Some people are ‘mountain people,’ while others call themselves ‘ocean people.’ But why not have it all? We’ve assembled a smattering of trails—from overnight trips to adventures that take two to three months—so you can get your fill of high alpine peaks, rocky ridges, angelic waterfalls, and the sweet smell of saltwater. Transition from summits to the sea on these grand North American backpacking experiences.
Beginning in the Appalachian Mountains and ending at the Atlantic Ocean, the Mountains to Sea Trail (MST) is North Carolina’s epic 962-mile footpath that transitions from the East’s highest mountains to the lowest coastal areas.
Summits and Seas: You summit the highest point in the Great Smoky Mountains, Clingman’s Dome, and the highest point east of the Rockies, Mt. Mitchell (6,684ft). Along the coast, Jockey’s Ridge is the largest natural sand dune on the East Coast. End the trip with a plunge in the Atlantic Ocean.
Mo’ Beta: According to Friends of the Mountains to Sea Trail, there are 550 miles of completed, dedicated trail—roughly half the planned length. To complete the route, backpackers must use connectors on bike routes and back roads. Along the trail, a white dot is the blaze marking for the MST. The trail was conceived in the late ’70s, and as of press time, only 40 hikers have completed the MST. The route traverses three national parks, three national forests, two wilderness areas, and sand dunes, plus some rural and urban areas. Here’s what you can expect to see along the trail: mountain vistas and streams, hardwood and pine forests, Piedmont farms, colonial towns, weathered tobacco barns, old textile villages, backwoods churches, swamps, lighthouses, sand dunes, and, of course, the sea.
When to Go: For cooler weather (read: less toilsome humidity) and fewer insects, go during the spring and fall.
What You Need: Make sure you pack quick-drying and wicking layers to combat the humidity and heat. West Coasters might be surprised by how long it takes for layers and socks to dry, so pack accordingly. A stellar way to make fire is also a nice addition to the pack, because it’s more difficult in the South than the West.
Random Fact: You will see the World’s Largest Tea Pot (although some people say it’s a coffee pot) in Stokesdale, N.C.
Traversing from Glacier National Park in Montana to the Olympic Peninsula and ending at the Pacific Ocean in Cape Alava, the Pacific Northwest National Scenic Trail (PNT) spans nearly 1,200 miles and is one of North America’s most gorgeous long-distance hikes.
Summits and Seas: The trail passes through the Rocky Mountains, Selkirk Mountains, Pasayten Wilderness, North Cascades, Olympic Mountains, and Wilderness Coast.
According to one thru-hiker’s blog (samh.net), you ascend 157,100ft and descend 153,620ft while on the PNT.
Mo’ Beta: The idea for the PNT dates back to the late ’70s, when it was the brainchild of hiker and activist Ron Strickland. In 2009, the PNT was designated a National Scenic Trail, and the U.S. Department of Agriculture now handles administration and maintenance. The trail cuts a cross-section through the varied terrain and ecosystems along the Canadian border. Unlike other extended thru hikes, there are few other hikers along the trail—solitude abounds. The trail crosses three national parks and seven national forests on its way from the Continental Divide to the Pacific Ocean. The path affords ample views from mountain peaks, fire lookouts, and high-mountain lakes.
When to Go: Most people begin the hike in late June or early July to avoid the area’s remaining winter snowfall and enjoy mild temperatures.
What You Need: A map and compass. While this seems common sense, some hikers can get by on other thru hikes without it, but the PST requires some bushwhacking. Also bring bear spray and food canisters, as Grizzly bears inhabit the area.
Random Fact: The first town you come to, Hamlet, MT, is known as the “Christmas Tree Capital of the World.”
The Skyline to the Sea Trail begins at Castle Rock State Park, passes though Big Basin Redwoods State Park, and ends 32 miles later at Waddell Beach.
Summits and Seas: The highest point on the trail is the starting point, Saratoga Gap (2600ft). The trail passes through Redwood forests in Big Basin Redwoods State Park (California’s first state park) and terminates at the stunning shores of the Pacific Ocean.
Mo’ Beta: The most common starting place is the main park entrance at Castle Rock State Park, because it is the only location along the trail where you can leave a vehicle overnight. Permits are required. Plan for a 2.7-mile side trip on the last day to explore some of the Bay Area’s most gorgeous waterfalls: Berry Creek Falls, Silver Falls, and Golden Falls.
When to Go: The trail is open in May. If you hike during the spring, you’ll see the waterfalls in all their radiance, because the water level is high, and there will also be plenty of wildflowers.
What You Need: Typical three-day trip essentials. Make sure you don’t over pack, but if you do, take comfort in the fact that the trail is primarily downhill.
Random Fact: On the half-mile diversion, the Redwood Loop Trail, go check out Chimney Tree, a nearly 200ft-tall redwood, which is completely hollowed out from various forest fires. You can see open sky all the way through to the top.
One of the most impressive coastal hikes you could ever imagine, the Kalalau Trail heads up from Ke’e Beach, on Kauai’s impressive Nā Pali Coast, to Kalalau Valley.
Summits and Seas: Hike along sharp mountain spires and jagged cliffs to pristine beaches, fairy tale waterfalls, and hanging valleys.
Mo’ Beta: While this trail is steep and rocky in most places, the highest peak is only about 500ft above sea level. You dip down to the Pacific Ocean along the way at about two miles in at Hanakapia`ai Beach (this section is open to the public). At six miles in, you reach the hanging valley of Hanakoa. Following this, the trail can be hard to navigate, as well as tricky and sometimes slippery. Approximately a half-mile ahead is the lovely and impressive Hanakoa Falls. You continue on to more dry terrain and reach Kalalau Valley, and then descend for the last 11-mile stretch. The hair-raising parts of the trail are totally worth it when you see the golden, one-mile arc of Kalalau Beach along the oceanside.
When to Go: For drier climes, go from May to September. If solitude is more your thing, go in either April or October.
What You Need: Make sure you have some uber-grippy shoes, because the trail, especially the first half, can be slick and muddy in some parts. You also need camping permits, which are only issued for Kalalau Beach and are limited to 5 consecutive nights.
Random Fact: The official color for the Island of Kauai is purple, so color-coordinate accordingly.
The 33-mile Chilkoot Trail traverses through coastal rainforests, high alpine mountains, and boreal forest through the U.S. and Canada on its way from Skagway, Alaska, to Bennett Lake.
Summits and Seas: You will pass through areas named Golden Stairs, the Scales, and Stone Crib, but don’t worry, there are also places called Pleasant Camp and Happy Camp. Chilkoot Pass is the highest point on the trail, and it sits at 3501ft above sea level.
Mo’ Beta: From the trails beginning in Dyea, a ghost town and campground, the trail rises rapidly through the coastal rainforest along to the Taiya River. Then, you begin to ascend the crux of the climb, up towards Chilkoot Pass. After the pass, the trail snakes through remote and wonderful alpine forests before you reach Bennett Lake. To manage the impact on the land, the National Park Service and Parks Canada allow no more than 50 backpackers to begin the trail each day by way of a permit system.
When to Go: Late June to October is generally the best time, snow season depending, although August is the busiest time.
What You Need: Logistical savvy. Not for the trail, per se, but for navigating two national parks, two countries, a state, a province, and a territory. In short, check out the Yukon Railway and the floatplanes that leave from Bennett Lake to Whitehorse to help you over the logistical hurdles.
Random Fact: The Chilkoot Trail was a major access route from the coast to Yukon goldfields in the late 1890s. Although it has nothing to do with this trail, Yukon gold is also a delicious variety of potato.