Have you heard about the 6,800 miles long distance hike known as the American Discovery Trail? Stretching from the East Coast in Delaware, all the way to the Pacific in California, it offers a truly special walking tour of the United States. Unlike many of the wilderness trails that I find myself on, this trail will take the hiker through small towns and cities.
And it makes no apologies as to its purpose and creation. It is a trail through the heartland, both literally and figuratively. Connecting people and places, the hike encourages discovery on a cultural level.
- 1 A Bit of History
- 2 The States the Trail Goes Through
- 2.1 Delaware
- 2.2 Maryland
- 2.3 West Virginia
- 2.4 Ohio
- 2.5 Northern Route, Indiana
- 2.6 Northern Route, Illinois
- 2.7 Northern Route, Iowa
- 2.8 Northern Route, Nebraska
- 2.9 Northern Route, Colorado
- 2.10 Southern Route, Indiana
- 2.11 Southern Route, Ilinois
- 2.12 Southern Route, Missouri
- 2.13 Southern Route, Kansas
- 2.14 Southern Route, Colorado
- 2.15 Colorado
- 2.16 Utah
- 2.17 Nevada
- 2.18 California
- 3 The American Discovery Trail Connects America
A Bit of History
Originally proposed by Backpacker and the American Hiking Society in 1989, it has since become its own organization. One of the founding principles in the creation of the American Discovery Trail was to create a system of trails of which, states and local municipalities, could use as the backbone of their own trail initiatives. By creating a national trail, the American Discovery Trail is bringing support and notoriety to what was once abandoned urban space.
Before railroads grew in popularity, canals were all the rage. Digging shipping lanes into the ground in order to carry cargo via boats seemed like the most efficient option. Miles of canals were dug and pack animals helped to drag the ships along. Unfortunately for the canals, the invention of the railroad soon overtook them as the preferred method of shipping. To this day, hundreds of miles of canals are now used as walking paths and recreation areas.
The American Discovery Trail takes full advantage of these paths and incorporates many along the way.
Not to be outdone by canals, the hundreds of miles of rail line that now lies abandoned is quickly becoming a favorite path to build a trail along. The rails to trails movement, in the United States has been growing by leaps and bounds.
How Railroad has Shaped the American Landscape
The history of American industrialism cannot be divorced from the railroad. Beginning in the late 1700’s, the spread and use of trains to ship both cargo and passengers increased almost exponentially. The famed Vanderbilt family’s fortune was built during this time. Rail was so prolific that it became a monopoly, even controlling the federal government.
Land was given away to the companies and rail was seen as a matter of national priority. The movement of cargo and people opened up the interior of the continent. It connected the West Coast to the East. To this day, most migration through the country still follows rail lines.
The city of Chicago experienced explosive growth, thanks to all the rail lines being re-routed, in-efficiently, through the city. It killed the famed cattle drives of the west when it made shipping cows easier than walking them. The refrigerated rail car also shut down most of the slaughterhouses in Chicago, allowing the butchering to be done closer to the cattle.
As rail spread, so did America. Hundreds of thousands of miles were laid. And because of the corrupt and monopolistic control these companies had, duplicate lines were laid. People were making money by the amount of rail line constructed, and so, the more railroad, the better.
As the rail stagnated, thanks to bloat and new technologies, the use of trains to move cargo eventually fell out of favor. Post World War II, with the explosion of the highway system, the train and rail system lost most of its power and use.
Since this time period, thousands of miles of rail have fallen into disrepair. Much of this land is through flat ground and small towns. And it is these rails, forgotten about and overgrown, that provide a blank canvas for the rails to trails movement.
Miles of flat, cleared land, already connect small towns and cities across the country. Without engines and cars running on them, these corridors are starting to be turned into pedestrian pathways. Their relatively even grade allow for bike paths and walking paths to be constructed with little overhead. The American Discovery Trail takes full advantage of this movement and incorporates hundreds of miles of old rail line into the trail, with more being added every year.
How the American Discovery Trail Helps States and Trails
Imagine, the amount of municipalities, townships, cities, and states that make up the extraordinary route, over 6,000 miles long. Unlike trails such as the Pacific Crest Trail, the land that is being traveled on is not federally protected or unpopulated. Quite the opposite. The small towns and regions have histories, some going back hundreds of years. The politics in rural America can be fierce and home-rule is still adhered to in most places.
When a large, nationwide project decides to come into town, it is usually treated with cynicism and wariness. Most Americans do not feel comfortable with land grabbing initiatives. What the American Discovery Trail has done is truly astonishing. They have gone into these small towns and have fostered a culture of goodwill and support for the trail. And this is the strength of the trail. Without local support, trail maintenance would not get done. Signs would not be placed and the trail would sink into oblivion, much like the canals and rail that came before it.
It takes a group of dedicated individuals, to consistently fight for an idea and a vision. To build a trail, over decades, dealing with and successfully negotiating local politics is a monument to the vision.
