Top 4 Alternatives to The Appalachian Trail

hiking the appalachian trail

It’s the flagship trail of the U.S. If you haven’t heard about it, you’re probably not that into hiking (in North America, anyway).

Yes, the 2,180(ish)-mile Appalachian Trail has earned its much-deserved title as an iconic American trek. But despite its rocky terrain and grueling distance, about 2,000 people still attempt to thru-hike the sucker every year. An estimated 12,000 hikers have trekked the full length of the trail since it was completed in 1937. For a brutally remote trek, that’s quite a lot of traffic.

So maybe you’re eyeing an epic U.S. trail that hasn’t been stomped on so many times; a route that offers the same rugged beauty and knee-crushing distance as the ol’ AT, but isn’t a household name (yet). If so, check out these 4 awesome alternatives to hiking the Appalachian Trail.

Pacific North West National Scenic Trail

Olympic National Park

Olympic National Park, photo: Jason Pratt CC

From the heights of the Continental Divide all the way down to the sea, this stellar 1200-mile trek slices through old-growth rain forests, high alpine meadows and massive stands of pine.

Fewer than 100 people have thru-hiked this one — it’s not nearly as heavily traveled as the AT, so top-notch navigation skills are essential. You’ll also need to be ready for bushwhacking and potential run-ins with wolves and grizzlies on the eastern half of the trail.

First proposed by conservationist Ron Strickland in 1970 as a way to connect hikers with both the Rockies and the Pacific Ocean, this route spans three national parks (Glacier, North Cascades and Olympic) and seven national forests. It’s a trek made for the most intense trailblazers. Learn more on the Pacific Northwest Trail Association website.


Benton MacKaye Trail

suspension bridge

A 270-foot suspension bridge crossing the Toccoa River on the Benton MacKaye Trail in North Georgia.

An oh-so-enticing 290-mile route that carves through some of the most remote terrain in Georgia, Tennessee and North Carolina. According to a 2007 article in the New York Times, the Benton MacKaye Trail gets just one-tenth of the trekkers that hit the AT every year.

But the allure is obvious: this trek winds through stands of old-growth hickory and yellow poplar; past high meadows and along mountain ridges.

The trail is named after the man who originally proposed the path back in 1921. The BMT didn’t officially open until 2005, although volunteers had been working on the route long before then. There are dozens of access points along the trail, providing plenty of options for multi-day adventures that aren’t quite thru-hikes. You can learn more about it on the Benton MacKaye Trail Association website.

Pacific Crest Trail

Anderson Peak from north on Pacific Crest Trail

Anderson Peak from north on Pacific Crest Trail, photo: Miguel Vieira CC

Spanning 2,650 miles (4,265 kilometers), this rugged route is pretty similar in distance to the AT. But that’s where the similarities end. The PCT hugs the Pacific Coast, running from Mexico to Canada via California, Oregon and Washington.

The terrain is deliciously diverse. Wander through the desert, press through deep forests, marvel at glaciers in the Sierra Nevada and be spellbound by the sky-piercing volcanic peaks in the Cascade Range. This route does get its fair share of trekking traffic, but it doesn’t have the same profile as the AT.

Most thru-hikers tackle this one heading northbound in late April or early May. You’ll also find great shorter portions of the PCT to trek at Boulder River near Seattle, Crater Lake National Park and Harts Pass in Washington State. But there are plenty of others. Check out the Pacific Crest Trail Association website for more details.

American Discovery Trail

Point Reyes National Seashore - California

Point Reyes National Seashore in California, where the western trailhead for the American Discovery Trail is located. Photo: Doug Kerr CC

This monster route is the only recreational trail that touches both U.S. coastlines. The ADT stretches a whopping 6,800 miles from Cali to Delaware, twisting through 15 different states and the District of Columbia along the way. The trail actually forks in Ohio and then reconnects in Colorado.

With a terrain that’s far too diverse to sum up, the ADT meanders through low-lying areas like the California Delta yet also hits epic heights along the Argentine Pass (4,025 meters of elevation, to be exact).

One last trivia fact: The first people to thru-hike the entire route was Marcia and Ken Powers in 2005. It took them about eight months. If you’re not keen on following in their exact footsteps, check out the American Discovery Trail website for the location of shorter treks.

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About the author

Dustin Walker

Dustin Walker is a journalist, travel copywriter and editor/owner of Slick and Twisted Trails. Follow him on Twitter @dustinjaywalker

Dustin Walker - August 15, 2013

Hi Leigh – yeah, I heard that the East Coast Trail is pretty amazing. Haven’t been out that way myself.

Leigh McAdam (@hikebiketravel) - August 15, 2013

I’ve been doing a lot of hiking in Canada this summer and one trail that might be of interest is the East Coast Trail in Newfoundland – not nearly so epic but you could get a good few weeks of hiking. I backpacked for 2 weeks on Baffin Island too but that’s a different sort of trip altogether.

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