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Adventure / August 20, 2017

America’s best section hikes

Written by: Molly McCowan

Almost every U.S. hiker has at least entertained the idea of thru-hiking one of America’s “Triple Crown” trails. We’ve all read Bill Bryson’s “A Walk in the Woods” or Cheryl Strayed’s “Wild”… or at least we’ve seen the movies.

But the hard reality is that most of us can’t just take four to six months off to hike a long trail. We have jobs to do, children to raise, and showers to take. Thus, our backpacking trips are generally measured in days, not weeks.

Thankfully the Pacific Crest Trail, Continental Divide Trail, and Appalachian Trial all have some pretty outstanding (and accessible) short sections. Each of these can be completed in a week or less.

PCT: Three Sisters and Obsidian Falls (28 miles)

Oregon's "Three Sisters" volcanoes. From left to right, the South Sister, Middle Sister, and North Sister. Photo by Lyn Topinka, USGS

An open stretch of the PCT in Oregon's Three Sisters Wilderness. Photo by Norris Hung.

The Three Sisters are a set (a trio, really) of glaciated volcanic peaks that serve as the namesake for Oregon’s second largest wilderness area. The hike to them isn’t easy, but stunning views and a wild character make it well worth the effort.

Even serious hikers often take a full week for this section, which opens with a 6,000 foot climb in the first five miles. The rest of the trail is easier, but travelers usually slow down to take in sights like Obsidian Falls: a 20-foot waterfall that flows over a wall of solid obsidian.

Guidebook: The trip is best detailed in Paul Gerard’s “Day and Section Hikes: Pacific Crest Trail, Oregon”


PCT: Tuolumne Meadows to Yosemite Valley (28 miles)

Fairview Dome looms over Yosemite's Tuolumne Meadows. Photo by Don Graham.

Few spectacles on Earth compare to the beauty of Yosemite Valley. Photo by Andrew Kearns.

Running parallel to the northern portion of the John Muir Trail, this section hike features all the best features of the JMT, but none of the crowds. The hike tours the rivers and waterfalls of Yosemite’s Cathedral Range, which is far from visitors’ centers, established campgrounds, and most of the park’s 3.85 million annual visitors.

Most hikers take three or four days to complete this section, hiking from north to south. The southernmost portion of the trip can be done on the JMT, but our sources recommend taking the Mist Trail, which passes several lakes and waterfalls.

Guidebook: Our favorite description of the route can be found in Jeffrey Schaffer’s Yosemite National Park: A Complete Hiker’s Guide”(which, if you live anywhere near Yosemite, you really should own anyway.)


CDT: The Highline Loop (11.6 miles)

The stunning---but vertiginous---view from the Highline Trail. Photo by Katie Brady.

Glacier Park Chalet: a rustic but comfortable lodging option only accessible by trail. Bill Heyden.

Where CDT section hikes go, the Highline Loop is pretty easy. Unless you’re afraid of heights, that is—much of the hike tours a four-to-six-foot-wide ledge above granite cliffs several hundred feet high. It’s a scary sight, but the park service has strung a safety cable along the cliff walls for use as a handrail.

Most people tackle the whole loop in a single day. But for those hikers who want to extend the trip, overnight accommodations are available at the rustic Granite Park Chalet. This Swiss-style lodge is only accessible by trail, but it’s still in such demand that reservations are required.

Guidebook: If you only plan to hike this loop, there’s no need to get a bulky guidebook. Just bring the Many Glacier Trail Map. And bear spray—lots of bear spray.


CDT: Green River to Big Sandy (80 miles)

One of the most remote portions of this already remote hike through Wyoming's Wind Rivers. Photo by Adventure Alan.

Wyoming's Big Sandy Creek: far more beautiful than it sounds. Photo by G. Thomas.

Wyoming’s Wind River Range has a bit of a reputation among backpackers. It’s a beautiful place. It’s a wild and rugged place. And it’s the sort of place that’s likely to leave you dirty, bruised, and bloody. In short, it’s Wyoming.

And where Wyoming hikes go, this 80-mile epic fits right in. The section takes about a week to complete and subjects hikers to more than 20,000 feet of cumulative elevation gain. It’s among the CDT’s least-traveled sections, and it traverses glaciers and the banks of alpine lakes as it winds through the Winds.

Guidebook: Bring Lora Davis’ outstanding “Wyoming’s Continental Divide Trail” along as a guide. Plan your trip for late summer.

AT: Carver’s Gap to HWY 19 (21 miles)

The view from one of the AT's many rounded "balds". Photo by Jeff Clark.

This boulder, perched atop a bald ridge, sports a plaque commemorating conservationist Rex Peake. Photo by Brian Stansberry.

The highlands that surround Tennessee’s 6,285-foot Roan Mountain Massif contain some of the most enchanting wilderness in the U.S. And this 21-mile, two-day AT section winds through the region’s valleys and over its rounded mountains (or “balds”) to provide unmatched views.

The hike is particularly scenic in June. We recommend a slight detour to the famed Rhododendron Gardens, which explode into a sea of color in early summer.

Guidebook: Pack the AT guide to Tennessee and North Carolina for this trip. And opt for a water pump over iodine tablets or a SteriPen—most of this section’s water sources are small trailside springs.

AT: The Presidential Traverse (23 miles)

A cairn along the trail ascending Mt. Washington, the highest peak in the Presidential Range. Photo by Tim Sackton.

Mt. Washington and Mt. Clay, as seen from Mt. Jefferson on the AT. Photo by Fredlyfish4.

Ready to pull up your socks and get a real taste of what the AT is all about? This 23-mile section can be hiked in two days, but it won’t be easy. This trek covers some of the most difficult terrain the AT has to offer.

The hike ascends seven peaks in New Hampshire’s Presidential Range—a total of 9,000 feet of elevation gain. Hikers are rewarded for their efforts with expansive views of valleys, lakes, and mountain ridges. There’s a sign on the trail warning that the region has “some of the worst weather in America.” Be prepared for swinging temperatures, lightning, and winds that often hit the triple digits.

Guidebook: This section is detailed in the AT Guide to New Hampshire and Vermont.

Do you have questions or comments about this feature? Email them to us at [email protected]

about the author

Molly McCowan

Molly McCowan is a professional writer and editor based out of Fort Collins, Colorado. Her love for travel sees her globe-trotting whenever she can, and she seeks out experiences that are off the beaten path so she can immerse herself in new cultures. She speaks fluent Spanish, so she’s almost always planning a trip to somewhere in Latin America. She also lived in Spain for a while, and backpacked across Europe on a shoestring budget. She hikes, camps, goes four-wheeling in her old Jeep Wrangler, and fly fishes in the mountains of Colorado regularly.

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