April 12th & 13th 2024

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A Journey to All 50 States

Heather Anderson is a National Geographic Adventurer of the Year, three-time Triple Crown thru-hiker, and professional speaker whose mission is to inspire others to “Dream Big, Be Courageous.” She is also the author of two hiking memoirs Thirst: 2600 Miles to Home and Mud, Rocks, Blazes: Letting Go on the Appalachian Trail and a preparatory guide to long-distance hiking Adventure Ready. Find her on Instagram @_WordsFromTheWild_ or her website wordsfromthewild.net

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When I was a teenager, circa 1996, I decided I wanted to see all 50 of the US states. Growing up in Michigan we visited my mom’s family in Florida and Massachusetts often, as well as my sister in South Carolina. By the time I decided to attempt to visit every state in the country, I’d already been to 21 states. I was well on my way. It seemed like it would be quite easy to finish the list off since I’d already been to almost half! Yet, the average American visits just a dozen states in their lifetime. And, the USA itself is almost the same size of mainland Europe. Of course, I knew none of this when I was a teenager!

In 2021, at age 40. I finally achieved my goal of visiting all 50 states. Most of them I’ve been to multiple times over the years, with there only being 3 states that I’ve only been to once. Per the general rules of “visiting” a state, I’ve been outside the airport and actually done something in each state. In fact, I chose a very different way to see most states: on foot.

While stories about every state would be far too long for a single post, I want to share some of the best stories, quirky places, and images from a 25-year-long project. Hopefully it will inspire you to do some domestic exploration of your own!


First State: Michigan, 1981

Last State: Rhode Island, 2021

State I spent the most time in: Washington and Michigan

State I spent the least time in: Delaware


Visiting all 50 states is not inherently difficult, however it takes time. There are some people who visit them all in the space of just a year, and others who spread it out over a lifetime. I chose to hike in as many states as possible when visiting them, which did add a layer of difficulty and time to the objective. Near the end of my list, I decided to start working on visiting the 50 state highpoints as well… so I’ll be returning to several states in the coming years to complete that objective!

Thru-Hiking States

One truly wonderful way to visit any place is to hike in its wild places. In the United States we have many long-distance hiking trails which make it easy to see vast tracts of wildlands within many of the individual states. This method is how I visited 22 states (several of which I’d seen from the interstate as a child). The Appalachian Trail alone traverses 14 states along the Eastern US. I also completed my first visit to 3 states while hiking the Pacific Crest Trail, and 5 along the Continental Divide Trail. I’ve also completed the 800-mile-long Arizona Trail which traverses the entire length of that state and is a fantastic showcase of all it has to offer.

Many states have a “state trail” that you can explore. Some examples include Wisconsin’s Ice Age Trail, Ohio’s Buckeye Trail, and Florida’s Florida Trail. You can find a map of the long trails in the United States here: https://www.backpacker.com/trips/long-trails/map-americas-long-trails/

High Pointing

Only a handful of the state highpoints are technical. Most involve driving close to the top, or following a well-established trail. Even the ones that are in the midst of cornfields can be quite lovely to visit. One of my unexpected favorites was the high point of Oklahoma which was a nice hike through a canyon and onto a mesa.

You can find a complete list of state high points as well as additional pertinent information here: https://highpointers.org/us-highpoint-guide/


To be completely honest, cities are not my thing. However, planning your trip around major or historical cities can be a really wonderful way to see a new state. Some of my favorite city trips when visiting all the states were Savannah, New Orleans, and the historical tour of Boston. Be sure to plan out the restaurants, museums, art galleries, tours, and historical sites on a map before you visit to keep things streamlined.

National Parks, Monuments, and Battlefields

Every state has an NPS administered site. Not all of these are “Parks” but they include National Historic Sites, National Monuments, National Lakeshores, etc. Adding some of these 423 destinations to your itinerary can add a lot of variety. Find the units here: https://www.nps.gov/aboutus/national-park-system.htm

Stories from the Trail

Arizona will always have a special place in my heart as the first place I went hiking. Not long after I decided to visit all the states, I had the opportunity to work a summer job at the Grand Canyon. It seemed like the perfect way to see another state, a wonder of the world, and make some money at the same time. So off I went.

What I didn’t know was that while I was there, I would discover my life’s passion: hiking. Over the summer I hiked over 70 miles in and around the Canyon. Years later I returned to Arizona to thru-hike the entire 800-mile-long Arizona Trail while setting a Fastest Known Time. It was a beautiful example of full-circle living.

I’d never set foot in California until I thru-hiked the Pacific Crest Trail in 2005. I’d imagined palm trees and coastline, but the PCT revealed a shockingly diverse state: from desert to alpine and thick, deep forests. It was while thru-hiking the PCT that I met David Horton and Flyin’ Brian Robinson on Horton’s attempt to set a supported fastest known time on the PCT. That meeting would inspire me to later set the self-supported fastest known time on the PCT (yes, faster than Horton’s record!) as well as become the first woman to complete the Calendar Year Triple Crown, which was a feat only Robinson had done at that time. Once again, the trail provided a serendipitous experience that foreshadowed future experiences.

In 2006 I thru-hiked the Continental Divide Trail. It was a very wild trail without trail markings in many parts. One area that was well marked was Colorado. The CDT utilizes the network of trails in the state including the Colorado Trail. However, I learned a valuable lesson about high altitude. No matter how distinct and well-marked the trail, being in the wilderness at altitude opens you up to more risk from elements.

