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America’s neglected hiking trails are more popular than ever—but they’re struggling

Our great walking paths deal with problems from climate change to lack of maintenance. Here’s how we can save them.

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Magdalena Balazova looks out over a valley near the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT) in Yosemite National Park, California.

This story appears in the October 2020 issue of National Geographic magazine.

My summer place is priceless: Not even Jeff Bezos or Bill Gates could buy it today. It sits on the slopes of Mount Hood in Oregon, near the Pacific Crest Trail. It’s at timberline, where stunted trees give way to delicate alpine meadows bursting with flowers. A glacier-fed creek serenades me as I sleep at night.

I’ve been visiting my summer place since I was 14. Most of the year it’s covered in deep snow, but even in winter it reassures me from a distance. If I have trouble sleeping, I conjure the scene, and nature lulls me.

Fortunately it’s in my family, and I hope my unborn grandchildren will one day play in the brook as well. Yet, while it’s in my family, it’s also in yours. It’s my land and your land. It’s public land, part of a wilderness called Paradise Park.

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Keifer Edelmayer eats dinner alongside Chips Creek in Lassen National Forest in Northern California.

It lies near a trail built around Mount Hood in the 1930s during the depths of the Great Depression by the Civilian Conservation Corps. It was eventually stitched into the Pacific Crest Trail.

Even when we were a much poorer nation, we were able to allocate resources to make this wilderness accessible. Yet today, as one of the richest countries in the world, we find ourselves unable to maintain these trails properly.

Trails are in danger for interrelated reasons, including climate change, fire, and lack of financing. We not only have failed to protect our inheritance but it sometimes seems as if we’re squandering it. “So many of them have disappeared,” says Barney Scout Mann, arguably the dean of America’s long-distance trails, as well as author of Journeys North, about his Pacific Crest Trail thru-hike. Mann, president of the board of the trails advocacy group Partnership for the National Trails System, has been hiking since the 1960s and recalls secondary trails that were never maintained and so returned to wilderness. “Trails are a choice,” says Mann. “If we don’t use them, they disappear.”

I became acquainted with backpacking when I was about six years old and my dad took my mom and me on the first of many hunting trips in pursuit of wild boar. The wild boar were never imperiled, but I was hooked on the wilderness.

Then, in 1970, a 120-pound teenager named Eric Ryback reported that he had hiked the entire Pacific Crest Trail, which runs from Mexico to Canada. I devoured a National Geographic story about the trail and about Ryback’s journey, as well as the best-selling book that he wrote. I was a farm boy in rural Oregon, about two hours from the trail, and I wanted to be Ryback. The next year I used my berry-picking earnings to buy a $19.99 backpack and set out to hike the Pacific Crest Trail. I’ve not stopped hiking since.

Ryback helped launch the first wave of interest in America’s long trails, and then Bill Bryson and especially Cheryl Strayed started second and third waves when their books appeared about the Appalachian and Pacific Crest Trails. People now come from all over the world to hike America’s long trails.

For my own family, these trails have been a rich part of life. Some kids have summer camp, and some families have beach vacations; my family had trails. My wife and I discovered that while our three kids squabbled on road trips, hiking left them too exhausted to bicker. We packed our youngest, Caroline, along on her first backpacking trip when she was just one year old, and her passion for hiking has grown over the years. When she was 14, in 2012, she and I began to hike the whole Pacific Crest Trail, 200 or 300 miles at a time, finishing six years later.

We tangled with rattlesnakes and dehydration in the Southern California desert near the Mexican border, with altitude sickness and snow blindness in the California Sierra range, with mammoth snows that forced us to go off-trail in Oregon, and with torrential rains and freezing cold in northern Washington. Caroline is a plucky girl who never complains, so I knew there was a problem one morning in Washington as we marched through an icy drizzle. “Dad,” Caroline began, as if she were asking a purely academic question, “how do you know when you have hypothermia?”

