How to Find Hiking Trails

Even the best hiking trails occasionally feel a little overworn after many successful traversals, especially if hikers don’t take care to add some variety to their hiking schedule. As interest in all backcountry activities and the desire for outdoor adventure continues to increase, famous landmarks and well-known hiking trails are getting to be more well-known and attract larger numbers of hikers.

Crowds at the trailheads of such famous long-distance hiking trails as the Appalachian Trail have caused hikers to look for other ways to hike them, such as flip-flopping or hiking it southbound from Maine to Georgia rather than the traditional northbound route.

So how can dedicated hikers find their next favorite trail or find reliable maps for a backpacking trip? One of the biggest draws of hiking trails is the ability to explore a new location, so finding new trails is just about as important as the gear you bring in your rucksack and the know-how to safely trek through the backcountry and leave no trace behind.

A trail guide can be very handy but there are also more modern variants, from websites like AllTrails.com to organizations like The Hiking Project that have their own proprietary free apps that can help judge trail conditions and plan around location closures and get hikers from the trailhead to the end of the trail at both major hiking destinations and hiking trails that are locally-held secrets. 

 

Person holding a smartphone outdoors.

Many hiking trail directory websites offer a free app for hikers to stay on the right path in the backcountry.

 

From New York to the Grand Canyon and on to Southern California, the United States is full of amazing hiking trails that each have their own unique attributes and their own optimal time of year to visit. Once you’ve mastered trail maps and discovered the best source for new trails and information from hikers who have already successfully completed a given trail, outdoor adventures will become that much easier and you’ll be able to concentrate more on your gear, your travel plans, and pure enjoyment of the great outdoors rather than worrying about driving directions and trail conditions that tend to distract from that sense of the here-and-now that makes a great hiking trip so fulfilling. 

Just as hiking trails change due to wear and tear or seasonal weather conditions, so too do the various resources for finding the best hiking trails. Technology has allowed for AllTrails and The Hiking Project to completely furnish hikers with all the information required to navigate a whole hiking vacation. Google maps and other mobile resources can help hikers stay on track on a backpacking trip and hikers who want to leave the mobile phone in their rucksack or prefer not to depend on hi-tech solutions can bring along topo maps that show elevation gain and other natural features on their selected hiking trail. 

It can be worrisome or otherwise overwhelming to choose between the various free apps and user-based web resources to suss out the best hiking trails. That’s why we’ve compiled all the must-have information into this helpful guide to discovering new hiking trails and researching the most important logistical information about famous sites. Read on for all the facts on hiking trails so you can make a perfect hike out of any place you have the time to reach.

 

Finding new hiking trails on the web

It should come to no surprise to anyone reading this online guide that the internet has done a great deal to bring up-to-date information about various hiking trails to the larger public. Since they can be updated much more easily than printed trail guides and anybody with the proper knowledge can contribute, hiking websites and web forums often have the most useful information and they can even be accessed via mobile phone when you’re out in the backcountry depending on how remote it is and what mobile data plan you have.

That’s not to say that more traditional methods of compiling information on hiking trails aren’t still useful, but for the research that happens well before any outdoor adventure begins or for hikers who are more hobbyists than they are expert-level backpackers, it’s hard to beat some of the websites out there. 

If you’ve punched a trail name into Google at any point, it’s likely you’ve already come across AllTrails.com before. AllTrails has great information on hiking trails, including seasonal closures, things to avoid, and pro-tips from hikers who have been there before. Take what you find there with a grain of salt, since there isn’t an official AllTrails gatekeeper to make sure people have actually been there before. Another thing to consider is the differences between different hikers. Some of the best hikes still have negative forum posts on AllTrails from novice hikers or people who were out of their element or chose the wrong time of year to visit. 

Another great web resource is The Hiking Project, a crowd-sourced trove of information on hiking trails in the United States and all around the world. Since its inception, The Hiking Project has been acquired by REI Co-Op, which means it has more of a corporate bent than it once did. But it also means that there are more people moderating the website, reviewing every picture, post, and forum comment that’s up on their pages. That doesn’t mean they catch everything right away, but there is more moderation protection on The Hiking Project’s website than it is likely to ever be on a purely user-constructed forum without any oversight at all.

