Looking for that next adventure? If you live on the U.S. east coast, you may not have to look much farther than right in your own backyard.
There is a hiking trail that travels through 16 states, beginning at the Big Cypress National Preserve in Ochopee, Florida, ending some 5,400-miles away in Cape Gaspe’, Canada. It’s a trail that isn’t a trail but rather, a combination of seven east coast long-distance hiking trails that together form the Eastern Continental Trail or ECT.
Only a few hearty souls have made the entire trek on what the Sierra Club calls “a beast of a hike,” but you don’t have to upend your life for a year to experience the beauty and wonder of the trail. Instead, take a day or overnight hike on one of the many trails that make up the ECT – the Florida Trail, Conecuh Trail in Alabama’s Conecuh National Forest, Alabama and Georgia’s Pinhoti Trail, Benton MacKaye Trail in Georgia, the iconic Appalachian Trail (A.T.), and the International Appalachian Trail.
To get you started, here are eight of the best hiking experiences – one for all levels of experience – you can take on the Eastern Continental Trail.
Les Graves — Gaspe’, Quebec, Canada
Take in the fresh sea breeze from the Gulf of St. Lawrence on this trek to “Land’s End,” the recognized end of the continental Appalachian Mountain range. This 5-mile out-and-back hike begins at the Forillon National Park parking area on Boulevard de Grande Greve and leads you through open fields overlooking the sea, where you may cross paths with porcupines or black bear before reaching the Cap-des-Roiers lighthouse perched 300-feet above the sea. Follow the trail down to the end of the Appalachians on the banks of the seaway.
Pack along plenty of water, snacks, and a lunch for this 5-hour hike. The best time to visit Forillon National Park is the fall shoulder season when the leaves of autumn burst into color, but be warned, it could be crowded. Visit the park website for the latest fee schedule.
Springer Mountain Loop — Dawsonville, Georgia
No hike on the Appalachian Trail would be complete without visiting where it all begins – Springer Mountain.
Springer Mountain has been the official southern terminus of the A.T. since 1961 and this 4.8-mile moderately difficult loop (846-foot elevation gain) will take you to a stunning view from the summit, where you can take a selfie with the bronze plaque that identifies the trail’s southern end.
The hike begins at the Springer Mountain parking lot on Forest Service Road 42 in the Chattahoochee National Forest. Not only does this loop hike use a portion of the A.T., but also a bit of the Benton MacKaye Trail where even more incredible views will be had.
What season should you hike to Springer? Take your pick. Fall is a great time when the Southern Appalachians roar to life with vibrant colors. Springtime is also a good time when the A.T. thru-hikers begin their 2,000-plus mile-long journey. It makes for great conversations.
Wilburn Ridge — Mouth of Wilson, Virginia
Those who hike Wilburn Ridge at Grayson Highlands State Park all say the same thing: It’s a magical wonderland. The spruce and rhododendron-lined trails — Rhododendron, Horse Trail North, and the A.T. — eventually open up, providing breathtaking panoramic views of the surrounding mountains and valleys.
Begin your hike at the Massie Gap parking area.
Bring along that windbreaker. It’s windy and cool on the bald ridges. There are some rock scrambles on this hike that may be unsuitable for dogs.
Blood Mountain — Hiawassee, Georgia
Stunning views reveal themselves around every bend on this hike to Georgia’s tallest summit, Blood Mountain. This is a difficult (400-foot elevation gain) but rewarding 4.3-mile out-and-back hike that begins at Neels Gap on the Byron Reese Trail in the Chattahoochee National Forest.
The trail meanders through a lush forest alongside the mossy banks of Shanty Creek until it reaches the white-blazed Appalachian Trail at Flat Rock Gap. Here you will follow the A.T. west 1.5-miles to the rocky summit of Blood Mountain for some incredible expansive views of the Southern Appalachians.
Bring along plenty of water for your hike and remember, if you use the creek alongside the trail as a water source, filter it before drinking. Park in the Byron Herbert Reece Trail parking area on US 19/129. Parking is free.
