Frequently Asked Questions about 50 Hikes 50 States Project

Two years to the day, we completed our 50 Hikes 50 States Project. What’d we learn? What’d we like? What was the best? worst? Top 5? We answer all your questions below. The number one question? How much did it cost? See below.

chugach mountains alaska
The USA is a gorgeous country with amazing hiking variety.

What Is the 50 Hikes 50 States Project

While I was working remotely in South America, I knew that when I returned home to the USA, I would have two years before setting out to start our nomad life. I had to wait for my daughter to graduate and my husband to retire. So what would I do for two years? Hike one hike in each state. Thus, the project was born.

How Did You Get to All 50 States?

Steve, my husband and co-conspirator of this project, applied to the Southwest personal credit card and then also applied as a business. Together with the two cards, he hacked enough points and status to earn a Companion Pass. A Companion Pass is Southwest’s way to reward its customer by providing one free ticket for every ticket purchased. Travel must be done together. By getting a Companion Pass, Steve and I were able to fly to enough destinations in the US together to hike 49 states. For Alaska, we flew Delta. Thus, the majority of the flights we flew via Southwest.

Since we live in Denver, we drove to some of the western hikes, including Montana, Wyoming, New Mexico, and Colorado. Nonetheless, these states can still be reached via Southwest’s airports such as Denver, Salt Lake City, and Albuquerque.

map of where we flew
The orange circles denote the airport into which we flew. Because we live in Denver, we didn’t actually fly into the airport, but Denver is the correct place to land to cover the mountain states.

How Did You Figure Logistics?

We set out a goal of completing the project in 2 years. We wanted to travel one weekend a month, which worked out to 24 weekends if we traveled each month. With 24 weekends, and 50 states, that would mean we would have to hike at least two states each time we traveled.

How Did You Pick the Hikes?

First, we started with lists created by other people. Outside magazine published an article about the 50 Best Hikes which inspired us. We soon learned that some of the “best hikes” were very long, remote, or too difficult. So we built two lists of criteria. One list revolved around finding the hikes and the other revolved around the types of hikes.

How Did You Create Criteria for Each Hike Location?

fly hike logistics
Generally, we flew out on a Friday, did three hikes over the weekend, and flew home either Sunday night or Monday morning.

To organize the states, we started a spreadsheet. It denoted the best season to hike each state. We then organized the spreadsheet by season. Within each season, we organized by geographic proximity. Once we had the stated clumped together, it was each to see which airport to fly into. Here is the spreadsheet.

Since the hikes happened on the weekend, we generally knew we’d fly into the chosen destination on a Friday evening and home on a Sunday evening. On three day weekends, we picked destinations furthest from Denver, and we would fly home on Monday with the goal of squeezing in a third hike late Sunday or early Monday. Generally, we’d try to land in the late afternoon on Friday and get in a Friday evening hike. On Saturday, we’d drive to the second hike of the weekend, then hike. Saturday night, we’d either stay near our second hike, or start driving back to the airport. We’d either do another hike on Sunday morning, or catch our flight home. If a Monday was available, we’d hike on Sunday and fly out Monday.

We tried to ensure we wouldn’t drive more than two hours to a trailhead. Although the goal was to hike, the side effect was we did a lot of driving. It was fun to see the countryside in ways we didn’t expect.

How Did You Create Criteria for Each Hike Type?

Since we had to cram the hikes into weekends, we couldn’t do exceptionally long hikes. Our comfort zone for a hike is 5 miles, and knowing who reads our blogs, we assumed 3-6 miles would be a nice comfort zone for our readers, too. We looked for moderate hikes, preferably 3-5 mile loops, and quintessentially unique to the state. Although we would be flexible on distance and type of hike (loop, lollipop, out-n-back), we kept as true as we could to the “quintessential” part. If the state was known for its mountains, we wanted to be sure we found the unique part of the mountains; ditto for coastlines, lakes, and forests.

Our hike criteria was flexible but we generally stuck to these main points.

Where Did You Stay?

Most of the trailheads were way out from the urban areas and suburbs. Thus, the popular hotel chains like Marriot and Hilton wouldn’t serve us. We signed up for the Wyndam Rewards program. The chains in this brand cater to secondary markets in out of the way places. Many of our stays were at Days Inn, La Quinta, Rodeway. Granted, these aren’t glamourous hotels, but they were affordable and clean.

