by Diane Spicer
Looking for the best hiking trails in North America?
Steel yourself for a confusing array of options, some of them with required permits and fees attached.
The first big tip:
Hiking trail information for North America can be divided along national lines: United States and Canada.
The 2 countries have different governing bodies, and different rules and regulations for hikers wanting to access established hiking trails on public lands.
Their borders are friendly, but you'll need to follow the rules if you wish to cross legally and avoid hassles.
To begin unravelling this complicated picture, let's focus on finding the best hiking trails in the United States.
I find it helpful to start by generating a list of the federal agencies involved in establishing and maintaining hiking trails, in order to get a clear picture of how public lands are divided, subdivided, and micromanaged.
Keep in mind that once you locate the correct federal department, you must also correctly identify which agency within the department you need to contact for information about the best hiking trails.
In other words, leave enough time to plan a hiking trip!
Ready for some word salads?
Department of Interior, including:
Department of Agriculture: Forest Service.
Department of Defense: U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.
And one more, just for fun: Department of Transportation.
My advice? Do a search within each of these departments, and drill down to the area you're interested in.
OK, that's one level of complexity: federal.
Now we need to address the state agencies which are involved in controlling access to hiking trails.
This process will vary, depending upon the state you are interested in.
American Trails is an organization which can help you make sense of the differences in the way states manage hiking trails.
To give you an example of the various state agencies involved in controlling access to hiking trails, I'll use Washington State (my home stomping grounds) as a North American best hiking trail destination.
There are at least 4 State agencies with something to say to hikers looking for trails in Washington State:
Yikes!! That's alottarules!!
So be sure to do your research prior to leaving for a new hiking destination.
There will be lots of paperwork to carry:
You don't want a great hiking trip ruined by bureaucracy, do you?
This brings us to specific types of hiking trails.
Federally funded trails fall into 3 large categories:
All 3 types of hiking trails were created as a result of the National Trails System Act in 1968.
All of them provide access to hiking trails on public lands, with different twists implied by their names.
For example, the Historic Trails follow original travel routes as closely as possible. This includes Native American trails and pioneer trails. Here's a way to combine two loves: history and hiking, if you're so inclined!
Of course, there are lots of great trails which fall outside of these big 3 categories.
Regional trails exist, such as the Superior Trail which follows the contours of one of the Great Lakes (guess which one).
And there's the Buckeye Trail in Ohio.
Lucky for you, there are lots of resources to locate best hiking trails by state, too many to list here.
If you're interested in ferreting out some of the best hiking in my favorite region, the Pacific Northwest, here are some of my recommendations.
Isn't she beautiful??
I'm not as familiar with Canadian hiking systems, but as far as I can tell, they are arranged by provice.
Once you've selected the province, you can begin to locate hiking trails within it.
Tip: I've done some hiking in British Columbia, and highly recommend the Rogers Pass area between Golden and Revelstoke, B.C.
I've spent some time on the Kluane and Southern Lakes areas as well (Yukon hiking).
And I have visited the Northwest Territories - a spectacularly empty (of humans, but not animals) wild place. There were absolutely no trails, strictly cross country navigation.
Mobility restrictions and physical limitations shouldn't stop you from enjoying the benefits of outdoor time.
Use these tips for finding accessible hiking trails.
My goal in writing this is to give you a heads up about the layers of complexity you might bump into during your quest for something as simple as a map or a North American hiking trail.
Don't be discouraged, there are lots of well maintained accessible trails in your favorite region.
You might have to hunt and peck on your computer keyboard a bit, but the links I've shared should get you started.
Please let me know if you need more resources, I'd be happy to help you get on the trail of your choice!
As long as you share a few pictures of your wonderful trip, of course!
About the author
Diane is the founder of Hiking For Her.
She’s been on a hiking trail somewhere in the world for nearly five decades & loves to share her best hiking tips right here.
All rights reserved.
Photo credits: All photos on this website were taken by David Midkiff or Diane Spicer except where noted.
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