Appalachian Landscape.

5 Short Thru Hikes for Big Adventure

5 Short Thru Hikes to Enjoy When Time is Tight

It started with the AT. Then, I discovered the PCT. Now, I want to hike the Triple Crown. But I’m a mom of three young kids in the throes of building a career. For now, thru-hiking shorter treks will have to suffice. 

Let’s chat about what a thru-hike is and toss around a few options for our next grand but must-rejoin-my-family-soon options!

What is a Thru Hike?

While it’s common to automatically think of trails that take months to hike, like the Continental Divide, the term is technically more inclusive than that. To thru-hike simply means to hike a trail from one end to the other. 

Of course, it’s also a rather contentious term. Backpackers may hold strong opinions on what counts. If you hike a loop trail that begins and ends in the same location, is that a thru-hike? Many would say yes. But what if it’s a short nature trail, and I did it in a few hours? Oh… now it’s not a thru-hike. Gotcha. 

So, distance makes a difference? 

PCT sierra views.

Great views along the Pacific Crest Trail

We’ll keep it simple here. This list of “thru-hikes” is for adventurers looking to sleep outside, pack in their food, and spend more than a single day on the trail. Distances range from 25 to 272 miles and include loops and out-and-backs. There’s even one gem at the end that doesn’t really have a distance to quote because you could meander for days in this nature preserve. That one holds a special place in my heart, thanks to providing my first backpacking experience. 

You get to decide what you think the term means. But I hope you do it enjoying one of these amazing, short thru-hikes.

Short Thru Hike #1 – Vermont Long Trail

 Vermont’s Long Trail was built between 1910 and 1930 and actually served as the inspiration for the Appalachian Trail. The two share 100 miles of trail in the southern part of the hike, so this is a trek that lets you kill two birds with one stone.

You can expect mostly rugged terrain featuring steep inclines and seasonal challenges like icy mountain ridges and slippery mud. The Green Mountain Club of Vermont, which partners with the Appalachian Trail Conservancy and others to maintain the trail, suggests planning for a thru-hike in late summer/early fall. Doing so will help you avoid the incessant mud of spring and the biting black flies of summer.

Black bears call this area of the country home, so remember that you’ll be hiking through their backyard. Practicing safe food storage will be important, as well as being prepared with bear spray in case of an encounter. 

An illustrated map depicting the Long Trail.

Short Thru Hike #2 – Stuart Fork Trail to Emerald & Sapphire Lake

This out-and-back trail is the perfect weekend trip. The Trinity Alps Wilderness area offers plenty of mountain views, crisp swimming holes, and old-growth timber. This particular trail winds through beautiful valleys and alongside crystal-clear creeks that feed majestic waterfalls. 

Grizzlies don’t make it this far south, but black bears love it here. There have been multiple reports of encounters with hikers in the Trinity Alps wilderness area, so take your bear precautions. Keep your food safe and carry bear spray. 

Expect some good incline, though reviews often say this is one of the easier trails in the Trinity Alps. Elevation gain is just under 4500 ft, and you start the trail at 2900 ft. That’s a starting point of almost 3x where I live, so I’m taking the rating of “Easy” with a grain of salt. But if you really want to challenge yourself, you definitely could by branching out and adding Granite Lake Trail to your itinerary.

For more information and permitting, visit the USDA Forest Service.

A map depicting the route of Stuart Fork Trail.

Short Thru Hike #3 – Chicago Basin in Weminuche Wilderness

The Chicago Basin is a highly popular location for overnight backpacking trips. A picturesque steam locomotive, running from Durango to Silverton, often brings adventurers into the basin to a drop-off point half a mile from Needle Creek Trail. Choosing this method of travel is a good way to make the most of a long weekend. 

But if you want to hoof those extra miles yourself, you certainly can. Trail access into the wilderness area is available from the northwest or the southeast. The first, starting at Purgatory Flats trailhead, will add 14.5 miles to your travel log. The second, Vallecito Creek Trail, will be an extra 17.5 miles, more if you decide to forgo fording the sometimes treacherous creek. 