From Global to Local
It’s not only macro-political climates that have been bridged with the American Discovery Trail. The organization was able to quell the local politics of Illinois to complete that state’s section. If you have never been to Illinois, it is perhaps one of the most corrupt and difficult political climates in the country. And it’s been this way for over a hundred years.
Look at a map of the rail road! It makes no geographic sense for every line to be routed through Chicago instead of making a straight line across the country.
I digress, but the American Discovery Trail did organize the various towns between the Ohio and Mississippi River to build a trail. These rivers are both naturally important and historically legendary. It was their boundaries that inspired the Louisiana Purchase and their fertile river valleys fueled Thomas Jefferson’s vision for a self-reliant agricultural society.
The beauty of the American Discovery Trail is how it embraces the tenets of the founding of America. It actively seeks to show how working together, across political ideologies, is an American dream. Just like the railroad and manifest destiny united the coasts, this trail seeks to unite the country in a more gentle way.
As America’s population ages and her younger generations take to hiking like never before, the need for a long distance trail, through historical sights as well as wild spaces, has never been more apparent. Bridging the generation gap and creating a trail that satiates beginners, older people, and highly skilled individuals is not an easy task to do. The American Discovery Trail seems to have all the boxes crossed off with this immense walk across America.
The States the Trail Goes Through
The trail spans 15 states and passes through the Eastern Seaboard, Appalachian Mountains, Great Plains, Rocky Mountains, Great Basin Desert, Sierra Nevadas, and the West Coast. There is even a mid-west loop that allows for a north and a southern itinerary, perfect for long distance trekkers and those who want a custom hike across the country.
At 44.6 miles long, the Delaware portion of the hike is short and sweet. The trailhead is situated near the first Dutch Settlement in the region. When the resupply ship returned a year later, the settlement was found deserted.
From the east, the trail starts on the Atlantic Ocean. Enjoy beautiful waves and some of the prettiest coastline of the original 13 colonies. The trail goes through a state forest and offers views of second growth forest. Enjoy the pastoral countryside of Delaware before entering Maryland.
At 270 miles long, the Maryland section provides hiking along some of the nation’s finest greenways. Incorporating old rail lines and walking paths, the gently manicured trail is what the idea of the American Discovery Trail was born from. Both for hiking and bicycling, either mode of transportation will allow for a scenic and relaxing time. It passes through Washington DC and along some of the most historic and powerful walkways in the country.
If you have never been to the Capitol, it is pilgrimage worth making. The American Discovery Trail shows off the best side of the city and the walking paths allow for an up close and personal tour of the city. Leaving the more urban areas to the East, the trail continues West, through the Appalachian Mountains.
288 miles long, West Virginia is the wildest state east of the Mississippi. The Appalachian Mountains are in full effect and their green covered hills offer panoramic views and trails away from urban development.
Follow abandoned rail lines that at one time carried coal out of the hills. See a landscape that is both beautiful and historic. Witness scars of old mines and logging roads, see the power that the Appalachian Mountains still have over the landscape. Waterfalls and clean air promise a beautiful hike.
What may be the most important state in Presidential elections, the hiking is in a class of its own. 524 miles long, the trail stays in the southern half of the state for its totality. What makes this section so interesting is the Buckeye Trail, a hiking loop around the entire state. Luckily for us, the American Discovery Trail follows this hike almost entirely and the walker is able to stay off developed areas for much of the trail.
Forest, once clear cut for agriculture, has rebounded and much of the trail is in the shade of trees. A highlight of the trail is Serpent Mound. A prehistoric archaeological mystery, built by the original inhabitants of the Ohio River Valley.
In Ohio, the American Discovery Trail separates into two distinctive paths, north and south. Hikers may choose to hike the entire loop or pick one for their lateral movement across the country.
Northern Route, Indiana
This section of the trail spans for 250 miles and offers a unique perspective on the state, famed as the, “the crossroads of America”. Agriculture is big business in Indiana and corn fields are a common sight. Bypassing Indianapolis, hike through the northern end of the state. Here, the trail begins to skirt Chicagoland and the landscape becomes noticeably more industrial.
Northern Route, Illinois
219 miles of prime walking lies ahead. The trail stays to the South of Chicago and follows the path of least resistance through cornfields and state parks. Northern Illinois is also known as the “Prairie State”. Before agriculture became the dominant force on the landscape, Illinois was covered in prairie. Native Americans hunted Bison and burned thousands of acres of grass to keep the forest at bay. As the plow was brought west, the topsoil was plowed under and grasses become corn. Oak savannas now cover many of the state parks, able to grow without the constant prairie fires.
Northern Route, Iowa
512 miles of flat and never ending land, Iowa is a fertile crescent, thanks to the last four ice ages. Glaciers pushed topsoil, down from Canada, and scraped the surface smooth. Iowa, situated at the glacier’s most southward extent, received the benefits of the additional soil and the flatness of the land. Farms now cover 90% of the land and the trail provides easy hiking through this section.
Historical and beautiful, the American Discovery Trail makes sure to zigzag across the state and connect the most important cities.