 

Trail signs on the Appalachian Trail during autumn.

Some of the most popular hiking trails have trailheads that are deceptively difficult to locate.

 

Resources for state parks and national parks

In the United States as well as in many other parts of the world, governments and local municipalities have taken care to protect natural areas for a multitude of reasons. Whatever the origins, national parks, and state parks both have some of the best hiking around and quite often feature stunning landmarks like mountains and water features to provide hikers with the best of the best in hiking trails.

Another significant advantage of hiking in national parks and state parks is that they usually have fairly well-updated websites and all the logistical information regarding driving directions and accommodation have long been established by visitors and the staff of the park itself. 

Many favorite trails in the United States that are located in national parks have free apps provided by the National Park Service on both of the major app providers. Here’s a short list of national parks that have free apps for hikers to use in planning their next outdoor adventure:

 

  • Cape Hatteras
  • Golden Gate
  • Herbert Hoover
  • Independence Junior Ranger
  • Klondike Gold Rush
  • National Mall
  • Statue of Liberty & Ellis Island
  • Yellowstone

 

Some of these may not feature highly on hikers’ lists, but they are great hikes in their own right. The National Mall in Washington DC is more famous for the historical sites surrounding it, but its size nonetheless makes for a fairly good hike considering it’s in one of the larger metropolitan centers in the United States. Walking around the entire National Mall will net hikers nearly five miles of hiking and allow them to take in manmade historical sites that are not available anywhere else in the United States. 

Similarly, the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island, both of which are located in New York, offer over 2.5 miles of hiking which is optimal for a day hike and also offers entirely unique national sites as well. These places are often overlooked by hikers, but with so much other great hiking so close to both Washington DC and New York, using a helpful web resource like AllTrails or The Hiking Project to find new trails in the shadows of national monuments can help you create a once in a lifetime hiking trip. 

 

Using the AllTrails free app

This free app from AllTrails has been designed to be user-friendly and light on your mobile device’s storage. All you have to do once you download it is register with an email address or sign in with a Facebook account if you have one. Set your home zip code in the profile section of the dropdown menu to find the best hiking trails nearest your place of residence and you’re already ready to start browsing. AllTrails organizes hiking trails by difficulty and provides helpful details on elevation gain, trail length, and possible activities such as birdwatching and bouldering that are possible additions on a given trail. For pet lovers, AllTrails is a great resource to find new trails that are dog-friendly. 

AllTrails is also great for the forum section underneath each hiking trail page. Hikers who have been on the trail before give brief summaries of their experiences and usually give very good advice to prospective hikers. Users can favorite certain trails for quick access later and it’s also a simple way to keep track of hiking trails you’ve finished before. GPS technology has been integrated into the website to allow users to follow the paths taken by other hikers on particular trails, which can be handy if you want the experience of the hike but don’t have the time to get lost out in the backcountry. 

 

A man holding a map.

Topography maps can help hikers figure out their location and general elevation gains.

 

Using more traditional methods to find new hiking trails

Although new internet-based tools are really handy to find new hiking trails, hikers can still benefit greatly from knowing how to use more old-fashioned methods. A huge part of this is because the most new-fangled web tools for discovering hiking trails are based on the old tools that seasoned hikers will be used to using. Most of the time these new tools are designed by hikers with the experience to relate to older methods like topo maps. 

Topo maps, short for topographical maps, show elevation gains across large swathes of land and are useful in general land surveying as well as trail maps. They are fairly easy to use once you get the hang of them, although some simple math is required. Hikers can find their selected hiking trail on a topo map by finding the black line that represents it. The hiking trail will cross over some contour lines that offer a general idea of trail conditions and elevation gain.

The contour lines describe natural features surrounding the hiking trail. If the contour lines are really close together, then the elevation gain will be sudden; in other words, the increase in elevation happens between contour lines and so lines that are closer together represent a sharp increase. Lines that are further apart represent a more gradual elevation gain.

Topo maps can be helpful to plan ahead for hikers who are headed out to a new trail and want to make sure they pack enough cold-weather gear and hiking footwear. In addition, since the U.S. Geological Survey has a small database of free topo maps up on the internet, simply scanning through topo maps can also be a way to find your next great hiking adventure. 

