American Discovery Trail Guide

An interactive map of the ADT complete with a state-by-state breakdown, history of the trail, and who to contact before and during your hike.

March 08, 2022

The American Discovery Trail (ADT) runs from the Atlantic Ocean to the Pacific Ocean. The trail passes through 15 states and Washington D.C.


Trail Overview

american discovery trail

Length: 6,800 miles total length including both northern and southern center segments

Southern Route: 5,057 miles across the whole country

Northern Route: 4,834 miles across the whole country

The northern and southern center segments separate at Elizabethtown, Ohio, and Denver, Colorado.

Time to Hike: 9 months to 14 months

Start and End Points:

  • Eastern terminus: Cape Henlopen State Park, Delaware
  • Western terminus: Point Reyes National Seashore, California

Highest Elevation: Argentine Pass, 13,207 ft, Colorado

Lowest Elevation: California Delta between Isleton and Antioch, minus 17 ft.

The ADT is the first long-distance trail that runs from the Atlantic Ocean to the Pacific Ocean. This unique trail is very different from most trails because it not only passes over mountains and through forests, it also bisects small towns and large cities. There are places for both road and sidewalk hiking as well as the normal trail trekking. It is also unique because it is a multi-use trail that is open to hikers, bicyclists, and equestrians. It has some alternative routes for bicycles and horses.

american discovery trail signage

© Megan Veldkamp

The trail is most commonly hiked from east to west. The trail passes through 15 states and Washington D.C.

It connects five national scenic and 12 national historic trails, 36 national recreational trails, and many other local and regional trails. It passes through metropolitan areas like St Louis and Cincinnati, leads to 14 national parks and 16 national forests, and visits more than 10,000 sites of historic, cultural, and natural significance.

Contact the America Discovery Trail Society (ADTS) before beginning your trip and let them know that you are a thru-hiker. If you are hiking for a charity such as heart disease, also report that. Post on social media often with photos or videos. (For safety reasons, you should delay your posts or be vague about your exact location.)

You can write an article for their newsletter, Discover America. There are trail angels who may support you with lodging, meals, and donations after learning about you and your mission.

north bend rail trail tunnel
Tunnel on the North Bend Rail

History of The ADT

The route of the ADT was selected through the efforts of volunteers working with local, state, and federal land managers in the localities through which the trail passes. In 1990-91 a scouting team mapped the route determined by this effort.

THE FIRST ADT THRU-HIKERS

Bill and Laurel Foot (1997): Bill and Laurel were first to complete the ADT. They did a combination of bicycling and hiking, crossing the country in 1997 using the southern route in the middle. They bike-packed where they could and backpacked where bicycles were not allowed or impractical. They returned in 1998 to bicycle the northern segment.

american discvery trail house

© Alexander Seling

Joyce and Peter Cottrell (2003): Joyce and Peter were the first hikers to backpack the entire official route of the ADT. They reached the Pacific on August 18, 2003, after beginning the hike in 2002. They were both in their 50’s at the time.

Ken and Marcia Powers (2005): On October 15, 2005, Ken and Marcia became the first hikers to complete a continuous backpack of the official ADT route and finish in the same year. They averaged more than 20 miles a day and took only four days to rest on the entire 231-day hike.

Michael Thomas Daniel (2008): Michael, aka Lion King, became the first thru-hiker to hike the entire ADT both north and south routes. Beginning in Delaware on August 1, 2007, he finished on November 5, 2008, in California. He even hiked the portion of the trail around Pikes Peak in the dead of winter.

american discovery trail

© Alexander Seling


Planning Your Thru-Hike

WHEN TO GO: Timing, Weather and Seasons

Most people attempting a thru-hike begin in February or March. Beware of the snow conditions at Dolly Sods, West Virginia, and the Sierra Nevada Mountains in California during these months.

The ADT is generally only passable in July and August at the Continental Divide region in Colorado due to snow. Beware of possible flooding along the Potomac, Ohio, Mississippi, and Missouri Rivers, tornadoes in the Midwest, and wildfires in the western states.

collegiate wilderness signage

© Alexander Seling

GETTING THERE: Transportation

Eastern Terminus

Unless you have someone to drive you to Cape Henlopen State Park, getting there is not easy. First, you need to take public transportation to Wilmington, Delaware. From there, you can take a bus (DART) to Lewes.

An alternate way is to use the Cape Way Ferry from New Jersey. Also, ASA Transportation from airports, train or bus stations is available to Lewes. For additional information, go to asatransportationinc.com

Western Terminus

Getting to Limantour Beach at Point Reyes National Seashore also is not easy. West Marin Stagecoach provides public transportation seven days a week between Inverness and San Rafael along Sir Francis Drake Boulevard with service to the Bear Valley Visitor Center.