What Gear Did You Use?

The carryon bag: Eagle Creek Road Warrior (review here)
The day pack: Osprey Talon 6 (review here)
The shoes: Either the Chaco Odyssey (review here) or the Hoka One Ones Boot with Bombas socks (review here)

What Wildlife Did You See?

Prairie dogs, marmots, mongoose, moose, deer, skunks, porcupines, bears, whales, bald eagles, hawks, rattle snakes, bison, coyote, wolves, foxes, mosquitos.

moose in alaska
Finally, a moose!

Where Did You Eat?

As vegans, we tried to seek out vegan restaurants, and as you can imagine, especially in rural areas, this was difficult. We’d find refuge in diners and family owned places. Sometimes we would just order sides of vegetables, or seek out the IGA’s frozen food section for a vegetarian meal we could warm up in the microwave. Other times, our overnight stay put us in places with award-winning vegan restaurants or places that catered to non-meat eaters. Googling helped.

best pizza ever
The Best Pizza Ever. Bonus, it’s vegan.

What Were the Top 5 Hikes?

This is a super hard question to answer because the US is full of so much beauty. But, since you’ve asked, we’ll list the top five, but these aren’t necessarily in “best” order.

  1. Cliff Walk, Newport, Rhode Island
  2. Guy Fleming Trail, Torrey Pines State Park, La Jolla, CA
  3. Sunset Ridge Trail, Waubonsie State Park, Iowa
  4. Mississippi Sand Hill Crane National Wildlife Refuge, Gautier, MS
  5. Iditarod Trail, Eagle River, AK

What Were the Least Favorite Hikes?

Sometimes the reason the hike hit the least favorite was not due to the hike. It might have been the people we stumbled upon, how we got lost, rain, or any other factors. So please don’t cross these off your list, just use our story as a way to make the hike better!

  1. Castle Windy Trail, Cape Canaveral National Seashore, New Smyrna Beach, FL
  2. West Prong Trail, Great Smokey Mountains, Townsend, TN
  3. Volksmarch Trail, Atlanta State Park, Atlanta, TX
  4. Lewis and Clark Trail, Weldon Spring Conservation Area, Hamburg, MI
  5. Blue Trail, Great Swamp National Wildlife Refuge, Vernon, NJ

Were There Any Surprises?

Sadly, masks became quite a statement as we hiked around the USA.

People are awesome. Masks are divisive. Political campaigns are machines. We drove the back roads and side roads of this amazing country, most of it during the 2020 election cycle. We drove past barns, road signs, yard signs and billboards. The one thing we found absolutely shocking is the consistent and persistent design of the Trump 2020 political signs. Every “hand painted” sign was exactly the same; we discovered that people were paid to let the Trump machine paint the sides of their barns, regardless of their political affiliation. Every barn sign was exactly the same; the signs weren’t done by the owners, rather professional sign makers.

Would You Do It All Over Again?

Yes. There a few states we’d like to try again with better hikes, including Oregon (without snowmageddon), Washington (without snowmageddon), Texas (anything else), North Carolina (too short), New Mexico (terrible trail) and New York (got lost.)

How Could You Drive the Same Project?

Although we only drove to a few states, we worked the logistics to drive all 48 states as efficiently as we could. Here is the route we planned out if you want to drive it. We’d start in Denver.

drive the usa map
If you were to drive to our hikes, this is the route

What Is Your Number One Recommendation?

Our plans changed so many times, sometimes even on game day at the trail head. Although we researched and planned, we still allowed for flexibility. The trail might be closed. Or muddy. We might get lost. The weather might not cooperate.

Thus, the number one recommendation is to talk to the locals. Whether or not they are in the visitors centers, at the local 7-11, or via a blog post or page, the locals will always have a better suggestion. And they might even invite you to hike with them!

What Was Your Favorite Hike?

Like our top five list above, it’s hard to pick a favorite hike. But I think the one that surprised us the most and fit right squarely in all of our themes was our Arkansas hike in Hot Springs National Park. It was cultural, historical, factual, natural, and surprising. The fact that the trail we picked to hike was actually prescribed by doctors to promote fitness and health seemed to be a meta-statement about the entire 50 Hikes 50 States Project.

What Was the Prettiest Hike?

