The Best Section Hikes on the AT, CDT, and PCT
The 2,190-mile Appalachian Trail, 2,650-mile Pacific Crest Trail, and 3,100-mile Continental Divide Trail are collectively known as the “Triple Crown,” America’s trio of epic long-distance trails. Each year, thousands of hikers set out to thru-hike one of these trails in their entirety. While thru-hiking might be the eventual goal, it’s not logistically possible for most hikers to leave work and family for six months.
Luckily, these trails have beautiful sections that can be hiked in anything from a weekend jaunt to a month-long trip or more. The AT is the most traveled of the trails, and the simplest in terms of access. The PCT is next on the list, and the remote CDT is the wildest, making access to certain sections more difficult. Here’s our list of some of the best segment hikes that let you experience the beauty of these trails, but without committing months of your life.
Great Smoky Mountains National Park, North Carolina/Tennessee
Distance: 77 miles Difficulty: Strenuous Time allotment: 5-7 days
One of the highlights of the southern half of the Appalachian Trail, the “Smokies” offer rugged peaks, mossy forests, and photo-op overlooks around every bend. This section boasts many features, not least among them 6,644-foot Clingmans Dome, the tallest point on the entire Appalachian Trail. This is a favorite stretch of trail, and shelter reservations are required. Despite the southern location, spring comes late to the Smokies, and snowstorms can blow in until mid-spring. Find more details here.
Mau-Har Loop, Virginia
Distance: 14 miles Difficulty: Strenuous Time allotment: 1-2 days
Don’t be fooled by the mileage—this is one of the tougher sections of the AT in Virginia. Expect nearly 7,000 feet of climbing as you complete this lollipop-shaped route that travels through the Three Ridges Wilderness in the George Washington and Jefferson National Forests southwest of Charlottesville. But you’ll be rewarded with incredible views, including Hanging Rock Vista on Bee Mountain, the Flat Rock Vista, and Chimney Rocks Vista. In addition to those panoramic highlights, you’ll enjoy 40-foot waterfalls and classic swimming holes. This hike can be done in a very strenuous day, but it’s probably best to take your time and take the weekend. Find more details here.
Delaware Water Gap, Pennsylvania/New Jersey
Distance: 28 miles Difficulty: Easy Time allotment: 2-3 days
The Delaware Water Gap National Recreation Area straddles the border between Pennsylvania and New Jersey, less than a two-hour drive from both New York City and Philadelphia. The AT runs 28 miles through this scenic reserve, taking hikers along the Kittatinny Ridge with excellent views of the Delaware River below. The area is filled with spur trails that will allow you to cater the mileage to your needs. It’s also home to a large number of waterfalls, making this an excellent option in the spring and early summer. Find more details here.
Mt. Moosilauke, New Hampshire
Distance: 8 miles Difficulty: Moderate Time allotment: 4-6 hours
The Appalachian Trail crosses right over the summit of this popular bald peak, from the Beaver Brook Trail on one side to the Glencliff Trail on the other. The Beaver Brook Trail is slippery and steep, with serious fall consequences, while the Glencliff Trail provides steady climbing without the significant risk factors. Hikers can cross the peak and experience both trails, or do an out-and-back on either one. Moosilauke is a classic New Hampshire lung-buster, but the views of the White Mountains, plentiful wildflowers, and a photo with the famous orange sign at the summit are worth the effort. Find more details here.
100-Mile Wilderness, Maine
Distance: 100 miles Difficulty: Moderate Time allotment: 6-9 days
This stunning section is the very final stretch to the Appalachian Trail’s Northern Terminus at Mt. Katahdin. While northbound thru-hikers will hike this end-to-end in four days, section hikers will want to take their time. This remote trail section cruises through dense forest, past quiet ponds, and over the tops of peaks with lakes and trees stretching as far as the eye can see. Savvy hikers will spy the distinct hump of Katahdin looming in the distance. This section is a favorite of Appalachian Trail thru-hikers, but it does require a permit to camp in Baxter State Park. Find more details here.
Pacific Crest Trail
Rae Lakes Loop, Kings Canyon National Park
Distance: 37 miles Difficulty: Moderate Time allotment: 3-4 days
While pretty much anything in the Sierra will be an unforgettable experience, this weekend loop is ideal for hikers who want some of the best the Sierra has to offer. Get ready for glacial lakes, mist-shrouded peaks, and ridgelines that look straight from a fantasy. The beauty of this hike means it is wildly popular, and reservations for backcountry sites are recommended. This loop can be hiked at distances from 26 miles to 41 miles, but this route is a good middle ground.
