9 of North America’s Most Fascinating Long-Distance Trails
You’ve heard of all the staples: The Appalachian Trail, the Pacific Crest Trail, the John Muir Trail. But what if you feel like going the distance on an alternate route — or even by alternate means of travel? If you’re looking to explore something just a lil’ (or a lot!) different, we’ve got your list right here.
When it comes to long-distance recreational footpaths in North America, the Long Trail is the one that started it all. Completed in 1930, this 272-mile path was the inspiration for the famous Appalachian Trail which it intersects with for a portion of the route. Started (and still maintained) by Vermont’s Green Mountain Club in early 1910, the Long Trail traces the state’s spine, summiting most of Vermont’s prominent peaks before terminating at the Canadian border. In traditional eastern fashion, there are roughly 70 shelters that line its path.
The one that started it all — in Canada. Getting its foothold in 1960, this Ontario trail’s final cairn was unveiled seven years later at its terminus in Tobermory. The path follows the Niagra Escarpment, near the point where the famous falls tumble, northward for 560 miles. Along the way, hikers traverse through the incredible scenery of this UNESCO World Biosphere Reserve, including meadows, wetlands, and the rugged cliffs of Lake Huron’s Georgian Bay.
One of 30 U.S. nationally designated scenic and historic trails, this Alaskan leg-burner follows the historic dogsled route that was used to transport goods between native and Gold Rush communities during the depths of Alaska’s winter. Though the original trail was 2,300 miles long, public access to the trail today is limited to 1,500 miles. While there are a couple of 30-mile stints open to summer enthusiasts, to do the entire length you’ll need to wait for winter.
From the once busy slave ship port of Mobile, Alabama, to the runaway slave-settled town of Owen Sound, Ontario, this 2,007-mile cycling trail follows one of the routes that 19th century freedom seekers took to escape the bondage of their southern masters. Rivers guide your path northward as you ride through towns rife with history. Battlefields, museums, historic homes, and roadside markers all play a part in making your journey through history come alive.
Bring your kayak (or any choice of marine-worthy vessel), because this 375-mile trail is all saltwater. Skimming the darting coastline of Maine, the route allows access to some 200 public and privately-owned islands — the latter if you are a member of the trail’s founding organization, the Maine Island Trail Association (MITA). Chances are your island campgrounds, many which are undeveloped, will afford you the company of seabirds and ocean wildlife rather than humans, making this a perfect getaway for ocean solitude. A word of warning, though: Maine’s coastline is rugged and heavy fog can roll in any time of year, so impeccable water navigation skills are a must.
American Discovery Trail (ADT)
In for the long haul? Try traversing this 6,800-mile path; it’s the only non-motorized route to span the entire width of the United States. By connecting numerous regional and national trails, you’ll cross through a variety of landscapes and habitats belonging to both wilderness and humans. The trail’s access to forests, cities, deserts, mountains, and 14 National Parks is bookended by both the Atlantic and Pacific oceans, providing plenty to keep visual variety alive. Access is open to bikers, hikers and horses.
Make way, Appalachian trail: For a bigger taste of eastern wilderness, try this trek. The ECT stitches together the Florida Keys Overseas Heritage Trail (106 miles), Florida Scenic Trail (1,000 miles), and sections of the Pinhoti National Recreation Trail (335 miles) and the Benton MacKaye Trail (300 miles) before jumping on the Appalachian Trail in Georgia. After exhausting its 2,150 miles in Maine, the Appalachian Trail hooks up with its Canadian sister, the International Appalachian Trail (1,864 miles, with the recent Newfoundland extension). The entire system creates a path of over 5,800 miles, giving you a chance to explore the total length of North America’s Appalachian Mountains, believed to be the oldest mountains in the world.
Are you being beckoned by the wildness of the Canadian Rockies? Answer the call: This 746-mile trail crosses the continental divide over 30 times on its trek through five of what some consider to be Canada’s most beautiful national parks. You’ll start just north of the sweeping landscape of Jasper National Park and end in Waterton Lakes National Park, the Canadian counterpart of America’s Glacier National Park. With glaciers, electic blue rivers, and peaks that pierce the sky, your eyes will never be the same. (That’s a promise.)
Mountain Bike Extension: This trail’s sister, the Great Divide Mountain Bike Route, not only parallels the hiker’s path above but extends to a southern terminus in Antelope Wells, New Mexico for a total of 2,765 miles and 200,000’ of elevation loss and gain.
Do all these trails get you giddy to get going but you’ve yet to hike more than a day or two? Ease into long-distance hiking with Minnesota’s newbie-friendly trail. Its 296 miles are perforated with car-accessed trailheads every 5-10 miles, giving novice backpackers the security of knowing they can hitch a ride home if they can’t hack it. Additionally, 92 fee-free campsites are tucked into the backcountry, so there are plenty of places to rest. And, yes, it’s beautiful: The trail traces Lake Superior from Duluth to the Canadian border, with features such as rocky outcroppings, waterfalls, and dense deciduous woodlands (read: stunning fall hiking!).