the Mexico and Utah lines. Among the iconic Southwestern landscapes it wanders are the Sky Island ranges of southeastern Arizona, the Sonoran Desert, the grand Mogollan Rim, and the Colorado Plateau, including its epic Grand Canyon.
This National Scenic Trail actually comprises five separate sections arrayed along the Natchez Trace Parkway, which follows the millennia-old route of the Natchez Trace, first forged by bison and adopted by American Indians and Euro-American settlers, hunters, traders, soldiers, and highwaymen. The Natchez Trace proper spans nearly 450 miles between Natchez, Mississippi and Nashville, Tennessee, but the National Scenic Trail is a bit more than 60 miles in Mississippi, Alabama, and Tennessee split between the Highland Rim, Blackland Prairie, Yockanookany, Rocky Springs, and Potkopinu segments.
Other Long-Distance Trails
The above compose the country’s National Scenic Trails system, but, as we mentioned, there are many
other awesome US long distance trails: Vermont’s Long Trail
(which predates and partly aligns with the Appalachian Trail), the Ozark
and Ozark Highlands
trails (in Missouri and Arkansas, respectively), the Bigfoot Trail
in Northern California’s Klamath Mountains (and a little chunk of Southwest Oregon), the Hayduke Trail
through the slickrock Colorado Plateau outback, and the Oregon Coast Trail
along the Beaver State’s world-famous Pacific margin—to name but a few.