Northern Route, Nebraska
More corn and flat land, the Nebraska section stretches for 523 miles. Follow in the footsteps of Lewis and Clark as they explored the Louisiana Purchase. Witness fertile land and enough corn to feed the country. As settlers moved west in search of riches, Nebraska was one of the few states that was passed over. Big skies and views that stretch for miles. The slow paced lifestyle of the Great Plains is in full view. Walk through small towns and visit farmers markets in the breadbasket of the world.
Northern Route, Colorado
It is in Colorado that both the north and south routes meet. The northern route is 776 miles long and meets the southern route in the great city of Denver. The Eastern part of the trail is mainly through flat land and along roads. It should be easy going and provides plenty of opportunities for small town stops.
Southern Route, Indiana
366 miles long, the southern portion of Indiana is arguably its most beautiful part. Staying just north of the Ohio river, enjoy views of the gentle hill country. See the fertile plains that help feed the nation and enjoy small town hospitality.
This part of the state is geologically unique because it is just south of the glaciers reach. Untouched by the last ice age, it enjoys a more varied topography than the northern half of the state. While this is beautiful, it also translates into tougher walking.
Southern Route, Ilinois
At 284 miles, this cross-Illinois hike is simply lovely. Pass through the Shawnee Hills and enjoy more forests and hills than the northern half of the state. Mostly on roads, the hiking is relatively straightforward.
Enjoy beautiful state parks, and marvel at glacial free landscapes. It is neat to think about how Illinois must have looked before the ice age.
Southern Route, Missouri
Historically, Missouri marks the “gateway to the west”. The St. Louis Arch was built as a tribute to the idea and most of our highways and rail lines cross this state. Named by the French and sold to the United States in the Louisiana Purchase, Missouri is a beautiful, lush, and gentle state.
Her green hills and miles of rivers almost scream for agriculture. You can imagine the first settlers eyes as they gazed upon this landscape, at that time, Bison still roamed. Enjoy the laid back attitudes of the locals and walk through small town after small town, all offering a glimpse into life in America’s heartland.
Southern Route, Kansas
Walk west and into Kansas, 570 miles of Great Plains and rolling hills. Cross rivers and follow Highway 56 for nearly the entire path. Kansas is often forgotten about for its natural beauty, which is a shame because the hills and fertile soil make it a veritable paradise.
As the trail stretches westward, towns become farther and farther apart. Water also becomes scarce, and it is a good idea to filter your drinking supply from streams and rivers that you pass. You are officially in the west now, walking in the footsteps of the pioneers.
Southern Route, Colorado
912 miles long, enter into Colorado through the Plains and exit through the Rocky Mountains. Walk through western settlements and slowly make your way to the big city of Denver where you will meet up with the northern section of the hike.
West of Denver, the trail climbs sharply in altitude. This is the part where the trail leaves the roads and begins its back-country excursion through the Rocky Mountains. The elevation itself can prove to be detrimental to most people. Find out how best to combat altitude sickness here.
The mountains also create some extreme weather conditions. Plan for making it through the mountain passes during the months of July and August. Any other time of year will put you at risk for blizzards and trail closures. Don’t even think about attempting this trail in the winter months.
593 miles of gorgeous rock formations, high mountains and harsh desert await you. In the east the trail follows the Kokopelli Bicycle Trail and the Colorado River as it enters the first desert section in Canyonlands National Park. The trail emerges from the desert at the Henry Mountains, these 11,500 foot mountains have magnificent 360 degree views across the desert to the east and Capitol Reef National Park to the west. it’s hard to imagine that these arid canyonlands were created by water and you will want to plan your water stops carefully as little is available today. From Capitol Reef West, the trail crosses more pinyon-juniper and pine forests in mountainous terrain before descending from the Colorado Plateau into the desert of the Great Basin and heading on to Nevada.
One of my favorite states, Nevada provides extreme solitude because its population density is focused on Las Vegas and Reno, leaving the interior devoid of people. 496 miles long, most of the trail follows dirt roads but be warned, most of these almost never experience cars.
The mountains ranges of the state create mini backbones, running from north to south and they provide plenty of ups and downs as you make your away across the state. If you think crossing this state in the winter will be easy to do, think again. Nevada, comes from the Spanish word, meaning “snow-covered”. Over 200 inches of the white stuff can fall here and it makes most of the mountains impassible.
Starting near Lake Tahoe, the California section spans 376 miles. Walk through the Sierra Nevadas and enjoy some high elevation walking. This route follows pavement for most of it and bicycling out of the mountain range can be an exhilarating experience.
Pass through Muir Woods and gaze at old growth forest that used to be commonplace across the state. The trail finally ends in San Francisco, walking along the bay. A beautiful city to either start or end the trail on.
The American Discovery Trail Connects America
While not a wilderness hike, the American Discovery Trail doesn’t pretend to be. It is instead a representation of how America came to be. Small towns across the heart, vast mountains, and cities on each coast line. The diversity of America is on full display and walking across the continent from sea to shining sea could prove to be the adventure of a lifetime.