A trail culture has emerged, with its own vocabulary and nomenclature. Hikers have trail names: I’m “Scribbler,” because I’m a writer, while Caroline is “Tumbler,” because she was a gymnast and still does handstands on any cliff edge appropriate for scaring her parents. “PUDs” is short for “pointless ups and downs,” as when a trail sends exhausted hikers up over a hill rather than around it. And “trail angels” are people who show up to bring cold drinks or hot pizza where a road intersects the trail.

Trails offer an antidote to our postindustrial complacency and materialism. Spinoza, the great 17th-century Dutch philosopher, argued that nature and its laws constitute God, and you understand Spinoza perfectly with the view at sunset on a mountain pass. Trails are the cathedrals of the wild, leaving us both awed and humbled before a presence larger than ourselves.

That yearning for trails seemed magnified in a time of plague. For Americans cooped up indoors in the spring of 2020 because of the coronavirus, fearful for jobs and lives, the endless expanse of the outdoors was like a beacon for the soul—yet many parks were closed and thru-hikers were told to go home (not all obeyed). The virus perhaps reinforces the craving to find our own Walden Pond and gain perspective on a tumultuous world.

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Some thru-hikers from the Pacific Crest Trail choose to climb 14,505-foot Mount Whitney, the highest point in the contiguous United States, in June 2019. The climb begins eight miles from the trail.

When Tumbler and I were discussing hypothermia in Washington, a woman named Heather Anderson was setting a record by finishing the entire Pacific Crest Trail in 60 days. That’s an average of 44 miles a day over extraordinarily rugged terrain.

As a child, Anderson hated exercise. But then she heard about the Appalachian Trail and was enchanted.

“This concept that there was an actual footpath where you could walk thousands of miles, just really struck a chord,” she says. “I didn’t know anything about hiking.”

Anderson eventually became the first woman to hike all three long trails within one year: the Appalachian Trail, 2,190 miles, running from Georgia to Maine; the Pacific Crest Trail, 2,650 miles; and the Continental Divide Trail, the 3,100-mile king of trails running down the spine of the Rockies.

If you’re hiking north on the Continental Divide Trail and spit to your left, the molecules may end up in the Pacific Ocean. Spit to your right, and they may end up in the Atlantic Ocean. But if you spend too much time thinking about that, you might walk off a cliff.

Hiking America

The combined length of the Pacific Crest, Continental Divide, and Appalachian National Scenic Trails is about 7,900 miles. More than 400 people have completed all three, an accomplishment known as the Triple Crown of Hiking. The Pacific Northwest Trail is one of the U.S.’s newest National Scenic Trails (N.S.T).

PACIFIC

NORTHWEST

N.S.T.

APPALACHIAN

N.S.T.

UNITED

STATES

Pacific

Crest

N.S.T.

Continental

Divide N.S.T.

MEX.

600 mi

600 km

CHRISTINE FELLENZ, NGM STAFF. SOURCES: NATIONAL PARK SERVICE; AMERICAN LONG-DISTANCE HIKING ASSOCIATION–WEST

Hiking America

The combined length of the Pacific Crest, Continental Divide, and Appalachian National Scenic Trails is about 7,900 miles. More than 400 people have completed all three, an accomplishment known as the Triple Crown of Hiking. The Pacific Northwest Trail is one of the U.S.’s newest National Scenic Trails.

PACIFIC NORTHWEST

National scenic trail

Wash.

MontANA

Mt. Hood

Maine

YELLOWSTONE

NATIONAL PARK

Vt.

OreGON

N.H.

Idaho

Mass.

CAstle Crags

Wilderness

N.Y.

GRAND TETON N.P.

Wyo.

Conn.

Pa.

UNITED

STATES

L. Tahoe

N.J.

Md.

YOSEMITE N.P.

Calif.

W.

Va.

Mt. Whitney

Colo.

APPALACHIAN

National

Scenic Trail

Va.

Continental

Divide National

Scenic Trail

Pacific Crest

National

Scenic Trail

N.C.

Tenn.

