A hiker on the Appalachian Trail. Editorial credit: Andrew Repp / Shutterstock.com

America's 10 Best Long-Distance Hiking Trails

While short hikes generally last a few hours of covering less than 10 miles, long-distance hiking trails may be objective, with some, taking months to complete. This list, comprising of 15 miles and over, best trails in the US, offers an insight into some of the most rewarding and scenically diverse hiking opportunities, being strenuous for their extensive mileage, road conditions, or climbs one has to conquer.  

Appalachian Trail

Appalachian trail
A hiker in the dense forests of the Appalachians.

The idea to establish this public-use trail was conceived exactly 100 years ago and built by private citizens to be completed in 1937. Open year-round, it is a free entrance and use area, comprising over 2,180 of recreational footpaths that can be a day-hike, or take months, to conquer the whole trail. Today, countless volunteers help manage the Appalachian Trail along with the National Park Service, US Forest Service, and the Appalachian Trail Conservancy.

The highly accessible trail from various points of the country suits every interest covering scenic, wooded, pastoral, wild, and even cultural grounds as it traverses from Georgia to Maine over the highest ridgelines of the Appalachian Mountains. Serving as a "barometer" for the environment as one of the most bio-diverse spots in the entire National Park System within its south to north stretch, researchers get to monitor climate change effects, while tourists are able to enjoy the rich temperate zone species assemblage.

Continental Divide Trail

Continental Divide trail
Hikers on the Continental Divide Trail.

The CDT is known to be one of the hardest long-distance hiking trails in the United States, requiring one to have some veteran navigating skills. Being among the most rewarding, as well, many hikers choose to spend the 4-5 months of their lives on this 3,1000 route after having conquered the Appalachian Trail and the Pacific Trail, and are in continuous search for newly breathtaking sites, which this trail has plenty of.

Unmarked terrain and seemingly endless dirt roads will leave one in search for the trail, but it is all part of the exciting challenge that experienced hikers are aware of upon commencing. Cutting through several ecosystems of various terrains, the trail takes one from Colorado's peaks at 14,000 feet to New Mexico's Chihuahuan Desert, to Montana's grizzly bear territorial forests.

East Coast Greenway

East Coast Greenway trail
People bicycling on the East Coast Greenway trail. Editorial credit: Wileydoc / Shutterstock.com

As one of the safest trails in the United States with timeless and beautiful scenery, the 3,000 miles will forever be imprinted in one’s memory as an epic and breathtaking adventure. Cultural and natural history discoveries await their fanatics who will find pieces of heaven along this route in the diverse nature and sites to traverse and visit along the way, including the historic mill cities and coastal communities. It can also be comforting to know, for those newly introduced to the long-hiking experience, that, being a biking trail, it is a one continuous pathway, requiring no navigation skills.

The changing of coastal landscapes along the way from the storied rocky walls in Maine to the palms on the beach stretches in Southern Florida, also provide endless opportunities to camp near the water and take daily dips to cool off during a hot day or bathe following an extensive hiking segment. Leading to the Canadian Maritimes, where, upon reaching the Canadian border, one can continue onto the 85-mile Down East Sunrise Trail, to traverse some blueberry barrens. Alternatively, one can follow the road route.

Half Dome - Yosemite National Park, California

half dome trail
A hiker enjoying the spectacular view of the mountains in the Yosemite National Park.

This ultimate American day hike to see the iconic granite dome in its entire 5,000 feet glorious rise above the Yosemite Valley comprises of a 14- to 16-mile round-trip journey. Known to be tough on the upper leg muscles and ankles, the final 400 feet are equipped with the metal cable system, which enables one to utilize their arms’ strength for making it all the way to the summit.

Requiring a full 10-12 hours on the trail in accommodating weather conditions, one must be prepared that even then, the always unpredictable strong winds, downpours, and even storms may stall one for the day. Permits are also required to enter the park, but the adventure that awaits the avid experienced hikers of feeling the adrenaline rush when gaining the 4,800 feet in true wilderness setting, is well-worth it. 

Ice Age Trail

Ice Age trail
A hiker on the Ice Age Trail.

This trail is especially interesting for the natural history enthusiasts, as it encompasses discovering the 12,000 years’ worth of developing landscape beauty, including glacier remnants, among other unique natural land formations that occurred during the Ice Age. The hikers and the backpackers will also find their perfect getaway in this epic route comprising 1,200 miles of walking. Wintertime brings along the opportunity for snowshoeing and cross-country skiing. 

Traversing the beautiful natural areas of Wisconsin, one will have ample of chance to bird-watch, sightsee, and spot wildlife, in some of the most scenic settings of the state. The expanse of prairies to bask on, the seemingly endless flight of watering holes to swim, and the mature forests to roam through or hide in the shade of, are just some of the terrain to be fully enjoyed. Trekking on, there are also Wisconsin Glaciation sites, including 120-mile long series of ridges, as well as outwash plains, ice-walled lake plains, drumlins, eskers, kames, and tunnel channels.

John Muir Trail, California

John Muir Trail
Hiker enjoying the view of the Long Lake in Little Lakes Valley on the John Muir Trail in California, United States.

This legendary trail starting from the Yosemite Valley and traversing the Sierra Nevada Mountains for 211 miles brings one to Mount Whitney. The thrilling experience of hiking the steep passes of this trail will leave one breathless in more ways than one, known for exceptional views of alpine meadows, lakes, and sequoias. Some of the most notable sights on the way include the iconic Half Dome, Vernal Falls, and the Ansel Adams Wilderness.

