Officially designated as a national scenic trail in 2009, the New England Trail gives federal recognition to 215 miles of an historic three-trail system leading from Long Island Sound through the rocky ridges, forests and farmlands of central Connecticut and Massachusetts, to the New Hampshire border. Known as the “Triple-M” or “3M” Trail, the NET includes segments of the Metacomet-Monadnock Trail, with its exposed summits and waterfalls; the Mattabesett Trail in southern Connecticut; and the Metacomet Trail, which follows the eponymous north-south ridgeline.
The Natchez Trace was a 440-mile footpath used for centuries by Native Americans and traders, and later developed as a vital corridor between the Mississippi River and what is now Nashville, Tennessee. Commemorated as the Natchez Trace Parkway, a scenic two-lane road from Natchez, Mississippi to Nashville, the route was designated as a national scenic trail in 1983. Although some portions are on the original sunken footpath, only five disconnected segments totaling 65 miles are actual off-road trail.
Tracing the route a young George Washington took during the French and Indian War from the tidelands at the mouth of the Potomac, over the Blue Ridge and through the Allegheny Plateau to the location of modern-day Pittsburgh, the Potomac Heritage Trail is an 800-mile patchwork of paved and unpaved trails on both sides of the river and beyond. Its major segments include the 184-mile Chesapeake and Ohio Canal Towpath and the 150-mile Great Allegheny Passage, as well as long-distance cycling routes near the bay and several detours in Washington D.C. and Northern Virginia. The PHT intersects the Appalachian Trail near Harper’s Ferry, West Virginia.
There’s more to Arizona than desert. This 800-mile trail, designated as a national scenic trail in 2009, spans the state of Arizona from its southern border with Mexico north to Utah, crossing a surprising variety of ecosystems along the way: from the sagebrush and mesquite of the Sonoran Desert to the alpine tundra of the San Francisco Peaks, which rise past 12,000 feet, this recently completed primitive hiking path is a microcosm of the West. A thru-hiker will pass ancient cliff dwellings at Tonto and Walnut Canyon national monuments and climb from ridge to ridge of the Grand Canyon. Best hiked in spring and fall, the Arizona Trail is also open to equestrians, mountain bikers and even cross country skiers in winter.
At the peak of the last ice age, a continental ice sheet extended well into the Midwest, leaving behind what’s known as the Kettle Moraine, a region of rolling hills and lakes that trace the edge of the glacier. The yellow blazes of the Ice Age Trail roughly follow this glacial outline for 1,200 miles in Wisconsin, heading from Lake Michigan to the south of the state, and winding back north and west to the St. Croix River, on the Minnesota border. Roughly half of the mileage is actual hiking trail, the other half following connector roads through rural and small-town Wisconsin.
Officially recognized in 2009, the Pacific Northwest Trail begins in Glacier National Park, and roughly follows the Canadian border for 1,200 miles to the westernmost point in the contiguous 48 states, Cape Alava on the Olympic Peninsula. On its way it links the Continental Divide Trail (which also ends in Glacier National Park) to the Pacific Crest Trail, creating a continuous path from Mexico to Canada and back. Threading its way through thick forests of Douglas fir, the trail traverses several major mountain ranges—the Rockies and Cascades among them—before island hopping in Puget Sound and crossing the temperate rainforests and mountains of Olympic National Park, reaching its western terminus on the rocky, remote Wilderness Coast.
Best hiked in the winter, the Florida Trail highlights the best of the Sunshine State, from Big Cypress National Preserve on the edge of the Everglades to the barrier islands of Gulf Islands National Seashore in the state’s northwest corner. Its roughly 1,300 miles showcase cypress swamps, scrub forest, freshwater springs and sawgrass prairie, and are home to an incredible diversity of wildlife, from the endangered Florida panther to hundreds of species of migratory birds.
Arguably the most famous long-distance trail in the world, the Appalachian Trail runs for approximately 2,200 miles from Springer Mountain, Georgia to Mt. Katahdin, Maine. Marked by iconic white blazes, the trail attracts 2 million hikers annually, including some two-thousand would-be thru-hikers, according to the Appalachian Trail Conservancy. About a quarter finish.
One of two national scenic trails created by the National Trails System Act of 1968 (the other was the Appalachian Trail), the 2,650-mile-long Pacific Crest Trail was conceived as the AT’s western twin. Extending from Canada to Mexico, the PCT traces a north-south route through the Cascades, Sierra Nevada and coastal ranges of Southern California, sticking mostly to national forest land and passing through seven national parks. Among the trail’s many iconic waypoints are Yosemite National Park, Crater Lake and Mount Rainier.
As the name implies, this trail follows the continental divide—the “backbone of America”—for upwards of 3,100 miles from the Canadian border to Mexico, passing through some of the wildest country in the lower 48, including Glacier, Yellowstone and Rocky Mountain national parks and 21 federally protected wilderness areas. Because of its high elevation (it tops out at 14,270 feet) and remoteness, it’s considered by many hikers to be the most difficult of America’s “triple crown” trails, the other two being the Appalachian Trail and the Pacific Crest Trail.
The Continental Divide Trail Coalition estimates that only some 200 people attempt a thru-hike every year, which is a remarkably high number given the challenges: large stretches are unfinished (i.e. no trail, no blazes); wildfire and flood closures are a regular occurrence; and, because of its elevation, the season for avoiding snowpack is short—and even then early- or late-season storms can interrupt the best laid plans of experienced distance hikers. Still, the rewards are tremendous: the trail gives access to the deserts and canyon lands of New Mexico, the high peaks of Colorado, the geysers and abundant wildlife of Yellowstone, and the rugged alpine wilderness of Idaho and Montana.
Created in 1980, America’s longest scenic trail extends 4,600 miles through seven states, from central North Dakota to New York’s border with Vermont, only 40 miles short of the Appalachian Trail. (The North Country Trail Association is pushing Congress for a connector trail.) Uniting what the association calls “America’s red plaid nation,” the trail passes close to 40 percent of America’s population, and yet is rustic for much of its length, winding through more than 160 public land units, from prairies of Sheyenne National Grasslands in North Dakota, to the shores of Lake Superior; through the hills of southern Ohio and past New York’s Finger Lakes to the heart of the Adirondacks.
Although the trail is still incomplete, 2,800 miles are considered marked and trailworthy, says executive director of the North Country Trail Association Bruce Matthews. “That leaves about 1,800 miles still on temporary connectors, which is mostly road-walk,” he said. “The [North Country Trail] is complete in the sense you can thru-hike it; we're pretty sure it isn't the road-walk that keeps more folks from making the attempt—it’s the length and the fact that you're going to hit winter, and maybe twice. [It’s] not called the North Country Trail without reason!” Thirteen people have completed a thru-hike, says Matthews, but most broke it into section hikes over multiple years. Only five people have hiked the entire trail end to end in one year, he said.