N. MEX.

MEXICO

GEORGIA

300 mi

300 km

CHRISTINE FELLENZ, NGM STAFF

SOURCES: NATIONAL PARK SERVICE; AMERICAN LONG-DISTANCE HIKING ASSOCIATION–WEST

The number of thru-hikers, those who complete a trail in one go, has soared. No one tracks exact figures, but trail monitors estimate that in the 1990s, about 150 people set out to thru-hike the Pacific Crest Trail each year; now, almost 5,000 do. Likewise, for the Appalachian Trail, the figure has risen in that period from perhaps 1,500 a year to 4,000, and the Continental Divide Trail has surged from an estimated 10 a year to about 500.

Thru-hikers draw attention and jealousy, but they make up far less than one percent of trail users. Most are day hikers, weekend warriors, or section hikers, and all are an evolving crowd. When I began distance hiking as a teenager, the trails were mostly a domain of white men—people like me. But women such as Anderson are now everywhere on the trails. Strayed’s book Wild attracted throngs of young women—some, like Strayed, seeking to find themselves by losing themselves in the wilderness.

As Strayed told me: “I lost six toenails over the course of my 94-day hike on the Pacific Crest Trail, but I gained everything that matters.”

Numbers of hikers have soared in part because technology and lighter gear have made the wilderness more accessible. To be sure, the 50-year-old National Geographic article about the Pacific Crest Trail made a similar observation, noting wonderingly that a “nylon tent added only 3½ pounds” to a pack’s weight. To put that in perspective, for shelter I now use a Zpacks tarp that weighs 7.4 ounces. (I realize that in another 50 years, some National Geographic writer will boast that her tarp has helium pouches that make it weightless.)

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The Pacific Crest Trail provides access to the Castle Crags Wilderness area in Northern California, where Micah Bettinger leads climbing groups up the granite eastern face of 5,400-foot Mount Hubris, known as the Cosmic Wall.

In a time of inequality, trails equalize us. Obviously it costs money to buy gear and food, but there are typically no access fees for backpackers. Car campers may pay, but hikers just spread out a groundsheet and a sleeping bag, and the spot is theirs; only a bear can pull rank.

Hikers likewise are economically diverse: Construction workers mingle with surgeons. There is no class divide on the trails, no wealth or poverty—just PUDs that humble us all.

However, there is a lack of racial and ethnic diversity. Typically there have been few Black and brown hikers, although their numbers are slowly increasing, partly through the efforts of nonprofits such as Outdoor Afro that are connecting African Americans to the outdoors.

“It was really scary,” Will Robinson, the first African-American man to hike all three long trails, says of his first venture out. “You don’t know if people are going to say, ‘hey, you’re welcome here, we’ve got your back.’ Or are they going to look at you like you’re an outsider with no business here? You constantly think about that.”

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Elsye Walker, seen here on the Pacific Crest Trail in Oregon, is the first African American to complete all three major long-distance trails.

Elsye Walker, the first African American to complete the big three trails, says she had been warned about white supremacists in Idaho but loved her hike through the state on the Continental Divide Trail.

“The people there were amazingly friendly,” she recalls. Her trail experiences left her thinking that the mental geography that divides America into red and blue states misses something about goodwill that transcends politics.

“There were so many people who just randomly picked you up and took you into their houses and fed you,” she says. “My love for America did grow.”

The hiking community is particularly short of Native Americans, even though the trails cut through their ancestral lands.

“These lands were stolen from Native peoples’ ancestors,” says Amanda Wheelock of the Continental Divide Trail Coalition. “Every single mile is ancestral homeland to at least one tribe. That’s something that the National Trail System in general doesn’t always do a great job of talking about and thinking about in our management decisions, and that’s something that the CDT is working on—and we’re really bad at. We’re trying to get better.”

Environmentalists should try harder, I believe, not just to protect wilderness but also to usher people into it, in nondestructive ways. Partly that’s to make the hiking community more diverse, partly to ensure that young people reared on screens get the chance to be stung by a bee, and partly to ensure that there is a long-term constituency for the outdoors.

We need to build that constituency because, frankly, trails haven’t done well on our watch. They’re struggling.

