Deep in a cleft between two northern New Hampshire mountains, where the high noon sun shines through the forest canopy in slanting shafts, my wife, Penny, and I watch the moose. We’re on the second of a three-day backpacking trip, and although we’ve seen plenty of signs (mostly in the form of mid-trail dung towers, which we’re pleasantly surprised to find are not a bit smelly), this is the first actual moose we’ve seen. She is startlingly large, like a horse; her coat the color of the moist soil we’ve been hiking on. We’re as quiet as our panting will allow (hey, these mountains are steep), but it’s not quiet enough. She turns her head to meet our gaze, blinks once, and steps into a copse of trees.
Trees. Moose. Mountains. If the Cohos Trail were a recipe, these would certainly qualify as main ingredients. Named for Coos (yes, they’re spelled differently, but both come off the tongue as Cohos), New Hampshire’s most northern, and least-populated, county, Cohos is a brand-new backcountry hiking trail. So new, in fact, that it remains 15 miles shy of its 162-mile completion, at which point it will traverse the whole of Coos County, running across the White Mountains from the Saco River to Canada.
If we had the gumption (and the time) to hike its entirety, we would cross over 30 mountain peaks (four higher than 4,000 feet), wind our way through boreal forests, pass eight waterfalls, and dip our toes in mountain lakes as large as 2,000 acres. Along with the aforementioned moose, we’d stand an excellent chance of spotting eagles, deer, and black bears. One thing we won’t see much of: other people. The largest town along the route is home to a mere 700 souls, and for one 90-mile stretch, there’s no population center at all.
Of course, we don’t have the time. Work and family have a nasty habit of impinging on two-week backpacking trips. And the gumption? Much as we’d like to convince ourselves otherwise, 160 miles with 40 pounds on our backs is a bit out of our league. But with a little research, we managed to sniff out a three-day, 20-odd-mile stretch of trail that promised to give us a sense of what makes the Cohos Trail, well, the Cohos Trail. The fact that we’d return home still employed and relatively blister-free was a significant bonus.
You probably face the same limitations we do. But as we discovered, that’s no excuse. The United States is laced with thousands of miles of long-distance hiking trails. That might sound daunting, but it’s important to remember that those miles add up one by one. Rather than becoming overwhelmed, why not bite off one chewable piece at a time?
The Cohos Trail
Weekend Slice: Starting in tiny Jefferson, New Hampshire, the 25-mile section known as the Kilkenny Ridge Trail runs along a high ridge, delivering long views of New Hampshire’s most picturesque landmarks, including the Presidentials and the lush Connecticut River Valley, which serves as a border between New Hampshire and Vermont. Despite the ridge running, be prepared for some arduous climbing: You’ll top out on numerous peaks, some standing more than 4,000 feet proud.
Getting There: Fly into Portland, Maine. From there, it’s a two-and-a-half-hour drive west to the trailhead.
Pacific Crest National Scenic Trail
Overview: Simply put, there is no hiking trail more diverse than the 2,650-mile Pacific Crest Trail (P.C.T.), which wends its way through California, Oregon, and Washington, and visits six of North America’s seven ecozones. Thru-hikers (about 300 people attempt to hike the whole trail each summer; in total, it has been said that fewer people have thru-hiked the P.C.T. than have summited Everest!) will have a chance to dip their toes in the nation’s three deepest lakes: Lake Tahoe (1,645 feet), Crater Lake (1,932 feet), and Lake Chelan (1,149 feet). As welcome as that cool, deep water might be, it will pale in comparison to the glee they’ll experience when they stumble upon the Seiad Valley Café in Seiad Valley, California, which appeared on the Travel Channel’s Gross Outs: The World’s Best Places to Pig Out.
Weekend Slice: The 15.6-mile trek from Echo Lake into Carson Pass in California’s Lake Tahoe region is popular, and for darn good reason: Access is easy, the terrain is moderate, and the views of the Lake Tahoe area are everything that views of Lake Tahoe should be. Although any reasonably fit hiker could complete this trip in a single, long day, you’d be remiss not to stretch it into two by the high alpine shores of Showers Lake.
Getting There: The trailhead is an hour’s drive west of the Reno, Nevada, airport.
Info: Pacific Crest Trail Association, (916) 349-2109, www.pcta.org
Overview: Though it clocks in at a relatively modest 272 miles, Vermont’s Long Trail is one of the continent’s most-loved hiking routes. Credit the natural beauty of the Green Mountain State and the fact that the Long Trail is the oldest long-distance footpath in the United States. Built by the Green Mountain Club in the early 1900s, the Long Trail noses along the spine of the Green Mountains from the Massachusetts-Vermont line to the Canadian border. The terrain is indeed mountainous; though the Greens aren’t terribly lofty peaks (most top out under 4,000 feet), they are steep and plentiful. Fortunately, the trail is dotted with 70 primitive shelters, each providing a convenient (and dry) place to make camp. And s’mores, of course.
Weekend Slice: If for no other reason than bragging rights, you need to cross the 4,393-foot peak of Mount Mansfield, Vermont’s tallest mountain peak. Pick up the trail at Camel’s Hump, near Burlington, then spend the next two days nosing north, over Bolton Mountain, and, finally, Mansfield. Big bonus: After descending Mount Mansfield, the trail drops onto Route 108, only a few miles north of Stowe Village, where you can retire to The Shed Restaurant & Brewery (802-253-4364) for a thick burger and a pint of — what else? — Long Trail Ale.
Getting There: From Boston, it’s an easy three hours north on Interstates 93 and 89.