Yosemite’s Tuolumne Meadows to McCabe Lakes, California
Distance: 27 miles Difficulty: Moderate Time allotment: 2-3 days
Yes, Yosemite National Park is known as being crowded, but there’s a reason for that—it’s one of the most beautiful places in the country. Hikers are rewarded no matter where they go in the park. The 211-mile John Muir section of the PCT is the famous route from Yosemite to the peak of Mt. Whitney, but a more manageable option stays in the park and starts in the Tuolumne Meadows, the largest subalpine meadows in the Sierra Nevadas. A trek to the three McCabe Lakes is a manageable weekend hike that has features incredible views of the surrounding peaks in addition to the sparkling lakes and abundant wildlife. Find more details here.
Belden to Old Station, Northern California
Distance: 88 miles
Difficulty: Moderate, with some strenuous sections Time allotment: 5-7 days
The Sierra might get the glory in the PCT through California, but Northern California isn’t to be ignored. This section passes through Lassen Volcanic National Park, where hikers will see volcanoes, geysers, and other thermal features while ticking another national park off the bucket list. This section also passes the halfway point of the PCT, and Drakesbad Guest Ranch, a must-stop for section hikers and thru-hikers alike. The ranch is a good stopping point (63 miles) if you don’t feel like doing the entire section. Find more details here.
Sky Lakes Wilderness, Oregon
Distance: 28.7 miles Difficulty: moderate Time allotment: 2-3 days
This section of the PCT in Oregon is south of Crater Lake National Park, and it takes full advantage of the unique topography of the Cascades. You’ll be rewarded with pristine glacial lakes as well as views of the 9,495-foot Mt. McLoughlin. Hikers wanting to explore the mountain even further can take the spur trail to the summit and enjoy unparalleled views of southern Oregon and surrounding volcanoes. Your window for this hike is narrow, however, as snow can remain on the trail in June. July and August are generally the best time to visit. Find more details here.
Crown Point, Washington
Distance: 7.5 miles
Difficulty: Moderate Time allotment: 2-4 hours
The Norse Peak Wilderness provides the main backdrop to this scenic day hike, but the views are all around. Hikers will get an epic view of Mt. Rainier, see wildflowers blooming on all sides, and enjoy a snack break on the ridge with a good chance of spying an elk or two. The trail climbs significantly up the ridge, but the distance is short, and the views will distract you from the workout. Find more details here.
Continental Divide Trail
San Pedro Parks Wilderness, New Mexico
Distance: 8 miles Difficulty: Easy, with some moderate sections Time Allotment: 3-5 hours
Located east of Cuba, New Mexico, this wildflower-studded loop hike is a perfect family-friendly outing. This hike can be done by linking together the Las Vacas, Los Pinos, and Anastacio trails, but the wilderness area spans more than 40,000 acres, so the options for hikes on the CDT and other trails sections abound for hikers of all fitness levels. Find more details here.
Cataract Lake, Colorado
Distance: 13 miles
Difficulty: Moderate, with some strenuous sections Time allotment: 5-7 hours
This section overlaps with the Colorado Trail, which means it is nicely maintained, moderately trafficked, and well signed. Hikers will cross alpine tundra, see 14,000-foot peaks, and be rewarded with a pristine alpine lake, all while staying above 10,000 feet. Be prepared—this trail hits 12,000 feet right around Cataract Basin. Find more details here.
Weminuche Wilderness, Colorado
Distance: 25 miles Difficulty: strenuous Time allotment: 2-3 days
The remote section of trail in Colorado’s Weminuche Wilderness isn’t for the faint of heart: For more than 70 miles through the wilderness, the trail doesn’t dip below 11,000 feet. But for those who like a challenge, a 25-mile loop hike featuring the Knife Edge is an incredibly memorable journey. The quarter-mile-long shelf features a sheer drop down nearly half a mile (although unlike other similarly named ridges in Colorado, this one is generally hikeable without scrambling). You’ll summit several 12,000-foot peaks, as you’re surrounded by the more than a dozen 14,000 peaks in the San Juan Mountains. Access to the trail is from Pagosa Springs, Colorado, and you can find out more details here.
Chinese Wall, Montana
Distance: 65 miles Difficulty: Strenuous Time allotment: 4-6 days
Hiking to this amazing natural feature is a Montana must-do. The Chinese Wall is a 1,000-foot tall limestone cliff that stretches for over 10 miles through the Bob Marshall Wilderness. Hikers will experience the splendor of Montana’s backcountry through lush forests, over high mountain passes, and get to camp near sparkling alpine lakes. This hike can be done a variety of ways—details on the 65-mile, 6-day version are here.
Triple Divide Pass, Montana
Distance: 19 miles Difficulty: Moderate Time allotment: 1-2 days
Located in the eastern section of Glacier National Park, the Triple Divide Pass is a unique quirk of geography—from its slopes, water drains to the Pacific, Atlantic, and Arctic oceans. That bit of trivia aside, the area is a breathtaking mix of what draws people to Glacier, including rugged mountains, glacier lakes, wildflower-filled meadows, and a wide variety of wildlife. Find more details are here.
Written by RootsRated Media for Gregory Mountain Products.