Visit the West Marin Stagecoach website. There is no public transportation to the beach; one must walk to the beach on Limantour Road, hitch a ride or use a ride service.

© Jason O. Cook

katy trail Part of Katy Trail in ADT


DIRECTION TO GO: Eastbound or Westbound

Most people hike westbound but it is possible to go eastbound, although you may encounter more difficult terrain earlier in your trek.

PERMITS

At the time of this writing, no permits are required.

NAVIGATION: Maps and Apps

The times are changing and so is the ADT. Maps are no longer being printed. The trail changes route as the constituent trails re-align themselves, or better off-road alternatives are found, or parts of the trail become inaccessible, Many hikers now use GPS instead of maps. Some hikers prefer to have a printed map available. One reason is that if you hike to a place where the trail is closed due to recent flooding, fallen trees, or a wildfire, a map may help you determine a direction to travel.

cape henlopen state park Cape Henlopen State Park

There are now programs that use GPX data to produce maps of the trail. Google Maps is one of those programs, Turn-by-Turn (TBT) directions and GPX data can be purchased from the ADT website.

Some existing trails, for example, the Buckeye Trail in Ohio, which the ADT utilizes, have maps with TBT. The C&O Canal Trail in Maryland has a very good website with locations of their campsites. The Katy Trail in Missouri also has an excellent website with an inactive camp site map and a trail advisory map.

gunnison national forest

© Alexander Seling

PACKING: Gear and Clothing

Be prepared for all sorts of weather and trail conditions while hiking the ADT. Temperatures can range from searing heat in the deserts to way below freezing during the winter in many locales. Trail conditions can vary from steep and rocky to a level concrete surface to fording a stream and any condition in-between.

The most important clothing is your footwear. Improper footwear can cause you to discontinue your hike due to blisters and pain in your muscles and joints. There is a large variety of hiking and walking shoes available. Many thru-hikers wear light-weight waterproof hiking boots the entire distance. Some hikers change their footwear according to the condition of the trail.

As for me since I was a section hiker with car support, I wore a good pair of walking shoes for the easy trail parts and heavy hiking boots to support my ankles on the rocky sections. Be aware that your feet grow when doing a long hike. So, when buying shoes, add a half to one size larger than you are wearing now.

the paw paw tunnel The Paw Paw Tunnel on the C&O Canal Trail


Some socks are specifically designed for hiking. They consist of a liner and outer sock for the prevention of blisters. You may want to try different brands of socks before your trek. The heavy padded Dr. Scholl’s socks are less expensive than the designer hiking socks and maybe just right for you.

After the footwear, the next most important item is the backpack. It is your home away from home. Spending $200 to $300 for a sturdy adjustable backpack is not unusual. An ultralight backpack may not be the best option which because the comfort level drops dramatically when the total load goes above 35 pounds.

american discovery trail road

© Alexander Seling

Since support points are farther apart in the west, you will need to carry more food and water than normal. A heavy load backpack can carry loads up to 70 lbs. However, most people cannot carry this weight. One guide states that a loaded backpack should not be more than 20% of a person’s weight.

An all-weather tent is required for the ADT. There are so many choices. It probably should be lightweight but its shape and size should be what the hiker is comfortable with.

A 4-season sleeping bag is required for the ADT. The shape is left up to the hiker. A synthetic insulation sleeping bag can perform better in moist conditions, dry much more quickly, and is non-allergenic. Down sleeping bags are warmer for their weight but must be kept dry.

adt windmills

© Alexander Seling

Other required items are a lightweight sleeping pad, a cooking system, a hiking bowl, and utensils.

A broad-brimmed hat will help shade your face and keep ticks out of your hair. Kuhl sells shirts for hikers to be worn for many days in a row. They are expensive at $85 each. Convertible pants, the kind with a zipper on the legs, are great on days when there is a large temperature change.

Many hikers prefer using a pair of hiking poles. Some are made with carbon fiber while some are aluminum. Costs range from $40 to $80. As for me when hiking rugged trails, I still use a sturdy wood hiking stick someone left behind along the ADT. The cost was $0.

Some hikers are using push or pull carts to take the weight off their backs. Many of the carts were homemade and often need repair. There are some companies that sell all-terrain 2-wheel and 4-wheel carts. There is also a way to build a mono-wheel backpacking cart. Since many trails are too narrow or rough for a 2-wheel or 4-wheel cart, this appears to be a suitable idea.

