Lewis and Clark National Historic Trail
Length: 3,700 miles
Route: St Louis, Missouri, north-west over the Rockies to Oregon
By Bart Smith, as told to William R Buck
The Lewis and Clark National Historic Trail follows the expedition of Captains Meriwether Lewis and William Clark, sent to explore the West by President Thomas Jefferson in 1804. They began near St Louis, Missouri, continued to the Pacific Ocean, then returned – a round-trip that took over two years.
In 1992, I began a quest to walk all 30 routes in the national trails system. After 25 years of travelling these trails — “walking down a dream” as I have called it — this week I take my final steps on the Lewis and Clark Trail in St Louis, Missouri. Lewis and Clark also ended their journey here in 1806 and I will join in celebrating their achievement as well as the 50th anniversary of the trails network.
The Upper Missouri River Breaks in Montana is one of the best stretches of the trail. East of Great Falls I loaded food and supplies into a canoe and began a long voyage downstream, passing the same places Lewis and Clark saw on their trip home. There’s a sublime beauty there that captures the romantic view of the American West.
Having walked 34,000 miles across America, as I paddled down Class I rapids I was fascinated, and felt humbled by the ever-changing landscape and geological features of the Upper Missouri. On one afternoon, an eagle flew directly overhead, then an osprey circled above the eagle. As the two birds circled ever higher into the great blue yonder, I sat in wonder, gazing up, watching the osprey get ever smaller until it simply vanished.
Bart Smith has walked and photographed all 30 national trails in the US. His photography can be viewed online at walkingdownadream.com and in this Guardian gallery
The Pacific Crest Trail
Length 2,650 miles
Route Mexico to Canada, through California, Oregon, and Washington
By Monica Prelle
Described as a “wilderness path in our backyard”, the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT), goes through 57 major mountain passes, dips into 19 major canyons and meanders alongside more than 1,000 lakes and tarns. For those who don’t have the months – or stamina – needed to walk the entire route, it is broken into sections for shorter, multi-night treks and within those sections are plenty of options for day hikes along the national trail. One of my favourites of these is the seven-mile High Trail with its views of the jagged peaks of the Minarets and other summits of the Ritter Range in California. The river flowing through the polished glacial rock below is dramatic, but it’s the void between the high mountains and low valley that makes onlookers feel small.
“Everything is flowing,” the naturalist John Muir wrote of the region, “going somewhere, animals and so-called lifeless rocks as well as water.”
Starting at the Agnew Meadows Trailhead near Mammoth Lakes, the High Trail contours the west slope of the Sierra Nevada crest and stays above the river before meeting the headwaters of the San Joaquin at Thousand Island Lake.
The High Trail-PCT is in the Ansel Adams Wilderness, which spans more than 230,000 acres between the John Muir Wilderness to the south and Yosemite national park to the north. I often join this trail – skiing in winter and backpacking in the halcyon days of summer, but mostly running, stopping often. I watch the trail change through the seasons. Snow falling and melting, wildflowers blooming and withering. I see aspen leaves transition from green to yellow, orange and red.
My dad, who was never an avid hiker, once went for a walk on the High Trail and returned at dusk so tired that he went to bed without dinner. He told the story of that long walk for the rest of his life.
At Thousand Island Lake, the PCT continues north to Yosemite, but the 3,000-metre alpine lake is the final destination for most day hikers. Muir called it Islet, for its abundance of tiny granite islands. Banner Peak’s sharp near 4,000-metre summit ridge rises above the sapphire-coloured water.
Hikers have the option to return the same way or via the River Trail for a 14- to 15-mile round-trip. Road transport between trail heads and Mammoth Mountain in summer is by shuttle bus only ($8 adult) – cars are almost entirely prohibited.
• Pacific Crest Trail Association
Monica Prelle is a runner and writer from Mammoth Lakes, California. Follow her adventures in the wild on Instagram
The Appalachian Trail
Length 2,190 miles
Route Running from Springer Mountain in Georgia to Mount Katahdin in Maine, the Appalachian Trail spans wilderness areas and several sub-Appalachian ranges, such as the Great Smokies and the Blue Ridge Mountains, through 14 states. A quarter of the trail (550 miles) is in Virginia. Its highest point is 2,025-metre Clingmans Dome in the Great Smoky Mountains in Tennessee.
