Thru-Hiking Options for the Rest of Us
By: Jim Rahtz
Despite the growing popularity of long distance backpacking, it is still a very select group that has completed a thru-hike of the Appalachian Trail, Pacific Crest Trail or the Continental Divide Trail. The commitment required is immense. Not only does the hiker walk over 2,000 miles, they give up the comforts of home, family and friends for five months or more. They often also give up their jobs or even the potential of a job for that same period.
Those that have hiked all three of the trails are members of an even more exclusive club. The few that have completed this “Triple Crown” of hiking have covered nearly 7,000 miles and have a total hiking time of around a year and a half. This level of dedication to hiking is not possible for most. It is however, possible to experience the best of these trails and still have a life. That’s right, it is possible to be a thru-hiker without major disruption to your career or family. It’s even possible to hike the Triple Crown; just the Junior version.
The Junior version of hiking’s Triple Crown? You might be saying to yourself, “Where did he come up with that?”
I hadn’t been interested in taking a 2,000+ mile hike. Being in your late 50s with titanium in your foot can do that to you. However, I was still looking for adventure. Known as “the most beautiful long trail in the world,” the 486 mile Colorado Trail seemed to fill the bill. I had enjoyed shorter backpacking trips, loved the scenery of the Rockies and felt my life needed a new challenge. It was one of those “bucket list” kind of things. The hike itself turned into a great experience that I was glad to have undertaken. The trail was everything that I had hoped as I spent a month in an incredible mountain environment on a path often shared by both the Colorado Trail and the Continental Divide Trail.
It was near the finish after a tough 22-mile day that I found myself sharing a campfire with several other thru-hikers. Gimpy, a guy in his 60s who had a long history of hiking, was talking about his other thru-hikes. At one point he asked me about hiking the Appalachian Trail (AT). I replied that I didn’t have the time or a strong desire to hike the whole AT. I was however, thinking about hiking shorter “long trails” such as the John Muir Trail (JMT) through the Sierra Mountains of California. He suggested that after the JMT I should hike the Long Trail in Vermont. That way I would have hiked some of the best of the three foremost cross-country trails.
Not a bad thought. That’s when a plan was born for a new challenge. I could do the Triple Crown of Hiking, only the Junior Version! The Colorado Trail is considered by many to be the best part of the Continental Divide Trail. The John Muir Trail is an iconic hike that shares much of its length with the Pacific Crest Trail. And the Long Trail, which runs through Vermont and shares 100 miles with the AT, crosses the very spot that inspired the AT. Thru-hiking this Triple Crown would not only be epic, but achievable.
Over the next year I was fortunate enough to complete all three trails. For those with weeks, not months, available to hike; I recommend them highly. But which trail is the best? It all depends on what you are looking for.
Vermont’s “footpath in the wilderness” is the oldest long distance hiking trail in the country. The Long Trail was not only the inspiration for the AT, it shares 100 miles with its more famous cousin. If you are looking for an AT type experience, this southern portion is the trail for you. Expect plenty of shelters, convenient resupplies and lots of company. While parts of the trail fit the AT description of “walking through a green tunnel” there are also numerous big views. The trail runs the very spine of Vermont’s Green Mountains, crossing the bare peaks of Camels Hump and Mt Mansfield, along with several mountains with cleared ski slopes. One such spot is Stratton Mountain, where Benton McKaye conceived of the idea of the Appalachian Trail.
Once the AT and LT split though, the crowds are gone and hiking becomes significantly more challenging. There were many slopes where hiking involves climbing ladders or metal rungs drilled into rock walls. There were spots where I saw blazes and thought someone had to be kidding. It was on the LT that I realized that hiking could be an adrenaline sport. Oh, and the famous “Vermud” does exist. If just going backpacking is not enough of a challenge, the Long Trail is for you.
The newest and longest of the three trails, the Colorado Trail wanders through eight named mountain ranges, six wilderness areas and some of the most beautiful scenery in the Rocky Mountains. The CT shares approximately 235 Miles with the Continental Divide Trail and traverses open coniferous forests, aspen groves, high mesas and rugged alpine passes.
Designed to be accessible by horse (no ladders), the trail is well constructed and maintained. There are not shelters along the way so a tent is a necessity. With the average elevation over 10,000 feet, the trail spends extended stretches above tree line (with no spots to hang a hammock). Altitude is a significant consideration as snow can remain well into the summer months and afternoon thunderstorms are a real danger. Despite some rain and hail during my 29 days on the trail, the sun shined at least part of every day.