Info: Green Mountain Club, (802) 244-7037, www.greenmountainclub.org
Continental Divide Trail
Overview: Epic in both conceit and creation, the Continental Divide Trail cuts an ambitious swath through that most American of American regions: the Wild West. When complete (about 70 percent of the trail’s eventual 3,100 miles are now open), the C.D.T. will run from Canada to Mexico, crossing the peaks of the Rocky Mountains and passing through 25 national forests, 20 wilderness areas, 3 national parks, a national monument, and 12 BLM Resource areas. Given the size and scope of the mountains it touches, coupled with the sheer remoteness of the wilderness it travels through, the CDT is possibly the toughest long-distance American hiking trail ever conceived. And that’s perfectly appropriate.
Weekend Slice: Although much of the C.D.T. is remote and therefore difficult to reach, Montana’s Glacier National Park offers a multitude of access points. With its mountains of red, yellow, and green stone standing guard over trout-filled lakes, the Two Medicine region is at once exotic and classically American. During summer months, a hiker’s shuttle (406-888-7800, www.nps.gov/glac) makes it easy to explore the area.
Take note: If you plan to use the backcountry shelters during the peak months of July and August, reserve them well in advance.
Getting There: Part of what makes Glacier National Park so appealing is that getting there takes some commitment. Your best bet is to fly into Calgary, Alberta. From there, it’s a four-hour drive to the park’s northern border.
Info: Continental Divide Trail Alliance, (888) 909-2382, www.cdtrail.org
Where: Maine to Georgia
Overview: Want to recite all the states the Appalachian Trail passes through? Better take a deep breath, because the A.T. touches soil in Maine, New Hampshire, Vermont, Massachusetts, Connecticut, New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Maryland, West Virginia, Virginia, Tennessee, North Carolina, and Georgia. Whew. Total mileage is a robust 2,174, which is probably a good thing: Every year, some 3 to 4 million people put boots to the A.T.; of these, 2,000 attempt a thru-hike (typically, only about 20 percent are successful).
Weekend Slice: Given the 31 volunteer clubs dedicated to maintaining the trail and organizing hikes (Pennsylvania alone boasts 11), it seems a bit silly to recommend a particular section. Instead, decide roughly where you’d like to explore and then contact the club in that region for a recommendation or schedule of planned outings. Find a directory of clubs on the Appalachian Trail Conference’s website.
Getting There: The A.T. is easily accessed from numerous eastern U.S. cities, including Boston and Philadelphia.
Contact: Appalachian Trail Conference, (304) 535-633, www.appalachian trail.org
Overview: Crossing one of the most underrated (and underutilized) mountain ranges in the U.S., the Ozark Trail consists of 300 miles of backcountry hiking paths. Although it’s not yet linked in its entirety, the individual sections are well-mapped and marked. Because the Ozarks are smaller, softer, and more welcoming than those in the east, it’s the perfect destination for the neophyte backpacker, and the mild southern weather extends the hiking season well into the fall.
Weekend Slice: The 33 miles that comprise the Taum Sauk section of trail rate among the Ozark’s finest. It’s a rugged, boulder-strewn piece of hiking (experienced backpackers will be comfortable with three days; the rest of us will want four) that passes through the U.S. Forest Service’s Bell Mountain Wilderness Area and crosses numerous peaks, including Missouri’s tallest, Taum Sauk (1,772 feet). But it’s not all toil: This section meanders past the 132-foot Mina Sauk waterfall, which seems custom-made — as all waterfalls are — for trailside respite.
Getting There: Fly into St. Louis, and then drive two hours south to the Taum Sauk trailhead.
Info: Ozark Trail Association, (573) 786-2170, www.ozarktrail.com
here’s a four-pack of great gear to take on your weekend expedition.
msr miox water purifier
“don’t drink the water!” that warning can be applied to any backcountry stream, no matter how clear, cool, and inviting it looks. trouble is, traditional water purifiers are cumbersome and complicated, and packing three days worth of water is no fun — except for your chiropractor’s wallet. the solution? msr’s revolutionary miox, which weighs a mere 3.5 ounces and purifies water with mixed oxidants. developed in conjunction with the u.s. military, the miox turns just about any stream into your personal water fountain. $130. www.msrcorp.com
the recent generation of gargantuan wrist-top computers (fancy term for watches that do lots and lots of cool stuff) is a heck of a lot of fun, but for one thing: they’re only slightly less subtle than wearing handcuffs. not sportech’s 4000, which combines an altimeter, barometer, and thermometer with typical wristwatch functions in a workday-suitable package. data junkies will love the accumulated vertical ascent and descent functions. $395. www.swissarmy.com
osprey switch 55+5 backpack
at first glance, the switch 55+5 looks like any other midsize backpack on the market. but first glance doesn’t reveal the removable 700-cubic-inch daypack (perfect for shorter hikes) and minimalist hydration system (great for trail running or cycling). this gives the switch 55+5 triple-duty utility, which wouldn’t be so darn impressive if the whole thing didn’t work with such graceful simplicity. $239. www.ospreypacks.com
nike acg air zoom tallac
if you’re still tromping about in the same leather clod-hoppers you were wearing in the ’70s, we’ve got news for you. at only two pounds per pair, the air zoom tallac tips the scales at about half the baggage of traditional leather hiking boots. and surprise! unlike most ultralight footwear, they’re remarkably supportive and comfortable, with a waterproof/breathable gore-tex xcr liner that keeps your dogs dry no matter the weather. $140. www.nikeacg.com