By Philip Werner
It is the camaraderie of hikers that makes the experience of walking this trail, established in 1937, so special. The Appalachian Trail is a melting pot of nationalities and people of all ages, occupations, social classes, races, and religions. People who hike the trail congregate at the lean-tos each night, spaced every 10 miles or so along the trail, and tell their stories, comparing notes on how they are coping physically.
An estimated three million visitors hike portions of the trail each year, which is within driving range of major cities such as Atlanta, Richmond, Washington DC, New York, and Boston. Each year about 2,000 “thru-hikers” complete the trail in one continuous trip lasting from five to seven months. Others hike sections over years to complete the entire trail.
The many shorter sections include routes through the Shenandoah national park, and the White Mountain national forest.
There are no fees or permits required to hike the trail, which links existing trail systems through numerous national parks, national forests, designated wilderness areas, state parks, and other public lands. It is maintained by an army of volunteers who build shelters, repair eroded sections of trail, and repaint the 150,000 white rectangular blazes that mark the route from one end to the other.
My favourite section is the 100 Mile Wilderness in Maine, just before you reach the northern terminus of the trail and climb Mount Katahdin (1,605 metres) in Baxter state park. It’s a wild and rugged stretch of mountains, forest, and lakes with little vehicle access and takes 6-10 days to backpack end-to-end. I prefer hiking on the trail in mid- to late- September when it is ablaze with autumn colour, the nights are cool and the biting insects have disappeared.
• 12 easy section hikes on the Appalachian Trail
Philip Werner has been section hiking the Appalachian Trail since 2007. He is founder and editor of SectionHiker.com and lives in New Hampshire
Continental Divide Trail
Length 3,100 miles
Route The Canadian border in Glacier national park, Montana, to the Mexican border west of El Paso, through Idaho, Wyoming, Colorado and New Mexico
By William R Buck
The Appalachian and Pacific Crest trails both get a lot of attention but the Continental Divide Trail (CDT) offers at least as much adventure, with a fraction of the crowds. The CDT showcases one of the most spectacular parts of the world: the snow-covered Rockies, alpine wildflowers and high-elevation forests. This is a place of massive scale, where remote, rugged lands divide the watersheds of the Pacific, Atlantic and Arctic Oceans.
Of the “Triple Crown” of long-distance routes (along with the Appalachian and Pacific Crest), the CDT is by far the least-used of the three.
Yellowstone national park, on the Wyoming border, has grizzly bears, bison and wolves – but be sure to give all wildlife a wide berth and research current conditions. Turning west the trail intersects with the Nez Perce historic trail, a path of untold stories from one of America’s most celebrated tribes.
When camping on the CDT, you can see the stars more vividly than in most places in the US (as long as forest fires aren’t smoking up the skies). Trail towns and gateway communities across the country play an important role in the trail experience (see map). These are places with unique culture, good food, parks and activities appealing to different interests. Silver City in New Mexico and Lincoln, Montana, are two towns that enrich the trail experience.
I have walked the many varied routes across the national trails system, but the CDT remains one of the most special to me: it encapsulates the promise of our public lands, vast landscapes that preserve our wild and scenic treasures for future generations – and for wildlife.
• The Continental Divide Trail Coalition has free guides and maps. There’s more information US Forest Service
William R Buck has visited all 30 national scenic and historic trails, which he profiles in the National Trails Guide
Ice Age Trail
Length 1,200 miles
Route From Interstate state park on the Wisconsin-Minnesota border to Potawatomi state park on Lake Michigan
By Mary Caperton Morton
The US’s most famous long-distance trails – the Appalachian, Continental Divide and Pacific Crest – follow mountain ranges running from north to south. My favourite follows the edge of the last Ice Age from east to west across Wisconsin.
Until 12,000 years ago, massive ice sheets blanketed all of Canada, with the southern fringe of the glaciers dipping down past the Great Lakes. The Ice Age national scenic trail follows a zig-zagging line of rock piles called moraines and other ice age relics – such as long ridge lines called eskers, large boulders called glacial erratics and small basins left by melting ice chunks called kettle ponds – for over a thousand miles. Many of the textbook-worthy geographical features along the trail are protected in the Ice Age national scientific preserve, part of the US national park system.
