I’m always looking for ways to lead a healthier, happier life, whether it’s making sensible changes to my eating habits or finding time to fit a workout into my day. But I’m also a big believer in disconnecting from the daily grind occasionally, spending a few days, a week, or even longer away from the pressures and temptations of the modern world. One of the healthiest and most affordable ways to do this is to embark on a long-distance hike, taking advantage of the tens of thousands of miles of hiking and multi-use trails that crisscross the United States’ vast wilderness areas.
It helps that many long-distance trails and trail networks run close to major cities. There are probably a few, including some you’ve never heard of, within easy driving distance of your hometown. And since trail accommodations are typically rustic campsites and shelters that cost less than budget hotels and motels, the experience may not cripple your wallet.
If you’re fit enough to handle an extended period of exertion, like the idea of trekking through beautiful, quiet landscapes with few other human occupants, and don’t mind a sleeping bag and tent at night, consider taking a long-distance hike for your next vacation.
Long-Distance Wilderness Hikes in the U.S.
1. Appalachian Trail, Georgia to Maine
One of the oldest long trails in the U.S., the Appalachian Trail is the quintessential long-distance hike. The “A.T.,” as it’s known, stretches from Georgia’s Springer Mountain to Maine’s Mount Katahdin. Every year, thousands of through-hikers assemble at Springer Mountain and March and begin the long slog up to Maine, where they end – if they’re lucky – by mid-October. But the entire trail is beautiful and surprisingly accessible, so you don’t have to commit six months of your life to a 2,200-mile through-hike.
- Fees and Permit Requirements: Certain parks along the Appalachian Trail, including Great Smoky Mountains National Park ($20 per person for a thru-hiker permit), Shenandoah National Park (free), and Baxter State Park ($15, plus $21 per night to camp) along the trail require backcountry permits for overnight visitors.
- Best Segments: In Virginia, Shenandoah National Park harbors lush deciduous forests and incredible mountaintop views within easy driving distance of Washington, D.C. The trail spends about 100 miles in the park, so you can hike part or all of this length and double back, or use connecting trails inside and adjacent to the park to loop back to your starting point. Assuming a pace of six to eight miles per day, it takes 13 to 15 days to walk the whole segment one way, and 26 to 30 days to start and end in the same location. In New Hampshire, the Presidential Range is perhaps the most otherworldly section of the trail, with more than 10 miles of alpine tundra and around 85 total miles of rugged mountain traverses through the White Mountains. The heart of the Presidential Range is basically a long, high ridge with steep drop-offs on either side, so the views – especially above the treeline – are continuous and panoramic. This rugged section takes about 13 days one way and 26 days if retracing your steps.
- Best Time to Go: Altitude and latitude play a huge role in any Appalachian Trail experience. The southern third is generally passable and comfortable between late March and late November, though higher elevations can be cold and icy in the spring and fall. The middle third, including the Shenandoah segment, is best between mid-April and late October (when fall colors create a real treat). In the northern third, where higher elevations are icy, wet, or muddy most of the year, shoot for late August or early September if possible.
- How to Get There: The Appalachian Trail’s southern terminus is about two hours northeast of Atlanta, and the trail mostly runs within easy driving distance of major East Coast cities. If you’re keen on the Shenandoah or Presidential/White Mountains sections and don’t live within driving distance, fly into Washington-Dulles (Shenandoah) or Boston‘s Logan Airport (Whites). Both are between two and three hours from the destination, depending on where you start your hike. Nonstop and one-stop flights from major cities start at around $175 at to Dulles and $200 to Logan, depending on your origin city. For the White Mountains section, the best starting trailhead is the large parking lot where the trail crosses NH-112, a scenic mountain byway. Take I-93 north to exit 32, then drive northwest on NH-112 for about six miles. In Shenandoah, Skyline Drive (a ridgetop byway) follows the AT for most of the park’s length and intersects multiple trailheads. If you’re starting in the south and walking north, park at the Turk Gap parking area, between 10 and 15 miles north of I-64.
- Accommodations and Cost: There are thousands of campsites, huts, cabins, and other rustic accommodations along the Appalachian Trail’s length. In national and state forests, which encompass much of the trail’s length, campsites generally cost between $5 and $30 per site, per night, depending on location and season. National park campsites, including Shenandoah, can cost between $10 and $50 per site, per night. For more upscale accommodations, the eight AMC White Mountain Huts span the Presidential segment and boast dinner and breakfast prepared by onsite staff during the summer, as well as running water, gas heat, cooking facilities, composting toilets, and real beds (with comfortable bedding). But you have to pay handsomely for these amenities, as AMC huts can cost more than $100 per person, per night during the summer, though rates may be cheaper if you’re an AMC member.
- Pickup and Transportation Considerations: Though much of the Appalachian Trail is fairly close to populated areas, good cellular service isn’t guaranteed. If possible, arrange transportation ahead of time to and from your desired trailhead. Check the Appalachian Trail transportation options page for details and costs. Most road-accessible trailheads have shuttle service. In the Presidential section, the Mount Washington Auto Road Hiker Shuttle ($30 per adult, one way) runs scheduled service between Mount Washington’s summit and the Pinkham Notch trailhead. WhiteBlaze, a hiker forum that (among other things) connects hikers with drivers willing to provide their services at low cost (some drivers just ask for gas money), serves the entire AT corridor.