Don’t expect crowds on the CT. In the more remote sections I was more likely to see a marmot on the trail than another hiker. Convenient resupplies can be far apart. I typically hiked 70-100+ miles between town stops.
Beyond the aforementioned marmots, wildlife is prevalent on the trail. While hiking, smaller critters were abundant, plus the occasional deer, bighorn sheep and elk. Where else would you need to share the trail with two bull moose at 12,000 feet? There are also sightings of black bear near the trail.
The 210 mile John Muir Trail shares 170 miles with the Pacific Crest Trail and by most accounts is the most scenic section of the PCT. The path travels from Yosemite National Park to Kings Canyon National Park through the Sierra Nevada Mountains to the top of Mt Whitney, the highest peak in the continental United States. The scenery in the Sierras is just spectacular, earning the label of “The Range of Light” from John Muir.
The trail is full of iconic views such as Half Dome, Cathedral Peak, Evolution Valley and several high passes. Despite hiking during the 2015 drought, water was never an issue. Much of the trail appeared very dry, but enough melting snow was left to keep countless clear creeks flowing and abundant alpine lakes reasonably full. There is only one mountaintop view, but it’s outstanding. At 14,505 feet, the summit of Mt Whitney is the official endpoint of the JMT. On a clear day, the view goes on seemingly forever.
As the entire trail is within either National Parks or wilderness areas, the wildlife sightings were incredible. Deer were plentiful through the lower elevations and seemingly oblivious to hikers. Most impressive to me were the close encounters with predators. I stumbled within feet of coyote and even a bobcat there. Multiple encounters with bear left no doubt as to why bear-resistant canisters are required.
Like the CT, the JMT has high elevations and big climbs. The hike crosses 11 passes before the big climb up Mt Whitney. However, also like the CT the JMT is well constructed with switchbacks when prudent. It’s a good thing due to the need to carry a tent and the extra weight of the bear canister.
Beyond the topography, the JMT provides some additional challenges. Resupplies go from easy to non-existent as you travel from north to south. The last relatively convenient resupply option is at Muir Trail Ranch, halfway through the 220-mile hike. (Yes, I know the trail is 210 miles, but you still have to get off Mt Whitney.) Stuffing enough calories into my bear canister to supply 110 miles of hiking was interesting to say the least. It involved some tough choices as well as standing on the lid before it would close.
Perhaps the biggest challenge with the JMT is just scoring a permit. If you want to start in Yosemite, plan on faxing in an application 24 weeks before your planned start date. By the end of the day, you will find out if you were successful. You probably were not. Apparently, there is such demand that over 97% of all applications are denied. One hiker I met on the trail had been denied 22 times before she received a permit to start at Happy Isles Trailhead.
The National Park Service is in a difficult position. They have a legal duty to protect the wilderness from overuse and want to provide access to a true wilderness for those that do receive a permit. Based on my hike, the existing quota system seemed to result in a quality experience. While I was not always alone, the trail was not crowded and I always found a good spot to camp. That does not makes getting the permit any easier, however. You’ll need to plan ahead, yet be very flexible.
How did I do it? After multiple unsuccessful attempts to secure a permit from the starting point (Happy Isles), I changed my approach; literally. Scoring a permit from Tuolumne Meadows, I arrived at the park early and used the free bus service that runs throughout the park to day hike the 20 mile section I would have otherwise missed. On the plus side, I was able to hike that section backwards, exchanging a 6,000 foot climb for a 6,000 foot drop. It certainly wasn’t the perfect way to do it, but I’d rather have walked the entire trail “imperfectly” than not do it at all.
So, just because you can’t, or don’t want to, spend half a year hiking doesn’t mean you can’t be a thru-hiker. There are viable options to have a life changing experience without abandoning the life you already have. America’s three foremost cross-country trails have shorter options that are achievable, yet still epic. Fair warning though. Once you pick one and hike it, your bucket list may get longer. Perhaps you’ll even hike the Triple Crown; just the Junior Version.
Cincinnati native Jim Rahtz is an outdoor author and photographer whose work has won multiple awards from the Outdoor Writers of Ohio. His newest book, Backpacking’s Triple Crown: The Junior Version is available at Roads Rivers and Trails as well as through Amazon.com