 

Trail guides and personal accounts

A wealth of knowledge surrounding hiking trails has been collected in print trail guides and personal accounts of long-distance hikes, whether those attempts were successful or not. Hikers frequently desire to record their thoughts on longer hikes and are happy to provide information to other hikers once they’re off the trail.

One of the most common ways they get their thoughts out into the world is through self-published books or blog posts that are both fairly easy to find on the internet depending on how popular their hiking trail is. There will be more information from hikers on world-renown long-distance trails like the Appalachian Trail than there will be about trails that are only known regionally or aren’t as physically grueling. 

And then we have trail guides, the original way to compile information about hiking trails to which all these newer methods owe their most foundational ideological basis. In the United States newcomers began writing about hiking trails just about as soon as they could run into them. Many of the trails in the Adirondacks in New York and other places that colonizers reached early on have long and storied histories that have been incorporated into trail guides.

The trail guides themselves are updated much more frequently depending on the popularity of the trail they discuss. If you’re worried about being too old fashioned, most of these trail guides are available in PDF or ebook formats and are searchable on Google and Amazon.

 

How to find hiking trails with trail guides

However you find your trail guide, finding the right trail requires a bit more thought. It can be nearly impossible to find the right hiking trail for your next outdoor adventure because hiking trails all too commonly sound too amazing to miss when you read about them. Come to terms with the fact that you can only hike one trail at a time and then you’ll need to begin to consider the weather, your own gear, your physical ability, and the amount of time you have to spend on a hiking adventure. 

In places like the United States where hiking has only grown in popularity in recent decades, it simply won’t do to go to AllTrails or The Hiking Project and just start clicking around. Google can be even worse since it isn’t designed to cater specifically to hikers. It’s always best to start with a region in mind. This can be based on where you live or on the type of hike you want. You can easily cut out SoCal hiking trails if you want to try your hand at hiking through snow or other winter conditions.

Mountaineering isn’t going to be as thrilling in Louisiana as it will be in Colorado. The good news is that there is a perfect hike out there for every hiker. The bad news is that choosing between all the great hiking trails can be very difficult. The best thing you can do for yourself is to do your research. You can save yourself enough time for another hiking trip if you are able to choose your next one sooner.

 

Red and white paint on a tree stump.

The best hiking trails are clearly marked to give hikers an advanced warning about trail difficulty and route changes.

 

Final Verdict:

With all the modern tools available on the internet, it can seem all too easy to find hiking trails with a quick Google search. But for a truly fulfilling outdoor adventure, hikers would do well to put some forethought into their next great hike before they even begin to search for specific trails. Consider what kind of conditions you and your gear can handle. If you have tons of hiking trails under your belt already, try to find a hiking trail with something new to offer. 

A mixture of print trail guides and newer websites like AllTrails, The Hiking Project, and the National Park Service that offer their own free apps can be a huge help. There are also tons of hikers who have been places you haven’t who populate web forums and write their own accounts of their hiking adventures. There’s no better way to get inspired about hiking in general than reading about other hikers’ adventures and you’ll relish the opportunity to try out a hiking trail you’ve heard about in detail. 

Use tools like topo maps to learn more about the specific trail conditions of the place you plan to visit. It can help you leave behind unneeded hiking equipment and ensure you don’t bite off more than you can chew. There are countless ways to find hiking trails and the method that works best for you really depends on how you prefer to hike your own hike. Wherever you go, read up on the wildlife and the best way you can experience nature and leave no trace so it stays pristine for the next visitors.

 

Bonus tip: Prepare for your next hike with this helpful guide to reading topo maps!

 

Riley Draper

Riley Draper

Riley Draper is a writer and entrepreneur from Chattanooga, Tennessee. As a world traveler, he has been to more than fifty countries and hiked some of the most elusive trails in the world. He is the co-founder of WeCounsel Solutions and has published work in both national and global outlets, including the Times Free Press, Patch, and Healthcare Global. When he's not writing, he's probably on a hiking trip or climbing in the mountains.