Some would argue that the Appalachian Trail is getting a little too crowded. So if you’re in that camp and you’re looking for a little more solitude, or possibly just some new places to explore, I thought I would present long distance hikers with some other choices in the southeast - some you may not be aware of. The following represents the top 10 longest trails in the southeast:
The Florida Trail: At 1562 miles in length, the Florida Trail is the southeast’s longest trail. As one of only eleven National Scenic Trails in the United States, the Florida Trail traverses through a diverse landscape as it extends from Gulf Islands National Seashore in Florida's panhandle to Big Cypress National Preserve in south Florida. Along the way it passes through some of the state's most picturesque areas including the Apalachicola, Ocala, and Osceola National Forests, St. Marks National Wildlife Refuge and several state parks. In addition to the poisonous snakes, panthers and bears, keep a look out for alligators!
Appalachian Trail: Although the A.T. runs for a total of 2179 miles from Georgia to Maine, only a thousand of those miles actually pass through the Southern Appalachians (the section south of Harpers Ferry), thus making it the second longest trail in the southeast. The A.T. arguably offers some of the best hiking in the southeast, passing through places like the Great Smoky Mountains and Shenandoah National Parks, Big Bald, Roan Mountain and Mt. Rogers. As a result of its popularity, some of these sections attract a lot of hikers.
Mountains-to-Sea Trail: The Mountains-to-Sea Trail stretches roughly 1,000 miles from Clingmans Dome in the Great Smoky Mountains to Jockey’s Ridge on the Outer Banks. Although only 500 miles of footpath are built right now, people can still hike across the state using temporary connectors on back roads and state bike routes. The trail is a showcase for North Carolina’s diverse landscape. Thru-hikers will experience mountains, rugged gorges, small Piedmont farms, coastal swamps, colonial towns, and barrier islands. It climbs both the tallest mountain peak and the highest sand dune in the Eastern United States, passes through three national parks, two national wildlife refuges, three national forests, seven state parks and three lighthouses, including the nations tallest.
Pinhoti National Recreation Trail: The Pinhoti National Recreation Trail is a combination of the Alabama Pinhoti Trail and the Georgia Pinhoti Trail. Its southern terminus is on Flagg Mountain just outside Weogufka, Alabama, and stretches 335 miles to its northern terminus at the intersection with the Benton MacKaye Trail near Ellijay, Georgia. From here hikers have the opportunity of extending their hike all the way to Maine by heading southeast on the Benton MacKaye Trail for roughly 70 miles to Springer Mountain, the southern terminus of the Appalachian Trail. Completed in early 2008, the Pinhoti Trail is characterized by heavily wooded forests, far reaching ridgelines, countless creek crossings and spectacular views. Part of the trail includes dirt and paved roads, but otherwise provides ample solitude.
Benton MacKaye Trail: Nearly 300 miles in length, the Benton MacKaye Trail runs from Springer Mountain in Georgia to Davenport Gap on the northern edge of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. The trail passes through some of the most remote backcountry in Georgia, Tennessee and North Carolina, including eight federally designated Wilderness and Wilderness Study Areas. For those looking for a large loop hike, you can combine the Benton MacKaye with the Appalachian Trail. From Springer Mountain, the Benton MacKaye heads off in a westerly direction, while the A.T. traverses eastward. The two cross each other again near the Shuckstack Fire Tower in the southern Smokies.
Palmetto Trail: The Palmetto Trail is South Carolina’s mountain-to-sea trail. When completed, the cross-state, multi-use trail will take hikers from Oconee State Park in the western mountains, to its eastern terminus at the intra-coastal waterway at Awendaw Creek. With nearly 290 miles of trail open to the public, roughly two-thirds of the eventual 425-mile Palmetto Trail is now complete. The Palmetto Trail features maritime, sandhill, and piedmont forests, knife-edged mountaintops, and two Revolutionary War battlefields. Some sections of the trail are urban bikeways, greenways and rail-to-trail conversions.
Sheltowee Trace: The Sheltowee Trace is a 269-mile multi-use trail that traverses the length of the Daniel Boone National Forest in eastern Kentucky. The trail is named in honor of Daniel Boone. Sheltowee, meaning Big Turtle, was the name given to Boone when he was adopted into the Shawnee Indian tribe as the son of the great war chief, Blackfish. Designated as a National Recreation Trail in 1979, the Trace passes through Cave Run Lake, Red River Gorge, Natural Bridge State Park, Laurel River Lake, Cumberland Falls State Resort Park and the Big South Fork National Recreation Area. Along its course hikers will see waterfalls, arches, panoramic ridge-top views and massive sandstone cliffs.
Cumberland Trail: The Cumberland Trail in east Tennessee follows a line of ridges and gorges along the eastern escarpment of the Cumberland Plateau. When completed, the trail will stretch more than 300 miles from the Cumberland Gap National Historic Park on the Tennessee-Virginia-Kentucky border, to the Chickamauga and Chattanooga National Military Park and Prentice Cooper Wildlife Management Area just outside Chattanooga. In between it will pass through four Tennessee Wildlife Management Areas, a National Park Wild and Scenic Area, two State Parks, and two protected State Natural Areas. Designated as a Tennessee State Scenic Hiking Trail, hikers have access to numerous waterfalls, scenic overlooks and deep gorges. Right now there are roughly 175 miles of hikeable trails, and it’s estimated that it will take another 8 to 10 years before the entire trail is completed.
Bartram Trail: The Bartram Trail follows the approximate route of naturalist William Bartram who traveled throughout the southeast from 1773 to 1777. During his travels Bartram wrote vivid descriptions of the plants and animals he saw, as well as the Native Americans he encountered. Designated as a National Recreation Trail, the 115-mile Bartram Trail crosses over some of the most scenic mountains in North Carolina and Georgia. Starting from Cheoah Bald in the Nantahala National Forest, hikers will cross over Wayah Bald and Rabun Bald before reaching the southern terminus of the trail in the Chattahoochee National Forest near the Georgia-South Carolina state line. One of the more interesting aspects of the trail is that hikers have the option of canoeing a nine-mile section of the Little Tennessee River, near Franklin, in lieu of walking the nearby roadway here.
Foothills Trail: The Foothills Trail offers an extraordinary opportunity to explore the Appalachian foothills along the GA, NC, and SC border area. The 77-mile trail stretches from Oconee State Park to Table Rock State Park. Along the way hikers will visit Sassafras Mountain, South Carolina’s highest peak, the Cantrell home site, the massive granitic dome at Table Rock, and the cliffs and ledges atop Pinnacle Mountain that contain petroglyphs believed to have been made by ancient Native Americans.
Pine Mountain Trail: Although the Pine Mountain Trail currently ranks as only the 11th longest trail in the southeast right now, I included it here because it will move up to number 10 once the trail is finished. Once completed, the long distance trail designed for backpacking and hiking will span approximately 120 miles from Breaks Interstate Park, to Cumberland Gap National Historic Park, and will pass through several natural areas such as Bad Branch State Nature Preserve, Kingdom Come State Park and Blanton Forest along the Pine Mountain range in eastern Kentucky. Currently, 44 miles of hiking trails are open.