As it winds from Texas’ Guadalupe Mountains National Park up to Canada’s Grassland National Park, the 2,200-mile Great Plains Trail brings the rugged reality of an oft-stereotyped region into clear view.
“It’s not cornfields,” explains Luke “Strider” Jordan, the only person known to have thru-hiked the trail, which cuts across unmapped canyons and springs, forested ridges, vast desert, and abandoned outposts and ghost towns.
Traversing six national parks and monuments, 10 national forests and grasslands, five state high points, and 15 state parks, the Great Plains Trail (GPT) is not for the faint of heart. It requires map-reading skills and serious stamina over long, sunny stretches, often on backcountry roads—which connect public lands.
“In most cases,” says Jordan, “there are no markers at all; sometimes there are no road signs.” Hikers must study maps and have reliable GPS. “It takes a lot of planning. If you don’t prepare, you can expect to get lost.”
This begs the question: Is the Great Plains Trail—a path 10 miles longer than Appalachian National Scenic Trail, the longest hiking-only footpath in the world—even a trail at all? The answer is yes, but it’s still in its infancy. In many areas, the route represents ambitious planning more than traditional pathways. As it stands now, this network of long-standing trails and existing roadway is easier to imagine than it is to navigate.
This lack of accessibility moved the Great Plains Trail Alliance, a nonprofit founded in 2012, to focus its efforts on one 350-mile stretch. The Pilot Trail, winding from South Dakota’s Bear Butte State Park to Nebraska’s Scotts Bluff National Monument, is currently the most developed, planned-out section of the GPT, with segments ranging from 11 to 40 miles.
(This is one of the last remnants of the American prairie.)
Hiking just one section would be a worthwhile feat and an up-close education in America’s lesser-known public lands.
“The Great Plains must be witnessed in person,” says Steve Myers, founder of the Alliance. “The trail is there to provide that opportunity. It’s for hikers who want a touchstone to something bigger.”
The impact of more trails
The United States has a dense web of established long-distance regional trails, but the GPT (along with its Pilot Trail) marks a first for the country’s Great Plains, bringing opportunity to a region often overlooked by outdoor enthusiasts.
“Trails allow many of the most common recreation activities to exist,” says Mike Passo, executive director of American Trails, a U.S. nonprofit that works on trail and greenway development. “With the presence of more trails, more people from all walks of life are getting outside.” He adds that trails create more attractive, safer communities, increase property values and tax revenues, and connect assets, people, and places.
(Why America’s National Scenic Trails matter more than ever.)
Additional trails could also mean greater sustainability for all trails, as some of America’s most beloved treks suffer from overuse and mismanagement. The number of northbound thru-hikers on the Appalachian Trail has been climbing by roughly 10 percent each year since 2010; in just six years, permits for the Pacific Crest Trail increased over 400 percent. Developing new offerings like the Great Plains Trail could help alleviate the surge of travelers eager to get outdoors, provide recreational alternatives to locals, and introduce hikers—and their wallets—to different communities and ecosystems.
Hiking the Pilot Trail
The Pilot Trail begins atop South Dakota’s Bear Butte, or Mato Paha in Lakota. Ribbons of fabric and tobacco bundles hang from the trees reminding hikers this is sacred Indigenous land. From the butte’s summit, bison-skull markers—reliable until they’re not—guide south-chasing backpackers through miles of the state’s ponderosa pine forests and chuckling creeks before leading to Custer State Park and Wind Cave National Park, one of the longest and most intricate cave mazes in the country.
(Here’s why South Dakota is the “undisputed queen of maze caves.”)
The GPT then meanders across mini canyons and open ranchlands, leading to old railroad towns and the occasional cistern for the parched and weary. As the trail winds further southward into Nebraska, vistas get longer and lonelier before reaching the forested buttes of Pine Ridge National Recreation Area and the rugged badlands of Scotts Bluff National Monument.
“The trail is for hikers who want a genuine adventure,” says Myers, “that many others will have a hard time grasping.” So far only two individuals are known to have thru-hiked the Pilot Trail since its 2016 debut.
Along the way, there are a lot of road walks, too. Currently, these connectors make up 80 percent of the trail. They’re “especially enjoyable” around Scotts Bluff, the southern terminus of the Pilot Trail, says Jordan. The vast majority of the GPT’s road walks are unpaved, backcountry roads that see “fewer than 10 cars, maybe, a day,” he adds. Although hardly ideal, they maintain one of the best qualities any good hiking trail can offer: serenity. For safety’s sake, Jordan says it’s a good idea to hike the trail with a partner or in a small group.
Beyond the Pilot Trail, several segments keep hikers’ eyes, minds, and feet especially busy. The 9,000-foot summit of Guadalupe Mountain in Guadalupe Mountains National Park—a 3,000-foot trek up above the Texas desert—leads to incomparable views of the world’s most extensive Permian fossil reef.
The 144-mile Maah Daah Hey Trail through North Dakota’s Theodore Roosevelt National Park and Little Missouri National Grassland surprises trekkers with open plateaus, soaring peaks, and verdant valleys. Black Mesa Trail, Oklahoma’s highest point, spans several prairies, canyons, and volcanic tablelands at just shy of 5,000 feet, before spilling over the New Mexico state line.
(This New York State rail trail isn’t just epic—it’s also accessible.)
There’s no shortage of wildlife on the trail. “Cattle is definitely a thing,” Jordan says, noting that the bossy bovines “can crowd you.” Dogs, coyotes, ticks, and the occasional rattlesnake or mountain lion are other creatures to look out for during the trek. Hikers may also spot a number of pronghorn antelope, elk, mule and whitetail deer, prairie dogs, bighorn sheep, and the 2,000-pound icon of the Great Plains, the American bison.
Could the Great Plains Trail become America’s next great long-distance trail? “The eventual goal is 100 percent trail. That could be 100 years from now, but it’ll get there,” Jordan says. For now, the trail remains a route, a promise of both adventure and future conservation.
“Even if everything gets plowed under, there will be this ribbon of native prairie through the Great Plains. That will be the trail,” he says.
Jacqueline Kehoe is a freelance writer and photographer from the Midwest. Find her on Instagram.
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