Given the boundless diversity of trails and landscapes, the United States can safely be labelled the hiker's Walhalla. In the U.S. you can truly get lost in the expansive wilderness areas. Meetings with black bears, grizzly bears and vipers are common. Camping out in the wild is a rule rather than an exception. European hikers - thoroughly spoilt with B&B's, mountain huts and gites d'etappe - will be thrown back into reality here.
The U.S. is where the tradition of long distance hiking started. As main eye-catcher, the Appalachian Trail runs for over 2000 miles through 14 eastern states, and was laid out as early as 1937. In fact it was a major inspiration for the first British long distance trail, the Pennine Way. Many legendary thru-hikers have left their tracks on the slopes of the Appalachians.
The most important hiking trails in the U.S. received the status of "National Scenic Trail". There is also a category of so-called National Historic Trails, but these are not really hiking trails. Third are the National Recreational Trails, of which there are several thousand. Most of these measure only a couple of miles, although some continue for a hundred miles or more, and often hikers will share the trail with bikers and riders. And there is more. Countless long distance trails lack a national status, but are no less beautiful or important.
The National Scenic Trails (NST), "designation for protected areas in the United States that consist of trails of particular natural beauty", and the most important long distance hiking trails are the following (take note: the construction many trails is by no means completed. Over time, gaps are being closed, extensions are added, and long stretches exist on paper only):
- American Discovery Trail (6356 miles 10229 km)
- Appalachian Trail - the first, 1937 (2100 miles 3380 km) NST
- Arizona Trail (817 miles 1315 km) NST
- California Coastal Trail (1200 miles 1930 km)
- Continental Divide Trail (3100 miles, 4990 km) NST
- East Coast Greenway (2500 miles 4000 km)
- Florida Trail (1400 miles 2300 km) NST
- Great Eastern Trail (1600 miles 2575 km)
- Great Western Trail (3100 miles, 4990 km)
- Ice Age Trail (1000 miles 1600 km) NST
- Idaho Centennial Trail (1200 miles 1931 km)
- New England Trail (220 miles 354 km) NST
- North Country Trail (4600 miles 7400 km)
- Pacific Crest Trail (2638 miles 4240 km) NST
- Pacific Northwest Trail (1200 miles 1930 km) NST
- Potomac Heritage Trail (700 miles 1127 km) NST
This list covers already 34399 miles or 55360 km!
Longer hiking trails than the above do exist, but consist of shorter trails strung together. For instance the Eastern Continental Trail (5400 miles 8700 km) or the International Appalachian Trail, extending into Canada.
All trails differ widely in terms of landscape, terrain and demands made on the hiker. On the one extreme you will find spectacular and challenging trails like the Pacific Crest Trail, following the Eastern Sierras, Cascades and other mountain ranges from Mexico to Canada. If you're looking for something easier, try the Florida Trail. In urban areas you will find so-called "greenways", a green corridor. For the ultimate survival experience, get dropped in Alaska to find your own way home through the wilderness.
Hiking in the U.S. is not restricted to long distance trails. In the many National and State Parks or Forests you will generally find extensive networks of trails. National Parks do get crowded, so avoid visitors centres and roads and trek into the less accessible parts. Within many parks, separate and secluded wilderness areas exist where hikers are welcome, sometimes with permit. The lesser known National Forests, State Forests and BLM Lands are no less interesting, often larger and more quiet.
The choice of landscapes is unlimited, ranging from tropical rain forests in the Hawaii Volcanoes National Park and subtropical hiking in the Everglades National Park, to the prairies of the Badlands National Park and canyons in the Grand Canyon of Hells Canyon National Park.Some parks, notably the Bridger-Teton National Forest, the Nez Perce National Forest and the Wenatchee National Forest each have thousands of miles of trails. Alaska has the largest nationale park, Wrangell-St. Elias, about the size of Croatia (55.000 sq. Km) and the highest mountain, Mt. McKinley (20320 ft 6194 m).
The most beautiful (consequently the busiest) parks are:
- Yosemite National Park (California)
- Yellowstone National Park (Wyoming)
- Grand Teton National Park (Wyoming)
- Rocky Mountains National Park (Colorado)
- Glacier National Park (Montana)
- Olympic National Park (Washington)
- Sequoia & Kings Canyon National Park (California)
- Great Smoky Mountains National Park (North Carolina, Tennessee)