9 Epic Long-Distance Trails

Hiker on the Mount Tongariro volcano on New Zealand's Te Araroa
A hiker admires the Red Crater in Tongariro National Park on New Zealand's Te Araroa. Matteo Colombo / Getty Images

Famous long-distance trails in the U.S. include the iconic Appalachian and Pacific Crest trails, but there are plenty more colossal, country-spanning treks around the world that offer scenery just as mind-blowing even though they're lesser known. Take, for instance, New Zealand's 1,864-mile showpiece, Te Araroa, which stretches north to south across the nation's stacked islands. And the Via Alpina, a Central European network of trails that crosses half a dozen borders.

The allure of these long-haul hikes, most of them longer than the 2,200-mile Appalachian, goes beyond the opportunity for physical accomplishment; rather, they offer glimpses of landscapes, cultures, and landmarks that few ever get the chance to see firsthand.

Here are nine of the world's most epic long-haul hiking trails to inspire your next — or first — months-long trek.

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Grand Italian Trail, Italy

Hiking trail amid the Dolomites mountain range, Italy
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Covering about 3,800 miles, the Grand Italian Trail — or Sentiero Italia in the local tongue — offers a glimpse into the diverse natural landscapes of Italy, one of the most picturesque countries. From the Adriatic coast to the rugged Apennine Mountains and UNESCO-recognized ancient ruins to the vineyard-covered valleys of Tuscany, the Sentiero hits all of Italy's scenic highlights.

Because the trail ascends into alpine territory, a fair bit of planning is required for people who want to thru-hike (i.e., walk the entire route). Thankfully for short-haul hikers, it's divided into 368 sections, so you could spend a few days on the most scenic sections and see many of the highlights without spending months on the trail.

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Te Araroa, New Zealand

Scenic overlook of trail and volcanoes on Tongariro Alpine Crossing
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The 1,800-mile Te Araroa (TA), Maori for "the long path," runs the entire length of New Zealand. Opened in 2011, it links the geographical extremes of the island nation, from coastal Cape Reinga at the North Island's tip over volcanoes, through mountains, and under rainforest canopy before terminating at the southernmost point of the South Island's mainland, the port town of Bluff.

New Zealand is known for its rugged landscapes. Although the diverse scenery is a payoff, the topography presents significant challenges — hikers have to traverse mountain ranges on both islands. Thru-hikers spend an average of four months on the trail, though it can take anywhere between three and six months. Hundreds of thousands of people use Te Araroa for day hikes and multiday backpacking trips each year.

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The Great Trail, Canada

Backpacker hiking with small town and bay in background
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The Great Trail — formerly called the Trans Canada Trail — is the longest recreational, multi-use trail network in the world, stretching an impressive 15,000 miles from the Atlantic to the Pacific to the Arctic. Rather than being a single long route, it's composed of many trails — the East Coast Trail in Newfoundland and Labrador, the Confederation Trail on Prince Edward Island, the Cowichan Valley Trail on Vancouver Island, and so forth. It's used for biking, cross-country skiing, and canoeing in addition to hiking.

The eastern trailhead is in the town of St. John's, Newfoundland. There's a northern terminus in the Arctic Ocean village of Tuktoyaktuk, Northwest Territories, and a western endpoint on the coast of British Columbia. To fully connect, a few trails still need to be added. The 400 sections are managed and overseen by local and provincial governments and volunteer organizations.

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Great Himalaya Trail, Nepal

Mount Makalu, along the GHT, with buddhist prayer flags

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Though the Great Himalaya Trail (GHT) will one day stretch the length of its namesake mountain range from Pakistan to Tibet, today, the trail is only complete in Nepal and Bhutan. Because of high altitude and the mountainous terrain, the Nepal section is extremely challenging, despite its relatively short length (the longest route is just more than 1,000 miles). Two separate routes through Nepal exist: the High Route, which tops out at an altitude of 18,000 feet, and the Low Route, which averages 6,000 feet above sea level but climbs to more than 15,000 feet.