Obviously, you can make this a thru-hike of some sort, but plenty of people gush over the idea of simply pitching a base camp and summiting the basin’s three 14ers. The area is a wilderness, and visitors must follow all restrictions on camping and fires.

A map depicting the route of Chicago Basin Trail.

Short Thru Hike #4 – Sunshine Coast Trail

If lush greenery and coastal views are your thing, head to British Columbia and hike the Sunshine Coast Trail. It welcomes you to temperate rainforests, coastlines, lakes and rivers, and mountain views. Tackling Canada’s longest hut-to-hut hiking trail is a beautiful journey.

Relatively new, the Sunshine Coast Trail was completed in 2000 as part of an effort to preserve and access the old-growth forests of the Sunshine Coast region. There are 16 shelters for hiker use, all but 2 of which are free. As of September 2023, 10 of these huts had metal cache boxes for bear-proof food storage. Tent camping alongside the huts is allowed and doesn’t require any permits, so if you find them to be occupied, you can sleep under the stars instead.

There are multiple access points, so you can section hike or thru-hike as you wish. Its highest point is 4,278 on Mount Troubridge. It’s not a technical trail. Hikers report that most challenges are created by weather conditions making surfaces slippery. The best backpacking season for this trail is May through September. Heavy downpours are common in spring and fall, while summer brings out the mosquitos. Prepare accordingly.

You could potentially see both black bears and grizzlies on this hike. Be sure to use bear-proof food storage as you travel, and store your stash away from your sleeping pad if you’re not at a hut with a cache. And, as always, carry spray. 

A map depicting the route of Sunshine Coast Trail.

Short Thru Hike #5  The Ouachita Trail

Thru-hikes don’t have to include intense mountains! For all you flat-landers out there, the Ouachita Trail offers just the right amount of challenge for a short thru-hike. Its rocky terrain offers low-profile peaks topping out at 2,600 feet elevation. That being said, there’s a lot of up-and-down happening in the western portion of the trail, and the underbrush can also be tough.

The western terminus to the Ouachita Trail is in Talemina State Park in Talemini, Oklahoma. The eastern terminal is near Little Rock, Arkansas, in Pinnacle Mountain State Park. 

Late spring and all through the summer can be sweltering in this region of the country. Humidity is usually high as well, so hydration is important. Thankfully, the trail is almost 100% shaded, which takes the edge off. If you hike in the fall, you never know what kind of weather you’ll get, but the area is known for breathtaking foliage. Cooler weather can also equate to fewer bugs, which would be a blessing.

Staying weather aware is important, especially during severe weather season (April/May). Hail, wind, flash floods, and even tornadoes are a possibility. Know your forecast and be prepared.

You may not think of Oklahoma and Arkansas as black bear country, but it is. Use a bear-proof canister to keep these bears wild and you safe. Carry bear spray, just in case!

A map depicting the route of Ouachita Trail.

Short Thru Hikes Mean You Don’t Have to Wait

There are plenty of true end-to-end thru-hikes to choose from if your schedule and the demands of life are like mine. 

But if you’re open-minded and any multi-day backpacking trip is what you’re after, the world is your oyster. My first overnighter was in little ol’ McGee Creek Natural Scenic Recreation area in southeast Oklahoma. It’s home to a network of over 25 interlinking miles of hiking trails. 

No, I wouldn’t call it a thru-hike. But it still gave me and my 7-year-old an amazing bonding experience, and I’m eager to go back to experience the majestic pine forests, rocky waterfalls, and utter silence. 

If I catalog our route and give it a cool name… will it be a thru-hike then?

Author Profile

Jessica Cockroft

Jess merges her passion for words and an insatiable longing for adventure as an outdoor freelance content writer and marketer. When she’s not busy stringing words together you’ll probably find her planning another camping trip for her crew of kids or taking care of the homestead. You can find her on LinkedIn and Instagram, as well as on her own website.  

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