Best Section Hikes on the Appalachian and Pacific Crest Trails
“Skywalker, I’ve got two weeks off from work. What section would you recommend I do?” That is a question I am often asked. It’s a good one. The good news is that a person can do a lot in two weeks.
Probably the easiest part of the entire Appalachian Trail is Shenandoah National Park. It runs 100 miles through the lush green hills of northern Virginia. Wildlife (black bears, white-tailed deer) is plentiful, and the scenery is spectacular. The trail often crosses Skyline Drive. Yes, there are 1,000 foot climbs, but they are smoother than in most other parts of the trail. If a hiker has an ample budget (which section hikers often do), they can stay in the huts which dot the park. For a price of about $80, a hiker receives a bunk and meals.
The Appalachian Trail also runs through Great Smoky Mountain National Park, which is America’s most visited national park. This section is quite a bit more difficult than Shenandoah National Park. The climbs are steeper, longer, and go to higher elevations. Further, the hiker often faces greater extremes of weather, especially in the springtime. Tales are legion of hikers getting suddenly caught in rainstorms, snowstorms, and even hailstorms. Nonetheless, the views in the Smokies offer some of the greatest scenery in the East Coast. Clingman’s Dome (6,600 feet) is the highest point on the entire Appalachian Trail.
Perhaps the prettiest (and also the toughest!) part of the entire Appalachian Trail is the White Mountains in New Hampshire. This mountain range has the nation’s greatest network of hiking trails. Peaks such as Mount Moosilauke, Mount Washington, and the rugged Kinsman range are famous in hiking lore. Indeed, the Whites seem to have their own brand of rugged bleakness. Preparing with the right gear is absolutely essential, as hypothermia has visited many a hiker in this area. Nonetheless, the hiking and scenery are spectacular. Further, there are huts available–sometimes above tree line–for about $85 for a bunk and two meals.
The Pacific Crest Trail’s most renowned section is the so-called High Sierra. This section of the trail runs for 250 miles and reaches the very highest points on the entire American mainland. Hikers are required to carry bear canisters, for the protection of the bears as much as themselves. This section entails long stretches (often 8 days) without re-supply. The hiker can expect to camp above 10,000 feet for many days straight. A highlight in the High Sierras is Mount Whitney, which at 14,494 feet is the highest peak in the Lower 48. Rather than hike north on the Pacific Crest Trail, many section hikers prefer to do the John Muir Trail, which runs from Yosemite Valley south to Mount Whitney up Mount Whitney Portal. The views from the top are likely to be the most exhilarating most mortals have ever had the privilege to witness.
Another section of the Pacific Crest Trail that gets rave reviews is Oregon. The Pacific Crest Trail runs right around the rim of Crater Lake, the deepest lake in the United States. If the hiker continued north they could reach Timberline Lodge on Mount Hood within two weeks. The outdoor culture in Oregon is special, as everybody seems gung-ho on participating.
So yeah, thru-hiking is special. But that is far from the end of the story. Section hikers have many opportunities to distinguish themselves, and return back to work flush with excitement and tales.
Bill Walker is the author of Skywalker–Close Encounters on the Appalachian Trail (2008), as well as Skywalker–Highs and Lows on the Pacific Crest Trail (2010). He also recently wrote, The Best Way–El Camino de Santiago (2012). Walker, who is nearly 7-feet tall, is currently working on a whimsical book on the subject of height.