Each of the trail's 10 sections in Nepal takes several weeks to complete. Add changing seasons to the equation, and thru-hiking the High Route becomes immensely challenging. However, the shorter Low Route can generally be completed in about three months, with the added option of staying at trailside guesthouses (called “teahouses”) along the way.

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Via Alpina, Central Europe

Hikers in the shadow of mountains in Kandersteg, Switzerland
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The Via Alpina is a network of trails winding through the mountains of Central Europe. Five trails run through eight countries: Slovenia (the starting point), France, Austria, Germany, Liechtenstein, Switzerland, Italy, and Monaco (the terminus). Because of the total distance of more than 3,000 miles, thru-hiking the Via Alpina is challenging; however, the trail is organized into 342 well-defined sections, each meant to be completed in a day.

Trails are clearly marked and do not require any technical alpine skills. That said, the altitude reaches more than 9,000 feet at the highest point, and winter weather can make foot travel more difficult. Part of the motivation for the construction of the trail was to bring sustainable economic development to rural parts of the Alps. Restaurants, guesthouses, and stores are dotted along the Via Alpina, and many multiday guided treks visit the most scenic sections.

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Bicentennial National Trail, Australia

Boardwalk in the lush Daintree rainforest, Queensland
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Australia's 3,300-mile Bicentennial National Trail (BNT) runs from the village of Cooktown in northern Queensland to Healesville, a historical town in Victoria just north of Melbourne. Following a network of dirt roads, fire tracks, and horse trails, the trail runs parallel to the Great Dividing Range, a series of plateaus and low mountains, for most of its distance.

The trail started as a kind of highway for horsemen. Though it is now promoted as a hiking and biking route, it is still a draw for horseback riders, and some sections can accommodate horse-drawn vehicles. The trail is divided into 12 sections, and travelers pass through remote areas on most segments. Self-sufficiency is key on the BNT, no matter which segment you choose.

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American Discovery Trail, U.S.

Sandstone formations rising above the forest, Garden of the Gods

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Though not as widely known as the Appalachian Trail, the American Discovery Trail (ADT) is about triple the length. This 6,800-mile, coast-to-coast network of trails passes through 15 states from Delaware to California. It splits in half in the Midwest, changing from a single track to two parallel paths. It is possible to walk end-to-end, about 5,000 miles. (The official 6,800-mile length includes both the northern and southern spurs.) The trail was first thru-hiked in 2005.

But many people take a sectional approach to the ADT, walking a new section each year until all of them are completed. This longer-term thru-hike approach is used on many trails longer than 1,000 miles. Bikers and horse riders can also use the American Discovery Trail, which is the only remaining coast-to-coast path for nonmotorized travel in the country.

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North Country Trail, U.S.

View of mountains from Mount Marcy in the Adirondacks
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Though it doesn't run coast-to-coast, the 4,600-mile North Country Trail (NCT), which runs from New York to North Dakota, is one of the longest footpaths in the world. Snaking through New York, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Michigan, Wisconsin, Minnesota, and North Dakota, it is also the longest of the National Scenic Trails established by the U.S. Congress.

Although administered by the National Park Service, the trail was built and is maintained solely by volunteers. Most of the NCT is characterized by the forested landscapes of the eastern U.S. and the Great Lakes region. Thru-hiking it takes about seven to nine months.

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Tokai Nature Trail, Japan

Fuji Mountain and lavender field along Tokai Nature Trail
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One of Japan's longest complete trails, the Tokai Nature Trail, or Tokai Shizen Hodo, offers a glimpse of the natural side of Japan's most populated region. The route starts in Tokyo near Mount Takao — the trailhead can be reached by taking a Tokyo Metro train — and over the next 1,000 miles, it passes mountaintop temples, historical castles (including the 16th century Hachiōji Castle), and one of Japan's most famous landmarks, Mount Fuji. The Tokai then moves through rural prefectures before reaching Kyoto and finally, the Osaka region. Hiking the entire trail takes about 40 o 50 days.