Hiking is a popular pastime in the US for good reason. Its free, relaxing, and easily accessible to most people with a car (and sometimes even that’s not a necessity). The popularity of hiking is great for keeping people active and stoking interest in wilderness conservation, but it often leads to congestion on the trails. Not only do crowds lead to a less-than-peaceful nature experience, but they can also negatively impact wildlife and trail maintenance. Luckily, many famous hiking trails have sibling routes out there that share similar characteristics. They may not be as popular, but they are often just as beautiful and typically don’t include a railroad line of hikers chugging down the trail.
From desert canyons to forested canopies, there are trails in the US that still offer some degree of solitude in nature. Expand your hiking’ bucket list to include some of these alternative trails which deserve just as much attention as their famous counterparts.
1. DIY Loop, Maroon Bells Wilderness Area, Aspen, Colorado
Alternative to the Four Pass Loop, Maroon Bells Wilderness Area, Aspen, Colorado
The Maroon Bells area of Aspen, Colorado, is a photographer’s paradise. The mountain formation known as the Maroon Bells is easily recognizable in postcards and advertisements all over Colorado. The peaks are formed in jagged, red stone that is often banded with strips of snow. From the lakefront at the main trailhead, the bells are one of the most visited locations in Colorado.
Many choose to hike the four-pass-loop trail around the Bells. Named after the four high passes the route traverses, the trail offers the chance to see Pyramid Peak, the Bells, and Snowmass Peak. The trail is very crowded in the summer, however, and competition for campsites can be irritating.
To avoid the crowds in this wilderness area while still seeing the highlights, there are several custom loop routes that can be built from its network of trails. For instance, several interloping hikes can be connected to create a five-day trek that includes views of Snowmass Peak, Capitol Peak, and a portion of the four-pass loop.
The Maroon Bells-Snowmass Wilderness area is over 180,000 acres of protected national forest. There are hot springs, 14ers, mountain valleys, and alpine lakes to explore. Building a custom route allows hikers the chance to see beautiful, remote sections of this wilderness that are not as crowded.
Start with a detailed map of the area and study intersecting trails to build your own route through this spectacular national forest.
2. Sierra High Route, California
Alternative to John Muir Trail, California
The John Muir Trail is named after conservationist John Muir, who founded the Sierra Club in 1892 and was a lifelong advocate for preserving wild places in the US. The route is a wonderful mix of high peaks, national parks, and sections of the Pacific Crest Trail. Permits are in great demand to get a chance to hike the trail, and it can be crowded.
The Sierra High Route is also located in California. Where the JMT is a maintained trail, the Sierra High is a boulder-traversing, scrambling, sometimes off-trail adventure that maintains high elevations throughout its route. It is much more remote, and hikers can expect to find a satisfying degree of solitude at its higher elevations. Some of the visual highlights of the trail are its alpine lakes, open fields of wildflowers, exposed rock basins, and views of seemingly endless mountain peaks.
This trail is not for the casual hiker, requiring strong backcountry skills to navigate safely. It covers a little over 200 miles in distance and crosses 33 punishing mountain passes. Prior training and high fitness levels are necessary to finish it. You will also need a very detailed map and a strong sense of adventure to complete this one.
3. Cirque of the Towers, Wind River Range, Wyoming
Alternative to Cascade Canyon Trail, Grand Teton National Park, Wyoming
As for their differences, the Tetons are in a national park while the Wind River Range is in national forest land. Being located outside of a national park makes the Cirque of the Towers trek slightly less prone to overcrowding. The area is still popular, so you can increase your chances of solitude by hiking during the working week and avoiding holidays.
The Cirque of the Towers trail is a three-day backpacking loop beginning at the Big Sandy Trailhead. The route is covered in alpine meadows, wildflowers, and pointy granite peaks. Wildlife in this forest includes deer, marmots, and black bears. This area requires no permits to camp or park at the trailhead, but be prepared for lots of bugs and store your food properly to avoid an unpleasant bear encounter at your campsite. Also be mindful of summer thunderstorms when exploring at higher elevations, and as always, carry a map and compass.