© Chris

Camp set along the Potomac River Camp set along the Potomac River


WHERE TO SLEEP: Camping, Shelters, and Hostels

Some areas such as the C&O Canal Trail have camping sites with water, fire circles, and picnic tables. However, there are few shelters and hostels on or near the trail, Motels are plentiful near the trail with the exception of Utah and Nevada. For information on where to sleep, go to discoverytrail.org

© Alexander Seling

collegiate peaks wilderness Collegiate Peaks Wilderness


HOW TO RESUPPLY: Food and Towns

Since there are many towns and post offices near or on the trail, food or changing clothing should not be a problem with the exception of Utah and Nevada. In these states, the availability of water can also be a major obstacle. With the aid of someone with a car, water can be cached at a GPS location and recovered by the hikers.

There are also trail angels who may supply the hiker with water. The ADTS urges caution in areas with scarce water. Some containers may leak and people may have difficulty finding them.

Many hikers pack boxes with resupplies at home. They may phone friends and have them mail a box to a certain post office several days in advance of their estimated time of arrival. Buying food beforehand is cheaper and allows them to have the food they like.

© Alexander Seling

redstone coke ovens Coke Ovens of Redstone


SIGHTS: Nature and Wildlife

The ADT travels through many national parks and monuments and state parks with abundant wildlife. Some species of animals that one may encounter are bighorn sheep, porcupines, black bears, coyotes, mule deer, fox, raccoons, woodchucks, golden eagles, prairie dogs, and pelicans. Beware of animals that can harm you.

At a campground at Dolly Sods, West Virginia, I awoke to hear the grunting of a bear outside my tent as it slowly wandered through the campground. You should store food where a bear cannot reach it.

As for poisonous snakes, be careful where you step. Generally, stay away from a snake until you can identify its species. The animal most likely to attack you is man’s best friend, a dog. I was attacked by a pit bull in a small town in Missouri and know of another person who was also confronted by a pit bull.

Some species of plant life include redwoods, ponderosa pines, quaking aspens, pink lady’s slippers, Jack-in-the-pulpits, and poison ivy.

collegiate wilderness peak

© Alexander Seling


Sectional Overview

The Eastern ADT

This section runs through Delaware, Maryland, Washington D.C., West Virginia, Ohio, and Kentucky. My favorite places in these states are the beach at Cape Henlopen State Park, Delaware; Rock Creek Park, Washington D.C.; the view of the Falls of the Potomac, Maryland; wildness hiking across Dolly Sods, West Virginia; Ash Cave with its 90-ft-high waterfall in Hocking Hills State Park, Ohio and taking the Anderson Ferry, Kentucky

adt desert hot springs

© Alexander Seling

The Central ADT: Northern Route

This runs through Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Iowa, Nebraska, and Colorado. The Harshman Covered Bridge is on the northern route in Ohio, one of several along the trail. The flat topography is very easy to hike on greenway trails and backroads in Indiana. You can hike the 60-mile Illinois & Michigan Canal Trail near Jolie, Illinois where mules once pulled boats along the canal.

In Iowa, one can use one of our nation’s first rail-to-trail projects, the Cedar Valley Nature Trail. When entering Nebraska, one will cross the Missouri River on the magnificent Bob Kerrey Pedestrian Bridge. You can visit the historic Fort Vasquez in Colorado.


The Central ADT: Southern Route

The southern section runs through Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Missouri, Kansas, and Colorado. Some of the highlights along the route are Angel Mounds near Evansville, Indiana; the rock formations in Garden of the Gods, Illinois; the Katy Trail, a lengthy rail-to-trail in Missouri; the Boot Hill Museum in Dodge City, Kansas and the gold rush town of Cripple Creek, Colorado.

american discovery trail

© Alexander Seling

The Western ADT

This section runs through Colorado, Utah, Nevada, and California. As the ADT continues westward in Colorado, the mountain scenery is spectacular with many breathtaking views. Desert panoramas and the views of the landscapes of Capitol Reef National Park are among the highlights of Utah. Take a tour of the ghost town of Berlin in Nevada. In California, hiking the trail east to west, you can see Lake Tahoe and the Sierra Nevada Mountains and dip your feet in the Pacific Ocean 376 miles later after walking the pavements of Sacramento and San Francisco.

© Alexander Seling

lizard lake signage Lizard Lake in Colorado

Resources

The main starting point for resources for the ADT is its website, discoverytrail.org. It lists just about everything you need to know about the trail, including the names, telephone numbers, and email addresses of all the state coordinators. They can be of aid if required.

Also, the ADT Facebook site along with the social websites (including YouTube) of the previous hikers can be a help.

Jim Shaner photo

About Jim Shaner

Jim Shaner has been a sectional hiker since the 1970’s. In 2002, he began hiking the American Discovery Trail and finished in 2015. He is presently the contributing editor for Discover America, the newsletter of the American Discovery Trail Society.

About Greenbelly

After thru-hiking the Appalachian Trail, Chris Cage created Greenbelly to provide fast, filling and balanced meals to backpackers. Chris also wrote How to Hike the Appalachian Trail.

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