Wisconsin’s rolling landscape alternates between mature forests and open fields connected by streams and rivers that flow into thousands of lakes. The trail meanders along the shore of Lake Michigan, before plummeting south of Madison, the state capital, and then heading north again to undulate across the western half of the state, linking numerous state parks and rural counties. Large sections of the trail, marked by yellow blazes on trees, rocks and fenceposts, are designated hiking-only footpaths; others follow scenic backroads perfect for cyclists.
This is my favourite long-distance trail because its unique focus on the region’s geological history transports hikers back in time, to an era when the landscape was all wilderness. As you walk, ride or drive in the footsteps of the woolly mammoths that once grazed the lush grasslands cultivated by the retreating glaciers, keep your eyes peeled for porcupines, foxes and black bears. And at night, your ears may ring with the howls of wolves: about 1,000 grey wolves live in Wisconsin, about a third of the endangered Western Great Lakes population.
The Ice Age Trail Alliance is the definitive source for planning a hike. Its Instagram feed showcases the best of beautiful Wisconsin. If you fancy hiking the whole thing, join the Thousand Miler Wannabes Facebook group.
Mary Caperton Morton has hiked in all 50 states and lives in Big Sky, Montana. She is the author of Aerial Geology: A High-Altitude Tour of North America’s Spectacular Volcanoes, Canyons, Glaciers, Lakes, Craters, and Peaks
Length 93 miles
Route A circuit around Mount Rainier, Washington, giving views of all sides of the Cascade’s highest volcano
By Peter Potterfield
Rising from its lowland valleys like a vision, 4,392-metre Mount Rainier is the highest of all the snow-clad volcanoes of the Cascade Range. And the 93-mile Wonderland trail offers a truly intimate connection with Rainier, as the route makes a complete circuit of this magic mountain through the moody, rugged wilderness at its feet.
The simple desire to climb Rainier was the very thing that brought me to the Pacific Northwest decades ago. There I was, puking on the summit with the other pilgrims who had climbed too high, too fast. Only later did I realise that time spent in the backcountry around the mountain can be even more rewarding. The allure here is the tremendous variety of terrain, which makes for fascinating backcountry travel.
To hike all 93 miles of the Wonderland, a designated Recreation Trail, is to take in all the majestic nuances of Mount Rainier’s domain. The 360-degree view of the mountain, under volatile weather and changing light, is reason enough to come. The cathedral-like ancient forests of Douglas fir and western hemlock, the expanses of lovely alpine meadows (locally called “parks”), the high volcanic ridges, and the 35 cubic miles of ice draping the rocky flanks of the mountain all combine for a landscape unique in the lower 48 states. At high points along the route, such as Panhandle Gap, the hiker is taken deep into the alpine zone, into the realm of ice and snow far above the trees.
Just be prepared to do a little work. Distinctive radial ridges called “cleavers” reach from high on Rainier right into the surrounding backcountry. These ridges create serious topography, a successive series of obstructing ridgelines above valleys deeply dug by raging glacial torrents. These require multiple climbs above 2,000 metres from deep green valleys, taking the hiker into a high, austere wilderness of ice and rock. Going up and over these ridges means the backcountry traveller who makes a complete circuit gains more than 6,000 metres of elevation in those 93 miles.
Not everyone has the time or inclination to hike for months on the longer-distance trails. In my opinion, shorter trails such as the Wonderland bring the biggest reward for time and effort applied.
Most hikers set out from the village of Longmire and do the Wonderland in 12-14 days, a period that allows for a relaxed pace, time to appreciate the scenery, and a rain day or two. You can do all in a single push, or in sections over several seasons – even over a decade in two- or three-day stints. The trail is usually hikable from mid-July through September, but depending on the previous winter’s snowfall, trails above 1,800 metres may be covered in snow into August.
For a day-by-day, camp-by-camp description of the Wonderland trail, including exit points, supply strategies and maps, see Classic Hikes of the World (Norton, £28.99). For more information on permits and trail conditions, see nps.gov/mora.
Peter Potterfield is the author of Classic Hikes of North America and Classic Hikes of the World
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