By: Malcolm Mayhew
Your Guide to Long-Distance Hiking
Iconic long-distance hikes like the Appalachian Trail to the east and the Pacific Crest Trail to the west have always evoked a sense of adventure in those who favor the thrill of a never-ending footpath. The Appalachian Trail, covering more than 2,180 miles across 14 states from Georgia to Maine, is the most popular of these great trails, but the Pacific Crest Trail, stretching 2,650 miles from Mexico to Canada, is quickly growing in popularity. Still, completing what many consider the “Triple Crown” of long-distance hiking, the Continental Divide Trail rambles through Montana, Wyoming, Colorado and New Mexico on its more than 3,100-mile quest. These are the great footpaths of America — lines on a map that go on forever.
And while there’s plenty of adventure in those short, out-and-back day hikes to scenic overlooks and back again, some of us dream of setting off on a multiday venture through a secluded wilderness that tests one’s physical and mental endurance amid a primitive landscape far from the parking lot congestion. It’s along extended trails like these that hikers have to carry their supplies on their backs and endure exhausting and sometimes lonely days on the trail before finally setting up camp for a night beneath the stars.
Such adventures, though, are not solely reserved for the Appalachian, Sierra Nevada and Rocky Mountains. In fact, the U.S. is covered with long-distance hikes that make breaking in a new pair of hiking boots in one trip a very real possibility. Vermont’s Long Trail is said to be the country’s oldest long-distance trail, while the Mid State Trail in Pennsylvania is still relatively solitary compared to other seemingly overcrowded hikes. The River to River Trail is part of the American Discovery Trail and explores southern Illinois from the Ohio River to the Mississippi; and in Arkansas, the rustic Ozark Highlands Trail is filled with quiet valleys and isolated vistas. And while it might seem strange to add Texas to such a list of rambles, less than an hour’s drive north of one of the country’s most populated cities is another demanding long-distance trail that stands with the best.
Sam Houston National Forest, one of Texas’ only four national forests — including Angelina on the Upper Gulf Coast, Davy Crockett in Houston and Trinity counties, and Sabine on the Louisiana border — is more than 160,000 acres of pine and hardwood forests 50 miles north of Houston. Every year, nature enthusiasts visit Sam Houston National Forest for its miles of hiking and mountain biking trails as well as a refreshing serving of fishing, hunting, picnicking, bird and wildlife viewing, not to mention boating and swimming in 22,000-acre Lake Conroe. But Sam Houston National Forest’s most remarkable feature is the Lone Star Hiking Trail, Texas’ contribution to the country’s great long-distance hiking trails.
Conceived in 1966 by the Lone Star Chapter of the Sierra Club and extending 128 miles, including crossover and loop trails, the Lone Star Hiking Trail is the longest continuously marked and maintained wilderness footpath in Texas and the state’s only long-distance National Recreation Trail. From Richards to Cleveland, the trail covers flat and gently rolling pine, oak, magnolia and mixed hardwood forests; it cuts through cypress swamps and bayous, skirts the shores of Lake Conroe and traverses a number of tranquil, bubbling creeks found throughout the heart of southeast Texas. In the spring and autumn months, the trail is embroidered by a colorful collection of wildflowers, abundant wildlife and cool weather made for taking on the full length of the Lone Star Hiking Trail.
While it’s suited for both long and short hikes, 96 miles of the trail are considered thru-hiking that can take as many as 10 days to cover from end to end. It’s for this reason that the Lone Star Hiking Trail is great for beginners or anyone aspiring to hike the longer trails. Best of all, the Lone Star Hiking Trail Club offers a detailed guide and guided group hikes that make first-time hiking a breeze.
With three full-service campgrounds like Cagle Recreation Area on the shores of Lake Conroe and an endless stock of primitive campsites like Kelly’s Pond and Stubblefield Lake, where adventurous campers can pitch a tent or hang a hammock beside the trail, Sam Houston National Forest is the perfect place to spend a long weekend and attack the Lone Star Hiking Trail’s most popular sections like the lush Big Creek Scenic Area and the rugged Magnolia Section.
With so many beautiful slices of wilderness to explore by foot across the country, it’s nice to know that Texas offers its own piece to discover. And with a footpath as carefully and clearly laid out as the Lone Star Hiking Trail, it would be a shame to forgo such an adventure this close to home. So, lace up your hiking boots and load up your pack; the country is filled with miles of rugged wilderness trails that begin in your own backyard.
The River to River Trail—Illinois From the Ohio River across the rolling hills of southern Illinois’ Shawnee National Forest all the way to the Mississippi, the River to River Trail stretches 160 miles through some unexpectedly beautiful wilderness. This trail meanders through slot canyons, sandstone bluffs, the occasional rock outcropping and dense hardwood forests filled with cultural vestiges from the past. Sites along the way include Sand Cave, the largest of its kind in North America; Hayes Creek Canyon, complete with a natural water slide; and Panther Den Wilderness, a captivating wilderness area worthy of slowing the pace and enjoying the scenery.
The Mid State Trail—Pennsylvania For hikers working their way up to the longer Appalachian and Pacific Crest Trails, the 323-mile Mid State Trail offers a challenging trek through stretches of lonely wilderness and across steep ridgelines while carving a rugged route straight down the middle of Pennsylvania. Known as the wildest trail in the state, this footpath tops Tussey Mountain in the Everett Region, several state parks in the State College Region, ascends and descends the Allegheny Plateau in the Woolrich Region, and then tops out in the Tioga Region to the north.
Ozark Highlands Trail—Arkansas The Ozark Highlands Trail cuts more than 230 miles through northwest Arkansas’ Ozark National Forest from Lake Fork Smith State Park to the Buffalo National River. This trail’s greatest difficulty comes from its extreme elevation changes, sometimes climbing thousands of feet in just one day of hiking. But ascending to the summits of some of the highest peaks in the Ozark Mountains is not without reward as the views are well worth the climb. In addition to towering peaks like Hare Mountain and White Rock Mountain, the trail cuts through remote pine and hardwood forests and encounters several waterfalls and stream crossings.
The Long Trail—Vermont Built between 1910 and 1930, Vermont’s Long Trail is the country’s oldest long-distance trail and the inspiration for the Appalachian Trail. It follows the main ridgeline of the Green Mountains for 272 miles all the way to the Canadian border. Along the way, hikers will summit the state’s highest peaks including Camel’s Hump, Killington Peak and Mount Mansfield while trekking through forests of balsam, hemlock, eastern white pines and sugar maples. This extremely rugged trail takes 20-30 days to complete and provides a host of varied terrain that is often steep.