The Long Trail is the hardest trail I’ve hiked.
I expected the Long Trail’s southern portion — the 105 miles concurrent with the Appalachian Trail, which I hiked last year — to be hard, only because I was out of trail shape. By the time I got to the north (which I heard was “more rugged”), I’d be back in hiking shape, and the trail would be fine. After all, I’d survived the Whites, so how hard could it possibly be?
Difficult is Relative
What is “difficult” is all relative to our prior experiences. The most difficult hiking I encountered on the Appalachian Trail was in the White Mountains and some parts of Maine, to the point where I often mocked that the “trail” was called a “footpath” — or even a trail at all. After getting back home, I frequently said that the Whites and Maine completely broke my sense of what was difficult or not. After a couple hundred miles of extremely rugged terrain, steep rock scrambles, and plenty of places with thousand-foot-per-mile elevation gains, almost everything else seemed flat and easy by comparison.
So while I expected northern Vermont to be more difficult than the south, I expected it to still be easier than the White Mountains. Because making a trail harder than the Whites would be pretty difficult, and would require stretching the definition of “footpath” and “trail” beyond their breaking points.
It turns out, though, that the Long Trail was quite a bit more difficult than I expected. When people said the northern Long Trail was “more rugged”, they really weren’t kidding. And I started to get a tiny bit nervous once I heard repeated from multiple people that they had heard other, well traveled and accomplished hikers — including AT thru-hikers — say that the Long Trail was the hardest trail they’d ever hiked.
There wasn’t any individual bit of the Long Trail that was more rugged or more difficult than any part of the Appalachian Trail in the Whites or Maine. The rocky, rock-scrambly climb up Camel’s Hump wasn’t any harder than the quite ridiculous climb up Wildcat-D. The trek along Bamforth Ridge, long as it was, wasn’t any worse than Franconia Ridge (though at least Bamforth Ridge didn’t have hurricane-force winds). From one point of view, Mansfield, the highest peak in Vermont, was harder than Mount Washington only because Mount Washington didn’t have rock scrambles. Devil’s Gulch was the super-easy version of Mahoosuc Notch.
But the northern Long Trail is not just rugged. It’s continuously rugged. Rarely could you hike without paying close attention to where you were going. The trail would constantly shift from a rock scramble, to a ridge walk, to a steep climb or descent, to rocks and roots and mud everywhere. The ruggedness and difficulty was relentless.
On the Appalachian Trail, all of those difficult sections were interspersed with relatively easier terrain — even if only for a few miles. The trail just beyond the Franconia Ridge isn’t terribly rugged, and even has a several mile section that’s relatively flat. The terrain around Mount Washington, particularly above the treeline is fairly rugged, but becomes much easier further down the mountain. The incredibly steep and rocky climb up Wildcat-D and into and out of Carter Notch is balanced with the easy section into and out of Pinkham Notch before, and two miles of easy gradual downhill afterwards, going into Gorham, NH.
On the Long Trail, it was like taking all of the hard parts of the Appalachian Trail and jamming them back-to-back, mostly taking out all of the easier parts in between. On the AT, you could relax a bit after a hard section. On the Long Trail, you just got another hard section. And so the roughly 75 miles after Cooley Glen Shelter was (a few easier bits excepting), the most continuously rugged, hard trail I’ve hiked to date.
This isn’t a complaint; it’s the reality of the terrain in Vermont. That doesn’t mean we can’t enjoy it. While the views were few and far between, when there was a view, it was fantastic. And the people on the trail were equally amazing as well.
The Hardest Trail
So, is the Long Trail really “the hardest trail”? That depends on how you look at it. There wasn’t any one part that was harder than everything I’ve done before. And it’s certainly not the longest trail I’ve hiked. But in terms of average difficulty per mile, and sustained difficulty over a long distance, it’s easily much harder than any comparable section of the Appalachian Trail.
The Long Trail was a difficult, strenuous, challenging hike, and once again, my scale for difficulty has been broken. But that’s a good thing. We can never improve ourselves unless we attempt what we’ve never done before. Life is a series of challenges. We grow by rising to the occasion, by seeking out and meeting those challenges.
There’s so much in the world to see and do. The Appalachian Trail and the Long Trail were just the start. Soon, I’ll be on the trail again, and I can’t wait to see what challenges lie ahead.