Overall, trail length in America has continued to increase, despite the lost trails, but many are in disastrous shape, and the long-distance paths are sustained in part with volunteer labor. Some one million trail maintenance hours are donated each year to clear fallen trees and remove brush.

But this isn’t enough. The Continental Divide Trail is still unfinished, with long sections of the route following roadways, and the same is true of the next major trail I plan to tackle: the Pacific Northwest Trail, which runs from Montana through Idaho and Washington State to the Pacific Ocean. Volunteers can clear a fallen tree, but they can’t survey a route and build the trail.

The lack of maintenance that is perhaps most infuriating is the failure to maintain drainage channels at regular intervals. Without them, rain turns a trail into a creek.

Once in central Oregon, Tumbler and I were hiking up a steep creekside trail during a tremendous downpour and we couldn’t tell whether it was the creek we were walking in or the trail: There were simply two creeks side by side. After such erosion, the trail becomes rocky, so backpackers hike along the side of it. Soon multiple paths scar the wilderness.

Why aren’t trails better maintained? How is it that Franklin Roosevelt’s impoverished America could carve great trails from the wilderness and today’s affluent America can’t even manage basic upkeep?

“The Forest Service budgets were eaten up by firefighting,” says Tom Vilsack, who, as President Barack Obama’s secretary of agriculture, oversaw the Forest Service. While the Forest Service has a new national trail strategy, it has trouble extracting adequate funding from Congress, and fires inevitably swallow up resources. One very hopeful sign: Congress in 2020 passed the Great American Outdoors Act, which provides billions of dollars for public land projects. It’s one of the most important pieces of legislation supporting public lands in decades.

The surge in fires is partly a consequence of climate change that has left forests drier. In addition, warming has empowered the bark beetle and allowed it to devastate coniferous forests from Alaska to Colorado. Anyone hiking the Pacific Crest or Continental Divide Trail will see huge expanses of forest that look like primeval woods unaffected by humans—except that they are brown and dead, another loss related to climate change. These dead forests become tinder.

The result is that fires are now a fact of trail life. As a young backpacker, I never thought about forest fires, but in the past dozen years I’ve encountered two forest fires close up. Another time, smoke was so bad that I wore a face mask while hiking.

There’s plenty of blame to go around for the plight of the trails. Mining, logging, and ranching interests seek to monetize public lands, diminishing the wilderness experience. Political leaders haven’t always shown the passion for protecting public lands that Teddy Roosevelt did. Climate change continues unimpeded.

Yet we hikers also have to look in the mirror, for all of us bear some responsibility. Most of us have been too busy hiking on trails to lobby adequately on their behalf. We’ve often been complacent about climate change. And backpackers and mountain bikers, instead of working together to preserve wilderness they all cherish, sometimes spend too much time feuding.

We also can’t blame anyone else for the ugliest blights on our trails: toilet paper messes, especially near campsites. A backpacker’s trowel for digging a cat hole weighs less than half an ounce and should be on every equipment list.

One can argue that our protected wildernesses are the real American exceptionalism. The world has many democracies, many countries have advanced technology, and some nations have longer life expectancy or higher per capita income. But no other major country has a network of long trails that can compete with America’s.

The way to understand Russia may be to take the Trans-Siberian Railway across the endless steppe. To see Australia, fly. In Venice, hop into a gondola. But to appreciate America, take a hike. These great trails are an only-in-America story. The loyalty they inspire among their alumni is reflected in the way that much of the maintenance is done by volunteer trail crews. That's not how we maintain interstate highways.

Our wild places put us in our place. They are, as the saying goes, “America’s best idea,” and we must become better stewards so that our children’s children’s children can also enjoy the opportunities to be savaged by mosquitoes or frightened by rattlesnakes—and be awestruck by the raw majesty of our natural world.

Nicholas Kristof is a backpacker, best-selling author, and op-ed columnist for the New York Times who has won two Pulitzer Prizes. His most recent book is Tightrope. Zachary Krahmer grew up in Oregon. This is his first feature for National Geographic. Additional reporting was done by Stephanie Pearson.