Another tough one to pick, but I’ve got to go with my two home towns, San Diego and Denver. Topping the beauty of Torrey Pines might be next to impossible, but our Colorado hike at sunset might take the cake.

Colorful Colorado

What Was the Best Vegan Food?

Alaska’s vegan pizza certainly wins for the best pizza in the country. But our best vegan meal was in Asheville, NC at Early Girl Eatery. We arrived to the restaurant the first day after COVID shut down. To sit in a restaurant and get wait service felt like we had struck gold. And the food, well, it melted in our mouths and reminded us how fortunate we were to be traveling, hiking, and enjoying our beautiful country.

grit stack with veggies

How Much Did the Whole Project Cost?

This is a tough question to answer. We didn’t actually keep track of our expenses, but we had a loose budget. Plus, since we flew on a Southwest Companion Pass, our flights were buy one/get one, or half price for both of us. Additionally, we flew out of Denver International, which is relatively in the middle of the country, making our longest flight just over 3 hours (to Manchester.) Thus, roughly, the expenses looked like this:

Flights: 22 round trip flights (the other weekends we drove). ~$200 per trip for two, or $100 a piece. The most expensive flight was DEN-BOS for $350 roundtrip (for two). Flights were very cheap during COVID. Our Hawaii trip was $300 for two. I can’t imagine we’d be able to fly this cheaply again, now. Although we traveled every month from May 2019 to May 2021, we did not fly during peak COVID periods of November-January 2020-21, and instead when we drove. We did not frequent restaurants or other crowded spaces. We packed our own food.

Hotels: We paid for 55 nights of hotels. Sometimes we stayed with friends. Our budget was always less than $100, often it fell in the $60 range due to the locations of the hotel rooms. Being near trailheads often resulted in cheap, off-the-beaten-path hotel rooms. The average nightly price was probably $75.

Gas/Cars: Occasionally we would hack a free car rental, but our strategy was to save up all our points for air/hotel/car for our nomad life. Steve got a corporate rate of $40 a night at National, and weekend rates were often cheaper. We rented about 60 days of car rentals. Average day rate was about $40 with taxes. Gas for the car usually ended up being one tank per trip of about $40.

Food: We really didn’t “count” food in our budget as we have to eat anyway, and we didn’t really eat any differently on the road than if we would have been at home.

Miscellaneous: This would be entrance fees, souvenirs, etc. Most of the time we picked hikes that didn’t have entrance fees, or we could use our America the Beautiful Pass. Since we’re headed out to our nomad life, we also didn’t buy any souvenirs that’d we have to eventually give away or sell. So total cost in this category is less than $30.

So ballpark on a rough total of ~26 trips to get to 50 states to hike each state:

Air: $4400 (for two)
Car/Gas : $2400 rental and $1000 gas
Hotels: $4125
Misc: $30
—————
Total: ~$12000 (for two)

We figure $6000 annually for two years for two people to see 50 states is a pretty good deal. You may or may not agree. But for us, it was certainly in an investment in the best of what the USA has to offer, and we’re thrilled we were fortunate enough to take advantage of this wonderful experience. In addition we were able to bank tons of credits/points to use for future travel hacking (including our trips to Ireland to launch our nomad life.) Next time, I’d love to do it without having to cram the hikes into weekends.

Final Thoughts

a handsome couple
If you see us, say hi!

Even though I had visited all 50 states previously, getting on the ground, hiking in each one, and driving among them all was certainly one of the best travel experiences I’ve ever done. We have valleys, mountains, deserts, lakes, marshes, swamps, and everything in between. To so easily travel among them without a need for a passport, special visas, or other travel documents gives us a privilege that few in the world get to enjoy. We are lucky. Lucky. Lucky. Even if you can’t do all 50, please at least explore your state or your region. Think outside of the box. Find the local hike in the nearby county park. But no matter where you go or what you do, please just go!

What’s Next?

Now that we can “cross the USA off our list,” we’re off to explore the world. Literally. Two people. Two carryons. Two passports. One world. Follow along, won’t you? (click here to start following our nomad life)

nomad life

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handsome hiking couple

Chris and Steve, the empty-nesting nomads, travel the world, one month at a time, housesitting and Airbnbing along the way. We uncover urban walks, great hikes, and vegan/vegetarian eats that other guide books miss. And we throw in a bit about Forex trading along the way.

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