4. Buckskin Gulch, Utah
Alternative to The Narrows, Zion National Park, Utah
The deserts of Utah are a compelling place to visit in the summer. The heat of the day contrasted with the cool of the night, the complex coloring of the sandstone walls, and the unique ecology create a bold sensory experience for hikers. The national parks of Utah are especially busy this time of the year.
Zion National Park in Utah has several desert canyon trails that have high foot traffic in the summer months. The Narrows is one of these trails and requires a permit. Aptly named, the trails is one of the more narrow slot canyons in the park.
To hike a similar desert canyon in less-crowded conditions, consider Buckskin Gulch. This trail traverses the bottom of a deep slot canyon in the wilderness near Kanab, Utah. It is one of the longest canyon hikes in the US, extending for approximately 21 miles.
The various color patterns in the sandstone walls in Buckskin Gulch are formed from the erosion caused by floodwaters coursing through the canyon. The walls loom above the trail, at their highest point reaching 500 feet above the sand. Overhead, flood debris made up of large boulders, logs, and sometimes animal remains is often wedged between the walls where it was left by the swelling waters.
If you choose to hike this trail, know that it is very remote, and you will be completely reliant on your own knowledge and resources in an emergency. Make sure you are fully prepared and do ample research ahead of time to tackle the 20-plus mile trek.
5. South Fork Mineral Creek Falls, Colorado
Alternative to Hanging Lake, Colorado
In Colorado, Hanging Lake is located close to Denver, and the Mineral Creek Falls are located close to Durango. These two Colorado waterfalls both display a vibrant shade of turquoise in their falls and lake basins.
Hanging Lake has become an almost unbearably crowded trail. The short hike to the falls and its proximity to Denver make it appealing as a quick family-friendly day hike. If you visit here, you are undoubtedly going to be surrounded by people.
On the other hand, Mineral Creek Falls is in the San Juan National Forest and is not as easily accessible. Getting to the trailhead at the South Mineral Campground requires some dirt-road driving off the main highway. But when you get there, there are over 20 campsites if you want to stay overnight.
The Mineral Creek Falls route includes several waterfalls, the largest being only a couple of miles away from the parking area. The unique blend of minerals caused by erosion during glacial movement and melting turns the water a bright blue color. Ice Lake, another vibrant blue lake, is also accessible from this trailhead. The trail to Ice lake is more strenuous and sits at a higher elevation than the lower falls, so use backcountry hiking precautions if you plan on exploring here.
6. Long Distance Trails: Arizona Trail, Superior Hiking Trail, Florida National Scenic Trail
Alternatives to the Pacific Crest Trail, Appalachian Trail and Continental Divide Trail
If you are interested in trying out long-distance hiking or thru-hiking, famous long trails like the PCT or AT can be intimidating. They are all over 1,000 miles long and take months to complete. And let’s be honest: Not every hiking enthusiast has the luxury of taking that much time off from life at home.
To get a less time-consuming taste of thru-hiking, consider hiking a state trail. Several states in the US — such as Arizona, Minnesota, and Florida — have organized state traversing trails. These trails typically take less time to complete and often highlight the most scenic areas of a state’s wilderness.
In Arizona, the Arizona Trail is one of the longer trails, spanning 800 miles across the state. Its route highlights the diverse landscapes of Arizona from its mountains to its deserts. It also includes a section in the Grand Canyon National Park.
The Minnesota trail is called the Superior Hiking Trail and highlights the lake-based ecosystems of the northern state, specifically around Lake Superior. Otters, moose, and black bears live here alongside a variety of bird and fish species. The lake is chilly even in the summer due to its immense size, but a brave hiker can enjoy a swim at the end of a long trail day.
The Florida National Scenic Trail is another longer hike that extends over 1,000 miles down the length of the state. Alligators, cypress groves, and backwater swamps engage hikers along this unique trail’s route.
Check to see if your state has a long distance trail to plan your own thru-hike.