Although extensive, John Muir is a popular trail for a good reason, offering the most scenic section of the Pacific Trail to be conquered fairly easily in two to four weeks, inclusive with warm and mild climate of the region, especially from July to August. The well-developed footpaths with a slow ascent building up to the climax of reaching the foot of the tallest peak in the contiguous United States, Mt. Whitney, at 14,495 feet, allow for effortless acclimatization as one traverses north to south. 

Mount Whitney - Lone Pine, California

A hiker capturing the beauty of the mountains on his camera.

Being the highest peak in the continental United States at 14.5 thousand feet, the journey to the summit comprises one of the most extreme day hikes in North America. Experienced hikers would find the climb most enjoyable, especially given the time to warm-up prior to reaching the foot at the beginning of this 22-mile trail to the summit and back that must begin before sunrise.

As the final section of the John Muir trail, the trailhead of this well-travelled route starts out at Whitney Portal. Already being at well over 8,000 feet above the sea level, one must be well acclimatized or spend few days in this location before continuing on. From there, the 6,000 feet ascend at an average rate of 550 feet of per mile to the summit, takes one through various landscapes with altitude gain, from luscious valleys, to frugal alpine moonscape, to the barren top.

North Country Trail

North country trail
A walk in the Ott Preserve park during fall. Trail is part of the North Country Scenic trail that crosses six states.

Established over forty years ago, and still in its completion phase, the North Country trail is an extensive 4,6000 route with a combination of rough spots, including dirt roads, abandoned railroad beds, and newly cut trails. Traversing over seven states and ten national forests, one will see the finest natural sights that North Dakota, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania and New York have to offer. Cutting though more than 100 state forests and national parks one will never get bored from the changing landscapes, including the prairies, Great Plains, or glaciers in the Adirondack Park.

Some of the most notable sites are also located around Lake Superior, such as the Pictured Rocks, cliffs, and lighthouses, providing for a wonderful opportunity to spend a romantic night camping following a dip after a hot summer's day of hiking. If hiking in the autumn season, one must savour some quality time in Finger Lakes, New York, with the nature generously offering the gift of changing leaves and the smell of the grape harvest.

Rim-to-Rim – The Grand Canyon

Rim to Rim trail
Hikers enjoying the dramatic landscape of the Grand Canyon as part of the Rim-to-Rim trail.

This popular hike of 24 miles includes viewing the 2 billion years of Earth’s history in the making with 11 layers of rock, accompanied by the hypnotic well of the Grand Canyon calling one, in. Although a strenuous adventure, with less than 1 percent of the five million annual visitors “rimming” the magical canyon, it is definitely a bucket list item for the hikers when in America, with May to October being the ultimate go-time. Rim-to-Rim starts from the North Kaibab Trail on the North Rim, with hard-on-the-knees 6,000 feet descend out of the 14.3 miles to the bottom.

Upon the descent, one can utilize the campground or an actual lodge to spend the night within the canyon’s heart, for an electrifyingly enlightening experience. Along the sandy banks of the Colorado River one will rest within dozens formations of massive rock towering around. The connecting Bright Angel Trail then brings one to the top again through a 4,500 feet climb of the 9.6 miles total ascent. The way up offers ample shade and seasonal naturally sourcing water, that are needed for the strenuous climb, upon finishing which, one would have seen the heart of the Grand Canyon.

Taking one along the Grand Canyon’s South and North Kaibab trails and back again also comprises the 48-mile famed challenge called Rim-to-Rim-to-Rim. While the strain on the muscles may be too much for some to repeat the journey backwards, the experienced hikers can follow in Jim Walmsley’s footsteps that completed the round-trip in just less than six hours.

Superior Hiking Trail - Minnesota

Superior hiking trail
Superior Hiking Trail in Minnesota fall overlooking Bean and Bear Lakes.

Although flying through the shorter route in a day is possible, the trailheads at every 5 to 10 miles with a chance to re-supply, offer one to pay an extensive visit to this wonderland of the Midwest. Passing through eight parks of the state with elevations between 602 and 1,829 feet, the total climb of the 296-mile stretch is 37,821 feet, but a net gain is only 449 feet due to frequent downhill. This extensive trail is less crowded than other long-distance trails, providing plenty of opportunity to spend some quality time or a one-on-one with the rushing rivers, deep gorges, rock outcroppings, waterfalls, and the views of Minnesota’s mountains.

The hike, comprising of an 18-mile trail from Silver Bay to County Route 6, offers the thrilling views of small lakes, birch groves, and cliffs, hugging the whole panoramic stretch of the Lake Superior along way. The epic 52.8 miles of the southernmost segment for day-hikers, runs along the Minnesota/Wisconsin state border, to Duluth on the Coast. Commencing in Duluth and ending at the Canadian border, the ultimate path takes one along on a 1,000 feet climb over bluffs above the lake and descents into the forested river valleys. Among the blazing maples in the fall, one may encounter moose, beavers, or chance bear that feed on the luscious wild berries that grow in the area during summertime. 

From young to old, from new hikers to experience trekkers, these trails of various lengths have been developed and traversed for many years to the delight of each. Having left an everlasting memory along with some sore muscles, a sense of pride, and built-up endurance, they patiently await for new conquerors to take on the challenging experience with a priceless reward at the end.


More in Places