There are many long-distance trails that criss-cross the United States, but only three have captured the public imagination for over 50 years. In this article we will try to lay out why exactly they earned such a reputation, as well as perhaps encourage a new wave of interest in it.
The Pacific Crest Trail, from southern California through Oregon and onto Northern Washington near the border with Canada, the Appalachian Trail from Georgia to Maine and the Continental Divide Trail that goes from Mexico to Canada via Montana, Idaho, Wyoming, Colorado and New Mexico. Together their nearly 8000 miles of trail make up the informal Triple Crown of American Hiking. Complete all three and you’ll join an exclusive club of just 400 people.
Pacific Crest Trail
Length: 2653 miles
Parks Visited: King’s Canyon National Park, Yosemite, Crater Rock, Mt. Rainier
Starting in Campo, California and ending near Manning Park in British Columbia, Canada, the Pacific Crest Trail is the second longest of the big three.
Most of the route is pristine mountain wilderness with few or any roads, other than the ever-present trail. It was designated as an official trail in 1968 but was not fully completed until 1998. Visitors can also bike for long sections of the trail in an official route that mirrors the original trail as much as possible, while avoiding terrain unsuitable for two-wheeled transport.
Length: ~2200 miles
Parks Visited: Shenandoah National Park, Great Smoky Mountains, Harper’s Ferry
Probably the most famous of the great trails, around 2 million people a year attempt at least part of this long walk. Less than a thousand of those will complete the whole journey North, and, on average, just over a hundred going South. This is because travelling with the seasons are important on a months-long hike.
First conceived in 1921, the first thru-hike of this route was not completed until 1948. The Appalachian Trail was also the trail chosen by the oldest successful thru-hiker on record, Earl Shaffer, who finished the trail at the grand old age of 80 in 1998.
Continental Divide Trail
Length: ~3100 miles
Parks Visited: The Rocky Mountain National Park, Yellowstone, Grand Teton, The Glaciers
Only about 200 people a year even attempt to complete this full cross-country route, from the Mexican to Canadian borders. The New Mexico portion of the trail is especially difficult, with very limited sources of fresh water available along the dry and arid main route. In fact, locals sometimes leave out cachets of water and other supplies for through hikers. The Continental Divide Trail also crosses the highest point of any of these three trails, when it passes along Grays Peak in Colorado at a cool 14,200 feet above sea level.
The youngest person to thru-hike the Continental Divide Trail in one go – 14,000 feet peaks and all – was Reed Gjones. She he hiked the entire trail in a five-month trip in 2013, along with her father Eric Gjones. So, what’s your excuse?