While hiking through the Weminuche Wilderness in mid-September my hiking partner and I were caught in a huge snowstorm. We hunkered down under a tree and watched the snow come down, piling up faster than an inch per hour. We pulled out our maps and found a trail that seemed to go down to a highway. Without any knowledge about the trail, other than knowing we couldn’t stay up on the Divide, we headed down the trail.

The trail descended rapidly and eventually began traversing through a deep canyon forested with thick pines. We hiked in silence as snow floated down around us as though we were in a snow globe. As dusk fell the silence was broken by the haunting sounds of elk bugles echoing throughout the canyon. Despite the seriousness of the situation, it was the most beautiful segment of our entire hike and endeared wild Colorado to me forever.

On the Appalachian Trail in 2003 I decided that I wanted to push my limits and find out what I was capable of while hiking across Connecticut. I determined that I wanted to hike 50 miles in one day—nearly the entire state. I began at daybreak and hiked hard all day long. I’d never hiked that far in a day before and by nightfall I was still several miles from my goal. I was underprepared for what I’d taken on and had no headlamp. As I stumbled through the dark by moonlight and the tiny emergency click-light I carried, I crossed the last road and began ascending toward Bear Mountain. I heard the church bells of Salisbury chime midnight as I climbed through the pitch-dark forest. A mile or so later I laid down on a large flat rock and fell asleep. A few hours later I jolted awake, realizing that I only had a short time left to make it to my goal before 24 hours had elapsed. I hurried through the woods as the sky grew progressively lighter. I reached the Brassie Brook Shelter at dawn, successful. It was the start of a long career of pushing myself to travel light and fast on trails and in the mountains.

After I completed the Appalachian Trail, I took a job working for the National Park Service in Montana at Glacier National Park. I’d never hiked in grizzly terrain, but I quickly fell in love with the area so much that the nervousness about it ceased mattering. While there I traveled around Montana, seeing more of the wild places. However, the park itself became home. One of the most memorable things that happened to me there was the day I descended from a pass and encountered a sow grizzly with 3 small cubs. They were far enough away that I wasn’t afraid. Instead, I watched them in fascinated wonder. Seeing places by hiking was once again one of the most rewarding ways to visit them.

This method of visiting places on foot has continued throughout my life. In the fall of 2021, I hiked the 77-mile-long Foothills Trail in South Carolina. It was a gorgeous hike through the mountains of western South Carolina. Although I had been to the coastal region many times, it was surprising and rewarding to see the mountains of this underestimated state. Looking for the hiking options when visiting new states is a great way to see a place you think you know in a new light.

Stories from the Road

I often live out of a vehicle for months at a time, traveling to various hiking and climbing destinations. I’ve checked of several states on these long trips. Driving cross-country really opens up a lot of options for ways to visit states. Sometimes, you discover things quite by accident. Arkansas was one of the last states I needed to visit. As I was driving on the freeway an accident brought traffic to a standstill. So, Google maps quickly rerouted me onto secondary roads across the state.

This is how I discovered Toltec Mounds Archaeological State Park. This encompasses the largest archaeological site in the Lower Mississippi region and preserves important Native American History. I enjoyed the walking trails, mounds, and museum on my impromptu visit.

Kansas is not a state that most people expect much of, yet it had one of my favorite campsites on a 4-month long 2021 road trip. I found a fishing lake that allowed for overnight camping and came in near sunset. As I drove around the lake looking for a site, I was treated to a sublime sunset. That night I fell asleep in the tent listening to the sounds of waterfowl, frogs, and the occasional fish splash. The next day I went running around the lake on the dirt roads. I saw few people and was truly blown away by the natural beauty of the area. Again, it took getting off of the interstate to find this treasure.

Nevada is a state where most people think of one place—Las Vegas. Across the state from the neon lights and casinos is a well-kept secret. Great Basin National Park has the second highest mountain in the state as well as many miles of trails in beautiful alpine and sub-alpine environments. While there I hiked a good deal of the trails as well as the peak. I was constantly reminded of the much more popular Sierra Nevada. Unlike the Sierra, Great Basin was not crowded and backcountry camping does not even require permits. In addition, there are some very well-known caves inside the park, however tickets for those sell out in advance. Even without seeing those (the most popular attraction in the park) I had no problem staying enthralled for several days and I hope to go back in the future.

Completion of a Goal

Rhode Island was the final state I needed to visit to achieve my goal of visiting all 50. In the fall of 2021, I drove to New England. I had hoped to hike the 70+ mile North-South Trail that traverses the length of the state, however the trail has logistical issues with camping. So, I decided to simply drive up and then cap off the trip with going to the high point of Rhode Island while I were there.

It was a sunny, lovely day when I parked along the highway and walked the half mile to the “summit” of Jerimoth Hill. I packed a lunch and celebrated another high point the official end of my 50-state quest.

About the Author

Heather Anderson is a National Geographic Adventurer of the Year, three-time Triple Crown thru-hiker, and professional speaker whose mission is to inspire others to “Dream Big, Be Courageous.” She is also the author of two hiking memoirs Thirst: 2600 Miles to Home and Mud, Rocks, Blazes: Letting Go on the Appalachian Trail and a preparatory guide to long-distance hiking Adventure Ready. Find her on Instagram @_WordsFromTheWild_ or her website wordsfromthewild.net

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  1. Ah, Rhode Island. Some trail runner friends and I completed the NS trail in 2015, before I moved away. It’s a cool trail. There’s a campground at the northern most part (George Washington Management Area) so if you are doing a N to S run/hike, camp there and have a car down at Blue Shutters, or get a Lyft back up to GW. There’s also Burlingame Campground at the southern part, where the trail skirts the state park.

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