Geography in the News: America’s Hiking Trails

By Neal Lineback and Mandy Lineback Gritzner, Geography in the NewsTM

Three National Scenic Hiking Trails

In the fall of each year, many long-distance hikers are finishing up their hikes for the year as winter approaches, while others are making plans to begin their odesseys the following spring. While many yearn to attempt long-distance hikes, most seldom complete their journeys. Even among those who do complete their dream, only a very few attempt to set records on their journey.

In 2007, Francis Tapon became the first person to “yo-yo” the Continental Divide Trail—that is, hike from one end of the trail in New Mexico all the way to Canada and back. Thru-hikers, those hikers who hike the entire length of one of the United States’ National Scenic Trails, are actually a relatively small group of people with plenty of determination and stamina.

The National Park Service (NPS) administers three types of national trails. According to the NPS website, National Scenic Trails are 100 miles (161 km) or more in length, continuous and largely non-motorized. They offer incredible natural beauty and exceptional recreation possibilities, as well as a measure of isolation.

National Historic Trails, on the other hand, commemorate historic (and even prehistoric) travel routes that are significant to the entire country. Only Congress can designate National Scenic Trails and National Historic Trails.The third type of national trail is a National Recreational Trail. These are shorter in length than the other two and are mostly regional and local trails. Either the U.S. Secretary of Agriculture or U.S. Secretary of the Interior can recognize this type of trail.

Of the 11 National Scenic Trails, the three oldest are probably the most well known. When Congress passed the National Trails System Act in 1968, it also designated the Appalachian Trail (AT) and the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT). The Continental Divide Trail (CDT) was designated in 1978.

gitn_1072_NGS American Trails

The Continental Divide Trail, the one Tapon hiked in his round-trip adventure, is also called the “King of Trails.” More challenging and primitive than either the PCT or the AT, the CDT’s paths are not well designated.  Its signage is sparse and even nonexistent in places. A person hiking the CDT often must rely on a good sense of direction, the old-fashioned compass and topographic maps or a newer technology, a global positioning system (GPS) unit.

For a person thru hiking the CDT, the test is formidable, both physically and mentally. According to Ashley M. Biggers’ article on Francis Tapon (New Mexico Magazine, Mar. ’08), although no official registry exists, the Continental Divide Trail Alliance estimates that of the 50 to 100 people who attempt border-to-border thru-hikes in a season, roughly half finish.

Thru-hikers attempting the CDT encounter difficult conditions and extreme microclimates throughout the journey. In Montana and Colorado, they try to avoid the snow, which can occur even in mid-summer in the higher elevations. In New Mexico, the extreme heat poses its own problems and sometimes forces backpackers to hike at night.

The Continental Divide itself is the mostly mountainous hydrological backbone of the North and South American continents, stretching from Cape Prince of Wales, Alaska, at the Bering Strait to Tierra del Fuego in Patagonia, Argentina. The Divide literally separates the waters that flow westward to the Pacific Ocean from those that flow eastward to the Atlantic Ocean. The CDT attempts to follow the Continental Divide throughout its length in the United States between Mexico and Canada.

The ultimate vision for the CDT is a continuous 3,100- mile-long trail, passing through New Mexico, Colorado, Wyoming, Idaho and Montana. About 70 percent of those miles are actually marked and usable. Much of the trail remains undeveloped and hikers often find themselves hiking on old logging roads or “bushwhacking” (hiking cross-country on unmarked routes) to continue their journeys.

The Continental Divide Trail Alliance (a nonprofit advocacy group), along with other federal and state agencies, is working hard to finish and maintain the CDT. According to Biggers, the groups try to keep the trail close to the Continental Divide and water sources, while avoiding private land. Another goal is to maintain a scenic off-road wilderness experience for hikers. Of course, funding for the project is a major limiting factor to the trail’s completion. Perhaps surprisingly, it can cost up to $13,000 to clear and mark a single mile of trail in difficult terrain.

A thru-hike of one of the United States’ long distance trails is a lengthy and arduous journey. For example, it can take five to seven months for a thru-hiker to finish the 2,100 miles (3,380 km) of the Appalachian Trail. While more than 1,000 hikers attempt the AT every year, only about 20 percent finish.

In comparison, Tapon, a seasoned hiker who had already completed both the AT and the PCT by 2010, claimed to have completed his yo-yo journey of approximately 5,600-miles on the CDT in just less than seven months. Such extreme dedication and stamina are uncommon even among the most dedicated long-distance hikers.

Completion of any of the three major National Scenic Trails is an experience of a lifetime.

And that is Geography in the NewsTM.

Sources: GITN 1072 National Scenic Hiking Trails, Dec. 17, 2010; Biggers, Ashley M., “There & Back Again,” New Mexico Magazine, Mar. ‘08; ; and

Co-authors are Neal Lineback, Appalachian State University Professor Emeritus of Geography, and Geographer Mandy Lineback Gritzner. University News Director Jane Nicholson serves as technical editor. Geography in the NewsTM  is solely owned and operated by Neal Lineback for the purpose of providing geographic education to readers worldwide.



Neal Lineback has written weekly Geography in the News (GITN) articles for more than 25 years (1,200 published articles) while he was Chair of Geography and Planning at Appalachian State University and since. In 2007, he brought his daughter Mandy Gritzner in as a co-author. She is also a geographer with a graduate degree from Montana State University. GITN has won national recognition and numerous awards from the Association of American Geographers, the National Council for Geographic Education and Travelocity, among others..