Lesser Known Thru-Hikes in the United States
Contributed by Douglass Scott
While many thru-hikers see trails like the Pacific Crest, Appalachian and Continental Divide Trails as the ultimate in thru-hiking adventures, there are dozens of lesser-known routes that lead through the spectacular wilderness all around North America. These trails give the popular routes a run for their money in terms of scenic beauty and incredible experiences. It is on these trails that one learns that the spirit of wilderness is discovered on foot. Traveling on paths that weave through unrivaled natural beauty, the thru-hikes around America offer a stunning insight into the wild, giving us a chance to connect with that spirit. These trails bridge the gap between the past and the future of geology and ecology, granting us a view into the inner workings of iconic outdoors destinations. Whether you are looking for a hike that lasts a few days or a trail that you’ll explore for months, I have gathered eight of my favorite lesser-known thru-hiking routes that are sure to stoke your wanderlust.
Pacific Northwest Trail in Buckhorn Wilderness, Olympic National Forest [Photo courtesy of the U.S. Forest Service]
Pacific Northwest National Scenic Trail
Running from Glacier National Park to Olympic National Park, a distance of 1,200 miles, the Pacific Northwest Scenic Trail is the ultimate thru-hike for those hoping to get to know the Pacific Northwest better. Starting at the continental divide in Glacier National Park, the trail passes through the forests and mountains of Northern Idaho, over the wild North Cascades and through the Olympic National Park before ending at the rugged Pacific Coast. Few trails in America offer the diversity of landscapes that the Pacific Northwest Scenic Trail does, giving hikers majestic peaks, dense rainforests, endless wildlife, breathtaking prairies, wild rivers and a sea stack filled coastline. Created in 1977, this thru-hiking trail continues to get better as new trail segments are added away from the road.
Backpacking along the Wind River Range [Photo courtesy of Tyson Dudley; Unsplash]
The Wind River Range
Wyoming’s Wind River Range is largely overlooked. Its remote location and lack of amenities nearby make it even more appealing to those hoping to get away from it all. While the region is a popular enough backpacking spot, most who come to this mountain and alpine lake wonderland stick to the 18-mile out and back trail to Cirque of the Towers. Those looking for true wilderness bliss will enjoy the combo trail/off-trail routes in the mountain range. With more than 40 named peaks in excess of 13,000 feet and endless lakes accompanying them, one could spend an entire summer hiking and climbing here and barely scratch the surface. Those looking for a more established route will enjoy the 40-mile loop hike of Hailey Pass, Lizard Head and Cirque of the Towers. On this route, explorers will hike at over 10,000 feet in elevation for roughly half the journey, with breathtaking views every step of the way.
A mellow stream along the Resurrection Pass Trail [Photo courtesy of Andrew Larsen; Unsplash]
Resurrection Pass Trail
While Alaska doesn’t have many thru-hikes, a favorite that should be experienced by those visiting the state is the 38-mile long Resurrection Pass Trail. This easy to follow and well-maintained trail is a fantastic introduction to the wilds of south-central Alaska, reachable by Anchorage. Connecting historic gold mining areas near Hope, Alaska with the beautiful Kenai River, almost anyone with gear can take this trail in the summer. You’ll find 19 designated campsites and eight public use cabins spread out on this trail, giving you ample opportunity to take your time and really get to know the region. What makes this so great is that those with extra time who are in shape can peak bag numerous summits along the way, taking in the panoramic views.
Arches National Park, one of many stops along the Hayduke Trail [Photo courtesy of NOAA]
If you love the American Southwest and want to connect with the landscape that inspired the words of Edward Abbey, the 800-mile long Hayduke Trail is exactly what you need. What makes this difficult trail so inviting is the terrain you get to explore. All 800 miles of this trail are located on public lands and pass through six National Parks. Connecting Arches, Canyonlands, Capitol Reef, Bryce Canyon, Grand Canyon and Zion National Parks as well as passing through Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, Glen Canyon National Recreation Area and more well-known lands, the Hayduke Trail gives you the best of the best in a land of sandstone formations and slot canyons. This is not the easiest or most direct trail you will find, but it will be one of the most scenic and memorable, giving you access to a truly unique terrain.
A fall scene on the Superior Hiking Trail in Tettegouche State Park [Photo courtesy of Tony Webster; Flickr]
Superior Hiking Trail
Tucked away in the northwest corner of Minnesota, the 310-mile Superior Hiking Trail is full of rocky ridges, water features, dense forests and sweeping views of Lake Superior. While the trail has gained popularity in the last few years, thanks to fantastic signage and camping locations, the entire trail is largely overlooked, making it a great place to get away and discover the wilds of the North Star State. What makes this trail so great is that it is broken up into seven trail regions, each between 35 and 57 miles in length, giving you a chance to section hike it over many trips. The trail is easy to reach in all sections, making it a fun day hike or section hiking option.
Navigating the beach along the West Coast Trail [Photo courtesy of Steven Hoefgen
West Coast Trail
Located on Vancouver Island in British Columbia, Canada, the West Coast Trail is one of the burliest 47 miles you may ever hike on the coast. Following the rugged coastline found in Pacific Rim National Park, this wild trail is sure to be one of the most memorable adventures you will take. The trail has more than 100 ladders, sections of deep mud, river crossings, and rainforests, all giving you the chance to enjoy the wet and windy weather one could expect to find this far north on the Pacific Coast. On this trail, you are truly away from it all, with help sometimes taking a full day to reach hikers. Those who do hike it unscathed are forever changed, deeply connected with the rugged coastline and unrivaled wildlife.
Overlooking Thompson Lakes on the High Sierra Route [Photo courtesy of Desiree Moore]
Sierra High Route
Full of scrambles, turquoise lakes, glacial-carved valleys, jaw-dropping ridgelines and endless views, it is no surprise why many consider the Sierra High Route to be the most scenic thru-hike in America. A rugged and wild alternative trek to the John Muir Trail, this route passes through Sequoia-Kings Canyon National Park, Ansel Adams Wilderness, Yosemite National Park and the John Muir Wilderness. For 195 miles along the Sierra Nevada Mountains, this boulder-filled wilderness wonderland will both challenge and reward you, day after day. Offering minimal trails through the alpine landscape, the Sierra High Route is route-finding and mountain exploring at its best.
Meandering the Cohos Trail [Photo courtesy of Kristin McLane]
When we think of incredible wilderness thru-hikes, we usually think of routes on the west side of the country (Appalachian Trail excluded). Yet, up in the state of New Hampshire, a 170-mile trail is changing the perception of the East Coast. Granting access to a million acres of natural beauty, the Cohos Trail takes hikers up rugged mountains, past impressive waterways, through moose-filled forests and even up to the US-Canada border. The Cohos Trail is truly remote and wild, giving thru-hikers a chance to have seclusion and serenity in the wilderness while seeing the best of what New Hampshire has to offer. With eight distinct geological regions and seemingly endless vistas, this trail should be experienced by all.
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