I dream of doing a thru-hike. The problem? As someone who’s in his fifties and still has a decade left of working for the Man, the Appalachian Trail or Pacific Crest Trail won’t fit in my three weeks of PTO. What “short” long trails could I fit into my vacation time?
Short is the New Long
If hiking a thousand-plus mile long trail is your dream, then go for it: Most distance hikers tackle the AT and PCT in sections over the course of years—sometimes decades. But if the idea of going terminus-to-terminus in one vacation is what you’re looking for, there are lots of options for full thru-hikes in the 100-300 mile range. These shorter thru-hikes can be found all across the country and will fulfill your need for big adventure when you’re on the clock.
In 2012, I hiked what I called the Little Triple Crown Trails—also sometimes called the Triple Tiara. The Long Trail, John Muir Trail, and Colorado Trail all share some miles with their longer counterparts (the AT, PCT, and CDT, respectively) but also have some trail of their own. At approximately 300 miles, the Long Trail crosses the border-to-border length of Vermont and is the oldest long-distance trail in the US. The roughly 220-mile John Muir Trail from Yosemite Valley to Mt. Whitney was voted by Backpacker readers as the #1 trail to do before you die. And at 500 miles long, the Colorado Trail runs from Denver to Durango through fields of wildflowers, forests of golden aspens, and old mining camps.
If classics and crowds aren’t your style, there are plenty of short thru-hikes off the beaten path. The almost 100-mile-long Maah Daah Hey Trail takes you through the fossil-studded badlands of North Dakota. The roughly 300-mile-long Superior Hiking Trail in northeastern Minnesota traverses the ridge above Lake Superior and has a great network of established campsites and shelters. The 223-mile long Ouachita Trail is a well-maintained but sparsely-used trail through Arkansas and Oklahoma.
If you’re on a seriously tight schedule, you can minimize travel time and maximize trail time with a loop hike. Examples of long loop hikes are the 93-mile long Wonderland Trail around Mt. Rainier, the 43-mile long Timberline Trail around Mt. Hood, the 165-mile long Tahoe Rim Trail around Lake Tahoe, or the 165-mile Collegiate Peaks Loop in Colorado. With distance loop hikes, you don’t need to organize a time-and-money costly shuttle—just leave your car where you started and walk back to it.
To find the thru-hike that fits your vacation-time and hiking style, check out Backpacker’s thru-hike quiz.