The thru hiking experience has captured many imaginations, including mine and quite possibly yours. The challenges to overcome, the solitude to enjoy, the back-to-basics simplicity…
Though our hearts and minds may be ready for a thru hike, our calendars sadly may not be. We can’t all make four to six months of space in our lives for an epic trail like the PCT, AT, or CDT. Luckily the US is home to a number of amazing “short” thru hikes ranging from a week to a couple months, offering the perfect mid-size dose of long walk nirvana.
Though nothing beats a true border to border adventure, short thru hikes have many advantages too. They often focus on a single scenic area and may have a lower percentage of “junk miles.” Shorter thru hikes are obviously much easier to fit into a busy schedule, and easier to recover and readjust from both mentally and physically. A short thru hike can feel like a very full and satisfying adventure, yet still leave time in your season or year for other priorities.
So read on for a diverse set of totally bucketlist-worthy shorter thru hikes in the US. I’ve had the pleasure of walking four of these trails, and the others are on my bucket list. Each one is a premium thru hiking experience in its own right, and you only need to spare a few weeks to make the adventure a reality.
Length: 480 miles
Time to complete: 4 to 6 weeks
Hiking season: summer (July to September depending on year)
Trail website: Colorado Trail Foundation
Reasons to hike: high alpine scenery, convenient mid-length distance
Challenges: high elevation (max of over 13,000 feet), summer thunderstorms, lots of climbing
If you love the high alpine (and who doesn’t), it’s hard to do better than this scenic hike along the spine of the Rockies through gorgeous Colorado from Denver to Durango. The passes are tall, the meadows green, the views big, and the resupply towns friendly and fun. Though there are many lovely sections, I found the San Juans of the south especially captivating; one of my all-time hiking highlights! These mountains are much older and feel distinctly different from the Sierra Nevada of the JMT and TRT (see below).
At just under 500 miles, the Colorado Trail is a very appealing middle-distance thru hike. It fits nicely into the summer season, yet is long enough that it won’t be over as soon as you get your trail legs. Though the CT is very popular in its own right, much of it overlaps the famous Continental Divide Trail for a glimpse into the longer thru hiking world. It’s a fairly popular trail and you certainly won’t be alone, but there’s plenty of space for solitude too.
Afternoon thunderstorms can be a challenge on the Colorado Trail, especially during monsoon season (usually July to early August). Be sure to stay off exposed peaks, passes, and ridges during electrical storms; lightning strikes and hazardous weather can be real threats. Bears have become an issue on a few parts of the trail so good food storage practices are essential. But these challenges can be managed, and in return you’ll enjoy some of the finest mountain wildflowers and high-alpine views I’ve ever seen.
John Muir Trail
Length: 211 miles
Time to complete: 2.5 to 3.5 weeks
Hiking season: summer (July to September depending on year)
Trail website: Pacific Crest Trail Association
Reasons to hike: classic and popular route, very high scenic beauty per mile ratio
Challenges: getting a permit, resupply logistics, high elevation (over 14,000 feet at Mt. Whitney!), lots of climbing
The iconic John Muir Trail has to be, mile for mile, among the most scenic long trails in the world! Stretching along the spine of the southern Sierra Nevada mountains between Yosemite National Park and Mt. Whitney (the tallest peak in the lower 48 states), this trail is a non-stop feast of blue alpine lakes, vast granite views, and airy, rocky passes.
The JMT’s popularity as a first thru hike (it was mine) belies its considerable challenges: high elevation, lots of climbing, and limited resupply, in particular. Yet the granite basins and lush meadows are so staggeringly scenic that hikers flock to this trail every summer, with permits awarded in a competitive lottery system.
Most of the JMT overlaps with the famous Pacific Crest Trail, which might inspire you to dream of a longer thru hike. Yet the JMT is perfectly timed for a 3 to 4 week hike, something many people can manage within an almost-standard amount of time off work here in the US. Just show your trail pictures to your boss when you get back to the office; they’ll understand!
If you do manage to get a permit, prepare for some leg- and lung-busting climbs plus views that make it all worthwhile. Plan your itinerary carefully and get ready to pack and ship your resupply packages; this isn’t a trail where you can just shop as you go. Bear canisters are required and good food storage practices, as well as leave no trace practices, are essential on this increasingly high-use trail through pristine natural landscape.