Skyway Loop — Talladega National Forest, Heflin, Alabama
A fun overnight hike awaits you in Alabama’s Talladega National Forest on the Skyway Loop. This moderate-to-difficult 17.3-mile hike has some rugged sections, like the climb up the “Stairway to Heaven” on the Pinhoti Trail, but the view at the top — and from several other outcroppings along the way — are breathtaking.
Oh, and did I mention there are a couple of spectacular waterfalls along the route? The tiered Cheaha Falls and the amazing Devils Den cascade is viewed from a wood and stone walkway high above before heading down to the creek itself, where the swimming is great.
Camping is permitted anywhere along the trail as long as you follow the National Forest Service’s dispersed camping rules. Water is plentiful throughout the hike, with many springs and creeks. Just remember to filter it before drinking. You will have to ford across the top of Cheaha Falls and cross Hubbard Creek on your journey. Both are prone to flash flooding so use extreme caution if the weather is threatening.
Fort Pickens Trail — Pensacola Beach, Florida
The orange-blazed 1,500-mile Florida Trail ends (or begins, depending on perspective) at the Fort Pickens unit of Gulf Islands National Seashore on Pensacola Beach. The seashore provides a multitude of activities for visitors, including biking, swimming, and camping while protecting many species of birds and wildlife. It also has some great hiking opportunities on the final section of the Florida Trail.
The main path here is the Fort Pickens Trail, a beautiful and easy 4-mile out-and-back hike that begins at Battery Langdon, a giant concrete structure that once housed one of the most powerful guns that protected the coastline during World War II, and ends at the fort that was completed in 1834. The massive stone structure was one of a series that were built following the War of 1812 to defend the U.S. Gulf Coast from foreign invaders and also played significant roles during the Civil War.
This section of the Florida Trail meanders westward through beautiful marshes replete with wooden footbridges, the water reflecting the deep blue Gulf Coast sky. The path is lined with thick mats of wild rosemary, prickly pear cactus, and Yaupon Holly with its bright red berries. Keep your eyes to the skies for osprey as you make your way to Fort Pickens itself.
Camping is available at Fort Pickens. Visit the Gulf Islands National Seashore website for the latest fee schedule.
North Loop Conecuh Trail — Andalusia, Alabama
The North Loop of the Conecuh Trail is a 13-mile section of the longer Conecuh Trail in the Conecuh National Forest. The path meanders in and out of open pine forest, passing beautiful and mysterious cypress swamps and ponds where a chorus of frogs serenade you at sunset.
The white-blazed trail is easy walking over a dirt and sand footpath lined with wildflowers in spring, and makes for either a nice full-day hike or an amazing overnight if you camp along the banks of Nellie Pond.
Hunting is allowed in the forest in the fall. Contact the ranger office for dates and any trail restrictions before heading out.
Mount Katahdin — Northeast Piscataquis, Maine
We’ve been to the southern terminus of the Appalachian Trail, now let’s visit the northern end at the craggy rock summit of Mount Katahdin on a hike that will make you feel like you’re in the Rockies.
This difficult 10.9-mile hike is for experienced hikers and definitely not for the faint of heart as it makes its way from the Roaring Brook Campground in Baxter State Park along the Helon Taylor Trail to the Knife Edge, an arête (glacial) land formation with a sharp peak. The trail along the Knife Edge is only 2-feet wide with precipitous rocky drops on either side. Those who are afraid of heights shouldn’t attempt hiking it.
From here, the trail steeply climbs up to the bald 5,266-foot summit of Mount Katahdin, where a wooden sign proudly proclaims the end of the Appalachian Trail.
Bring plenty of water and start your hike early. It’s a full-day hike and takes a while to finish it. You’ll want to have plenty of time to get back to the trailhead in daylight. The best time to hike the trail is from late spring to early fall. If hiking late fall or in winter, contact the park for trail conditions. The mountain may be closed due to snow and ice. Visit the park’s special hike planning page for tips.