9 Epic Long-Distance Trails

Campsite set up next to a blue lake with mountains all around
Photo: WestCoastScapes/Shutterstock

Taking a long-distance hike is something many people dream about, but few undertake. Most people who set foot on America's famed Appalachian Trail, for instance, only walk for a few miles before looping back and hopping in the car.

Most of the routes mentioned here are longer than the 2,200-mile Appalachian. They offer amazing challenges (and plenty of fodder for the imaginations of armchair hikers). The allure of these long-haul hikes goes beyond the chance for physical accomplishment; these trails offer glimpses of scenery, cultures and lifestyles that few will see firsthand.

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Trans Canada Trail

Photo: Dennis Jarvis [CC BY-SA 2.0]/Flickr

Though it is made up of a network of trails rather than a single one, the Trans Canada Trail will stretch for 14,000 miles when it is completed. The finished sections measure more than 10,000 miles. As the name suggests, this footpath traverses Canada from east to west, with a northern branch that connects the main trail to the Arctic Ocean.

Mile Zero is in far eastern Newfoundland in the town of St. John's. The Trans Canada has 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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Grand Italian Trail

Photo: Matteo Gabrieli/Shutterstock

Covering a distance of about 3,700 miles, the Sentiero Italia — the Grand Italian Trail — offers a glimpse into the diverse natural landscapes of one of the world's most picturesque countries. From beautiful coasts and snow-capped mountains to ancient ruins and vineyard-covered valleys, the Sentiero hits all of Italy's scenic highlights.

Because the trail crosses the mountains, a fair bit of planning is required for people who want to thru-hike (walk the entire route from trailhead to terminus). However, you don't need to be so ambitious. The Grand Italian is 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

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The 1,800 mile Te Araroa trail runs the length of New Zealand. Opened in 2011, this path links the geographical extremes of the island nation. It stretches from Cape Reinga on the northern tip of the North Island to 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. By some estimates, only about 100 people thru-hike Te Araroa each year, spending an average of about four months on the trail. However, several thousand people take multiday journeys, and 300,000 to 400,000 people use Te Araroa for day hikes each year.

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Great Himalaya Trail

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Though the Great Himalaya Trail will one day stretch the length of its namesake mountain range, 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 10 sections of the Great Himalaya Trail in Nepal takes several weeks to complete. Add changing seasons to the equation, and thru-hiking the High Route becomes difficult. 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

Photo: Ingo Ronner [CC BY 2.0]/Flickr

The Via Alpina is a network of trails winding through the mountains of central Europe. Five trails run through eight countries. Starting in Slovenia and ending in Monaco, the Via Alpina also passes through France, Austria, Germany, Liechtenstein, Switzerland and Italy.

Because of the total distance of just more than 3,000 miles, thru-hiking the Via Alpina is challenging. However, the trail is organized, with 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 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

Photo: Thelongyard [CC BY-SA 3.0]/Wikimedia Commons

Australia's 3,300-mile Bicentennial National Trail (referred to as the 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 BNT runs parallel to the Great Dividing Range 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. That means self-sufficiency is key on the BNT, no matter the segment you choose.

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American Discovery Trail

Photo: dconvertini [CC BY-SA 2.0]/Flickr

Though not as well-known as the Appalachian Trail, the American Discovery Trail (ADT) has a total length about triple that of its more famous peer. This 6,800-mile coast-to-coast path passes though 15 states and is a network of trails. The route splits in half in the Midwest, changing from a single track to two parallel paths.

It is possible to walk end-to-end, from Delaware to California, by covering just more than 5,000 miles. (The official 6,800-mile length includes both the northern and southern spurs.) The trail was first thru-hiked in 2005. Many people take a sectional approach to the ADT, walking a new section each year until they have completed all of them. This lifetime thru-hike approach is used on many trails longer than 1,000 miles. Bikers and horse riders 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

Photo: Rachel Kramer [CC BY 2.0]/Flickr

Though it does not 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 by volunteers. Most of the NCT is characterized by the forested landscapes of the eastern U.S. and the Great Lakes region.

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Tokai Nature Trail

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One of Japan's longest complete trails, Tokai offers a glimpse of the natural side of the most populated region in Japan. The route starts in Tokyo near Mount Takao. The trailhead can be reached by taking a Tokyo Metro train.

Over the next 1,000 miles, the trail passes temples on mountain summits, 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.