Length: 800 miles
Time to complete: 6 to 8 weeks
Hiking season: spring (NOBO) or fall (SOBO)
Trail website: Arizona Trail Association
Reasons to hike: less crowded trail than many, unique and varied desert scenery
Challenges: variable weather, a few long dry stretches, longest trail in this list
The incredible Arizona Trail is unique in this list for many reasons. It’s the longest “short” thru hike, clocking in at about 800 miles and two months for most people, so you’ll feel like you really got a taste of the thru hiking life. It’s less popular than the others and offers more of a solitary feeling in many places, though other thru hikers are never too far ahead or behind. And unlike all the mountain hikes listed here, the AZT’s hiking season is either spring or fall, but not summer (too hot).
The most unique aspect of the Arizona Trail is its scenery. Calling the AZT a desert hike doesn’t do it justice, as the variety of life and terrain along this trail is staggering. The AZT definitely delivers on classic desert scenery, including incredible giant saguaro cacti. It also includes a surprisingly long stretch of pine and fir forests on the higher elevation plateaus of the north. As if all that weren’t enough, the Arizona Trail takes thru hikers straight across the stunning Grand Canyon, a geologic masterpiece you really have to experience from within to believe.
Don’t expect easy hiking on the Arizona Trail, especially the southern half. It’s the most challenging trail I’ve thru hiked, for sure. Though it’s not technically a mountain hike, the highest point is over 9000 feet and there is plenty of elevation to be gained. The trail can be rocky and water can be scarce, making for occasional long and heavy carries. The combination of shoulder season timing and desert climate brings wide swings in temperature; you’ll need to be prepared for cold nights and occasional snow. But after finishing the AZT there’s no doubt you’ll feel like a thru hiker; it’s still the hike I’m personally most proud of.
Tahoe Rim Trail
Time to complete: 10 to 15 days
State: California and Nevada
Hiking season: summer (June to September depending on year)
Trail website: Tahoe Rim Trail Association
Reasons to hike: simple loop logistics, regular resupply, less remote than some others, shortest and easiest hike on this list
Challenges: fair amount of climbing, some sections are busy with day users
Lake Tahoe, straddling the border between California and Nevada in the Sierra Nevada mountains, is the largest alpine lake in North America. The Tahoe Rim Trail circles it completely in an epic 170 mile loop that delivers all the Tahoe views you would expect, and lots more too. When I thru hiked the TRT I was impressed by how well the trail flows and how simple the logistics were (yay for loops!).
The Tahoe Rim Trail is an excellent beginner thru hike, or a satisfying bite-size snack for more experienced thru hikers. Its conveniently short length can be tackled in about two weeks, perfect for a summer vacation. It’s also somewhat easier than many in this list in terms of terrain, though none are easy. The unique loop shape makes for super-simple logistics, resupply is regular and plentiful, and most of the route is never too far from civilization should it be needed.
Some areas of the trail are popular with day hikers and mountain bikers, so the TRT lacks some of that “way out there” feeling, but there are also plenty of quieter sections. While hiking the TRT you’ll overlap a section of the famous Pacific Crest Trail, which might whet your appetite for a longer thru hike someday… You’ll also pass through the scenic Desolation Wilderness. Take note that bear canisters are required here, and strongly recommended for the entire TRT.
The Long Trail
Length: 272 miles
Time to complete: 20 to 30 days
Hiking season: June to mid-October
Trail website: Green Mountain Club
Reasons to hike: easy resupply, oldest long-distance trail in the US, lots of greenery and fall colors, less remote than some others
Challenges: very rocky and semi-technical terrain
Vermont’s Long Trail stands out as the only eastern short thru hike in this list, and it also happens to be the oldest long-distance hiking trail in the United States. Like the Arizona Trail, the LT runs lengthwise through the entire state from border to border. Like many of these other short thru hikes, part of the Long Trail overlaps with a classic long thru hike: the Appalachian Trail in this case.
Compared to the other trails in this list, the Long Trail is distinctly eastern. Hikers enjoy frequent resupply options in quaint New England towns and have the option of camping at regularly spaced wooden platforms and shelters along the trail. The scenery is very different from the western hikes above, with green tunnels and occasional bald hills dominating the experience. Hike in early fall to enjoy the changing foliage colors, and avoid June’s “mud season” and “black fly season” for obvious reasons.
The average and max elevation of the Long Trail are much lower than many other short thru hikes, but don’t let that fool you: this is not an easy hike! The LT is notorious for its rocky and technical sections, especially in the north. Some scrambling is needed — both hands required — on the rockiest sections, and hikers need to constantly consider foot placement among the rocks and roots. It’s hard to walk on auto-pilot on the Long Trail, but for many hikers that’s part of the appeal.
