Which trail should I hike?
The big 3 “Triple Crown” Thru-Hikes come to mind when you think of long distance hikes in the United States;
- The Appalachian Trail
- Continental Divide Trail
- Pacific Crest Trail
These trails are all everyone talks about. But there are 11 National Scenic trails registered in the U.S. ranging from 65 miles to 4,600 miles long. But depending on your timeline, budget, or the level of logistics you are willing to endure, you may need to look at alternatives that give the same level of fulfillment that meet your needs a little better.
For me located in California, there are many great options just a cars ride away. The John Muir Trail, Tahoe Rim Trail, and Trans Catalina Trail are all great options that are more manageable that still give that same level of fulfillment without having to quit your day job.
What is a thru-hike?
While there is no hard and fast rule or definition that constitutes a thru-hike, many thru-hikers can agree that a long distance trail that you traverse from end to end would be the most loose description of this feat. This differs from your hours long day-hike, or your weekend backpacking trip where you park the car and hike in a few miles, set up camp, then hike back. This is that next level of hiking.
For example the Pacific Crest Trail starts at the Mexican Boarder in California and continues up to the boarder with Canada in Washington, or the other way around if you hike it southbound. This is one of the biggest barriers to these hikes, the time it takes to make your way through multiple US states and the logistics to make it happen are usually where the dream stops for most.
Some people will work through this by “flip flopping” the trail, in our example staring at the Mexico boarder and hiking up to Canada and turning right around and heading back to Southern California.
Others will section hike these longer trails, tackling them over years of repeated returns to where they left off, two weeks at a time as Section Hikers. But the traditional thru-hiker will typically be the one who takes on one of these trails head on in one go.
Which Trail did I choose?
I fall into that “oh whoa is me” crowd about doing a longer thru-hike. I have a wife, kids, and a career that I can’t just up and take off 6 months to go frolic in the woods. But that sense of adventure has been burning inside of me to get one of these hikes in sooner than later.
So that’s where this whole post stems from.
I have a few hikes on my hit list, and the time was now to weight the cost of each one, make a choice, and draft a plan.
My top choices were:
- Section hike the Pacific Crest Trail
- Trans Catalina Trail
- John Muir Trail
- Lost Coast Trail
- Tahoe Rim Trail
Since last year when I kayak camped the Colorado River, I was also intrigued by potentially circumnavigating Lake Tahoe by kayak as my next adventure. But since I was ready to beat-feet and get on trail, hiking the Tahoe Rim felt like the right choice.
The Tahoe Rim Trail is considered a thru-hike but its a little unique in that is is a loop around the mountainous rim of Lake Tahoe covering around 165 miles, and as an added bonus it joins with the Pacific Crest Trail for a good stretch of its western flank.
When I considered which trail I should choose, distance was not top of mind but the time it would take to complete the trip. I have a generous time off policy with work, but honestly 2 weeks max is my sweet spot, I’m not too far out of the loop with work and I won’t be as hard on my wife with the kids, and dogs at home outnumbering her. Plus with the manageable timeline I can invite friends to come along and experience this trip with me.
In planning this trip, I figure we will only be on trail around 11 days and will travel around 170 miles total. With an 8 hour drive on the book-ends from Southern California to Lake Tahoe and back, we are only looking at lucky-number 13 days to complete our expedition.
Very manageable for the part time backpacker.
Outside of any new fancy gear we want to purchase for this trail, our cost will really be in food, fuel to get there, and lodging for the night before we step off.
There are only two permits needed for this trail, a free fire permit for your stove and a small fee for the permit to stay overnight in Desolation Wilderness, arguably the most beautiful terrain in California.
There will be no need to ship boxes ahead in the mail for resupply or need to go grocery shopping to resupply.
So quite honestly the costs are rather low on this trip, just get yourself there and hike.
Experiences may vary with this.
The logistics are fun on this hike. Because it is a loop, you can really start anywhere on the trail and you will eventually end up where you started.
In the planning of where we would start, camp, and resupply; I found a tempo that would be enjoyable and not too overwhelming. We would start in Tahoe City and head out clockwise around the lake.
I found a market around the half way point who will take a resupply package and hold it for you to pick up as you pass through, no having to ship boxed ahead to resupply by post. Since we are carrying bear canisters, the fluctuation of food in our packs wont make much of a difference in packing our packs throughout the trip.
This will be the most complicated part of the logistics of the trip.
The only part that comes close is knowing what day we will be entering Desolation Wilderness so we can reserve our permit well in advance.
Final thoughts on choosing a trail to hike
For me my decision was mainly driven by the time I was willing to take away to unplug on trail.
For you the decision factor might be totally different, maybe you live back east and you want to live on trail in the desert for a few weeks, whatever it may be, it is personal.
Ultimately so is a thru-hike.
It is you with a pack on your back on a journey, usually to find something within. Whichever trail you choose, don’t forget to be in the moment on trail, forget about the craziness of the modern world, because you will be back in it soon enough.
Enjoy the journey.
P.S. If you are interested in learning about my recent TRT trip check it out here.
You hike your own hike.