Every couple of years I ditch the real world. I quit my job, load up my backpack with mac and cheese, and light out for a long-distance trail. I've through-hiked the 2,160-mile Appalachian Trail and the 2,650-mile Pacific Crest Trail, no problem. Now I'm ready to savor the unique pain of shinsplints, oozing blisters, and long-term caloric deficit on a mega-path less traveled. Since new North American trails are being cut almost as fast as folks can hike them, it's time to get packing. Here, six that are calling my name.
CONTINENTAL DIVIDE NATIONAL SCENIC TRAILTHE TRAIL3,100 miles when complete, following the Continental Divide from the U.S.-Mexico border near Antelope Wells, New Mexico, to the U.S.-Canada border in Glacier National Park, Montana. Hiking time: four to seven months. Through-hikers to date: a few dozen.USERSHikers, horseback ridersTHE BIG PICTUREThis rugged, remote trail is now 70 percent finished, with completion scheduled for 2008. Expect spectacular mountain scenery and abundant wildlifeâ€”mountain goats, elk, antelope, grizzlies. Good navigation skills are a must: Much of the trail is unmarked or poorly mapped.THE ECSTASYCrossing the western side of Wyoming's Wind River Range: 13,000-foot peaks, alpine lakes, wildflower-splattered meadows, and several routes from which to choose.THE AGONYThe ranch land of New Mexico, where the only water source for miles may be a dung-filled cattle pond garnished with a bloated cow carcass.STRATEGIESWhether to hike northbound or southbound depends largely on the previous winter's snowpack. To be safe, do a flip-flop: Start in March in New Mexico and head north to the Colorado border, then bus up to Glacier and hike south to complete the trail.RESOURCESContinental Divide Trail Alliance, 888-909-2382; www.cdtrail.org The Continental Divide Trail Society, 410-235-9610; www.gorp.com/cdts
FLORIDA NATIONAL SCENIC TRAILTHE TRAIL1,300 miles, from Big Cypress National Preserve, about 50 miles west of Miami, to Gulf Island National Seashore, just south of Pensacola. Hiking time: two to four months. Through-hikers to date: at least 30.USERSHikers; on some sections, bikers and horseback ridersTHE BIG PICTURETopping out at a lowly 200 feet above sea level, this is not your typical trail. But year-round warm weather makes it a favorite among long-distance veterans looking to extend the hiking season. The route, now 85 percent finished and expected to be complete in 2011, rambles along seashores and through swamps, prairies, and pine forests.THE ECSTASYPicking oranges along the Kissimmee Riverâ€”manna from heaven for the sweat-soaked pilgrim. Dipping in the cool, clear waters of Alexander Springs in the Ocala National Forest ain't bad, either.THE AGONYThe 43-mile slog through Big Cypress Swamp, in Big Cypress National Preserve, where waist-deep water can slow hikers to one mile per hour.STRATEGIESStart from the southern terminus in January and you'll cover the warmest part of the state in the coolest part of the year (when highs in South Florida reach the mid-seventies, rather than the mid-nineties).RESOURCESFlorida Trail Association, 800-343-1882; www.florida-trail.org
NORTH COUNTRY NATIONAL SCENIC TRAILTHE TRAIL4,500 miles when complete, from Adirondack State Park in New York to Lake Sakakawea, North Dakota. Hiking time: seven to ten months. Through-hikers to date: one.USERSHikers; skiers; on some sections, bikers and horseback ridersTHE BIG PICTUREThough now just 37 percent complete, when finishedâ€”at least 20 years from nowâ€”this will be the longest national scenic trail in the country, wending through the Adirondacks; the Ohio River Valley; the boreal forests of Michigan, Wisconsin, and Minnesota; and the plains of North Dakota.THE ECSTASYHiking atop sandstone cliffs and along sandy beaches in Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore, a 43-plus-mile section along Lake Superior in Michigan's Upper Peninsula.THE AGONYWinter in the North Woods (on a trail this long, you're going to slog through at least one winter).STRATEGIESTo best maximize the short, May-to-September hiking season, start at the trail's southernmost point, Cincinnati, hike to one terminus, hop a bus to the other end of the trail, and then walk back to Cincinnati.RESOURCESNorth Country Trail Association, 888-454-6282; www.northcountrytrail.org
PACIFIC NORTHWEST TRAILTHE TRAIL1,200 miles, from Glacier National Park in Montana to the Pacific Ocean on the Olympic Peninsula, just south of the Canadian border. Hiking time: three months. Through-hikers to date: 24.USERSHikers; on some sections, bikers and horseback ridersTHE BIG PICTUREHugging the northern borders of Montana, Idaho, and Washington, the PNT (completed in 2000) passes through impressively diverse terrain: mountains in all three states (the Rockies, Purcells, Cascades, and Olympics), high desert in eastern Washington, rainforest and rocky seashore on the Olympic Peninsula.THE ECSTASYThe final stretch from Goodman Creek to Cape Alava, Washington: flat trail, crashing surf, and Pacific sunsets that'll make you forget every blister you ever had.THE AGONYYou're gonna get wet. Expect snow in Glacier, thunderstorms in the Cascades, and seemingly endless rain west of the mountains.STRATEGIESStart the trek from Glacier in Juneâ€”it's too snowy to begin any soonerâ€”and stroll along with the summer.RESOURCESPacific Northwest Trail Association, 877-854-9415; www.pnt.org
TRANS CANADA TRAILTHE TRAIL10,718 miles when finished, from Newfoundland on the Atlantic to Vancouver on the Pacific, and then north to the Arctic Ocean, crossing every province and territory in Canada. Hiking time: at least a couple of years. Through-hikers to date: none.USERSHikers; bikers; skiers; on some sections, horseback riders and snowmobilersTHE BIG PICTURECanadian visionaries have created a longer version of the American Discovery Trail. Way longer. Now about 50 percent official, it's due for completion in 2005. Through-hiking would require a superhuman constitution, independent means, and supreme knowledge of Arctic and subarctic environs. A skewed perception of reality probably wouldn't hurt, either.THE ECSTASYTrekking for days on end without seeing another soul (or even a sign of civilization) above the Arctic Circle in the Yukon Territory. Just you, the caribou, and the stars.THE AGONYYou're 500 miles into the hikeâ€”somewhere on Newfoundland's southwest coastâ€”and realize that you have 10,218 miles to go.STRATEGIESRather than tackling the trail all at once, try hiking a section each summer for, oh, the next decade or soâ€”not a true through-hike, but you'll have bragging rights all the same.RESOURCESThe Trans Canada Trail Foundation, 800-465-3636; www.tctrail.ca