By Liz Thomas
My good friend Whitney “Allgood” LaRuffa thru-hiked the Appalachian Trail and worked for 2 years as an AT backcountry ranger…20 years ago. Then he got a desk job, a house, a wife, and a dog and has been dreaming of the day he can do another 2,000 mile backpacking trip ever since. In the meantime, Whitney gets out on backpacking trips more than any other desk jockey I know, and has been building an impressive resume of long distance hikes that can be done within a typical office worker’s two week vacation.
If Whitney’s tale sounds like the story of your life, and you’ve always wanted to thru-hike, but weren’t sure how to make it work without quitting your job—look no further. This list of thru-hikes—all across the US and with a variety of difficulties—should be enough to inspire anyone to go out and do a trail. You don’t have to quit your job or wait until retirement to do the hike of your dreams: Thru-hike now!
John Muir Trail (214 miles + 11 mile approach trail, California):
The Crown Jewel of the 200 mile-ish thru-hike, the JMT is the hike that desk jockeys dream about. Alpine lakes, granite peaks, lush meadows, and remote wilderness, the JMT is the Sierra Nevada traverse that many describe as “the trip of a lifetime.” On this remote trail, you encounter only one road. Starting in Yosemite Valley and ending on top of the highest peak in the Lower 48, Mt Whitney, expect to take the best photos of your life. For more info: The John Muir Trail: the Essential Guide to Hiking America’s Most Famous Trail by Elizabeth Wenk
Wonderland Trail (93 miles, Washington):
In my opinion, this loop hike around Mt. Rainier may be the most beautiful short trail anywhere in the US. Walk right up against glaciers, under waterfalls, and through fields of wildflowers—all while circumnavigating one of the most massive mountains in the US. The transportation logistics are easy (walk right back to your car) PLUS there are plenty of bail out points to use in case of emergency. This is a great first thru-hike, but watch out—it’s steep! For more info: Mt. Rainier National Park Wonderland Trail Page
Long Trail (274 miles, Vermont): This traverse from the southern border of Vermont to Canada along the spine of the state was the first long distance path in America, inspiring the makers of the Appalachian Trail and the Long Trail Brewery. The LT climbs to the top of Vermont’s highest peaks, pristine ponds, and alpine bogs. In the fall, the hardwood forests of the LT offer hikers some of the most beautiful autumn foliage viewing anywhere. For more info: Green Mountain Club
Tahoe Rim Trail (175 miles, California):
A great first thru-hike, this loop hike around Lake Tahoe provides trips through three wildernesses, plenty of town stops and bail out options, and world class views. Best yet, it may be the logistically easiest hike ever. Since it is a loop hike, you don’t have to worry about car shuttles. Just walk back to your car. Walk-in permits are easy to get, and you can even go on a guided thru-hike led by the Tahoe Rim Trail Association. For more info, the Tahoe Rim Association
Superior Hiking Trail (270 miles, Minnesota):
This well-marked and well protected trail travels near Minnesota’s North Shore from near Duluth to the Canadian border. Fall is an ideal time for this hike, which boasts beautiful hardwood forests and occasional views of Lake Superior. The SHT offers hikers 93 free campsites that require no permits or reservations. For more info: Superior Hiking Trail Association
Ouachita Trail (223 miles, Arkansas and Oklahoma):
Starting at Talimena State Park in Oklahoma and ending outside Little Rock, Arkansas, the OT gives hikers a great chance to say “I walked here from another state!” This easy to follow, well-marked path through hardwood forests has the benefit of three sided shelters, and no big climbs! For more info, check out Friends of the Ouachita Trail
Collegiate Loop (165 miles):
Traverse some of the biggest country in the Lower 48. The Collegiate Loop takes traverses the spine of the Rockies along the Collegiate Range, home to nine peaks over 14,000 feet! Walk above treeline for miles, passing alpine lakes, golden colored aspen groves, and fields of wildflowers. If you’ve dreamed of thru-hiking the Colorado Trail or Continental Divide Trail, this is the trip for you! For more info: the Continental Divide Trail Coalition and the Colorado Trail Foundation
Trans Adirondack Route (235 miles, New York):
Perhaps the most difficult route on this list, the TADK requires hikers to be proficient in cross country and off trail travel. The TADK takes hikers from the northernmost to the southern boundary of Adirondack Park, the largest park in the Lower 48. Fall is the ideal time for this hike, when the hardwood forests turn color and the bugs are gone. My memories of this hike include large peaceful lakes, getting to watch swimming moose, and the joys of sleeping in a three-sided shelter during a rain storm (there are many on the route). For more info, check out Friends of the Trans Adirondack Route
No matter your skill level or where you live, now “work doesn’t give me enough vacation” is no longer an excuse. Do a little research, get some gear, and get on the trail!
Liz Thomas is an adventure athlete based in Denver who has backpacked over 10,000 miles across the U.S. on long distance hiking trails. You can follow her adventures at www.eathomas.com