I came close to thru hiking the Long Trail a couple years ago, but after doing all the research I had to cancel my plans at the last minute. I can’t wait to try again one of these days. I’m still excited about experiencing the unique vibe of east coast mountains and testing my fitness on this rocky and rugged trail.
Length: 93 miles
Time to complete: 6 to 12 days
Hiking season: summer (July to mid-October depending on the year)
Trail website: Wonderland Trail (NPS)
Reasons to hike: simple logistics, interesting circumnavigation of an active volcano, mountain scenery without challenging high altitude
Challenges: permits are competitive, camping is restricted to pre-reserved sites
If there’s such a thing as the most iconic loop backpacking route in the PNW, the Wonderland Trail around Mount Rainier is it. Significantly longer than other volcano circumnavigations in the region at 93 miles, the Wonderland Trail makes for a perfect bite-sized short thru hike. Some people complete the Wonderland Trail in as little as 6 days (just a week off from work), or take a more leisurely approach and stretch it out to 12 or even 14 days.
Volcano circumnavigations are a common theme in the Pacific Northwest (see also the Timberline and Loowit trails), and they offer a unique hiking experience with its own vibe. Though they generally lack the big climbs and descents of other alpine routes, they’re almost never flat and pack in a surprising amount of elevation change. Though the Wonderland Trail is well-maintained, you’ll be constantly hiking in and out of gullies formed by volcanic debris and glacial streams.
One catch is that permits are competitive and require a fixed itinerary; there’s no dispersed camping allowed in Mount Rainier National Park. You’ll need to plan your overnight locations in advance, which does detract a bit from that “sleep where you end up” vibe thru hikers are used to. But the constant wild scenery around glaciated Mt. Rainier, the tallest peak in the Cascades, will make it worthwhile.
Length: 223 miles
Time to complete: 2 to 3 weeks
State: Oklahoma and Arkansas
Hiking season: spring or fall
Trail website: Friends of the Ouachita Trail
Reasons to hike: solitude and uncrowded trails, no permit needed, plenty of ridgeline views, traverse the scenic and geologically interesting Ouachita Mountains, shoulder season hiking window
Challenges: challenging undulating terrain, sometimes very rocky, buggy, limited resupply, limited water in some sections
The Ouachita National Recreation Trail traverses the Ouachita Mountains of Oklahoma and Arkansas for over 200 miles, mostly within the Ouachita National Forest. The route avoids towns and roads as much as possible for an uncrowded and peaceful experience. The downside of this remoteness: somewhat limited resupply opportunities. Combine this with limited water in some sections and you’ll need to plan ahead.
Though the Ouachitas are much shorter than the big mountains out west, they shouldn’t be underestimated! The trail is well-maintained but often rocky. Climbs and descents, though short, are constant and sometimes steep. Yet the trail’s ridgetop alignment offers fantastic views to make the hard work worthwhile. For sleeping you’ll find nice wooden shelters along the Ouachita Trail, a style more typical of eastern thru hikes like the Appalachian Trail.
I have to admit my original list of short US thru hikes focused heavily on the west coast. A reader suggested I add the Ouachita Trail, and though I haven’t hiked it myself I’m glad to represent the southern USA in this list. I also love that this trail is a shoulder season thru hike, offering another option for those times when you’re itching to hike but the high mountains of the west are covered in show.
Superior Hiking Trail
Length: 300 miles
Time to complete: 2 to 4 weeks
Hiking season: fall is ideal, summer also works
Trail website: Superior Hiking Trail Association
Reasons to hike: lovely fall colors in autumn, frequent views of Lake Superior, well-marked trail, easy resupply, 94 well-maintained campsites with pit toilets
Challenges: buggy in summer, some sections can be crowded during leaf peeping season, dispersed camping is prohibited (but there are 94 designated campsites along the trail)
The Superior Hiking Trail follows the northern shore of Lake Superior in the far-north of Minnesota, from near the Wisconsin border all the way up to the border with Ontario, Canada. Though it’s the lowest-elevation trail on this list, it’s not as flat as you might expect. The 300 mile trail has plenty of rocks and roots to keep thru hikers on their toes.
This trail makes for a unique short thru hike as it alternates between sections of solitude and popular tourist destinations. There are plenty of towns along the way and 94 well-maintained campsites to choose from (dispersed camping is not allowed). It’s definitely not the most remote-feeling trail on this list, but it looks like an interesting experience with some very pretty views.
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