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2 Years, 6,800 Miles, and 27 Pairs of Shoes: First Woman Solo Hikes the ADT

The American Discovery Trail stretches from coast to coast, covering 6,800 miles. Briana DeSanctis just became the first woman ever to solo-thru hike it.
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Early on Saturday, February 10, 2024, Briana DeSanctis reached the coast of California, removed her weathered Altra trail running shoes, and waded barefoot into the cold water of the Pacific Ocean. The moment marked the end of a 6,800-mile journey that had taken the 40-year-old ultralight hiker just over 2 years to complete — and one that would make her the first woman to solo hike the entire American Discovery Trail (ADT).

“I finished the American Discovery Trail this morning,” DeSanctis wrote in her Instagram post on Sunday, Feb. 12. “What a lot of feelings.”

DeSanctis started the ADT on Jan. 1, 2022, determined to inspire young women and hikers across the country. But the story of what led her to the ADT, and eventually to the Pacific Ocean, started years before that in Maine, where she grew up. Over a decade ago, DeSanctis started hiking sections of the Appalachian Trail (AT) on her days off from work and fell in love with it.

Hungry for more, she eventually set out to thru-hike the AT, northbound. DeSanctis started on March 5, 2015, and arrived at the terminus atop Mount Katahdin on Sept. 17 — completing the trail in just under 7 months.

“It was the best time of my life. I had so much fun. I made so many friends and it was a great experience,” DeSanctis told GearJunkie in January, just prior to setting out on the final leg of the ADT. “But I left the AT feeling like I just wanted something more. It wasn’t as hard as I thought it was going to be.”

DeSanctis wanted something more challenging — but she wasn’t quite sure what that was. So, she started looking. And it wasn’t long before she set her sights on the 6,800-mile coast-to-coast network of hiking trails that makes up the ADT, “the most behemoth trail I’d ever seen,” she remarked.

She dove into the research, learning as much as she could over the next few years. When she realized that no woman had ever solo-hiked the ADT, her fascination turned into determination. If she could pull this off it would not only change her life but could inspire many others — and she knew that she was capable of it.

“Then, finally, in 2022 I was ready,” DeSanctis said. She quit her job, moved out of her apartment, put her stuff in storage, and set out on the greatest adventure of her life.

Briana DeSanctis on the American Discovery Trail

Finding a campsite along the ADT; (photo/Briana DeSanctis)

According to the American Discovery Trail Society, 20 million Americans live within 10 miles of the ADT. Established in 1992, the trail starts on the Delmarva Peninsula in Delaware and ends at the Pacific Ocean in Northern California. It passes through 14 National Parks and 16 National Forests.

Some ADT sections coincide with other distance hikes like the Pony Express Trail, Kokopelli Trail, Continental Divide Trail, and Colorado Trail. Essentially, it’s what De Sanctis describes as “walking across America.”

But unlike many other thru-hikes, the ADT splits in the middle, featuring dual east/west routes between Cincinnati and Denver. Most people who hike this trail choose one route or the other. DeSanctis did both.

She started with the southern route, which dips down into Kentucky, passes through Southern Illinois, Missouri, and Kansas, and then enters Colorado in the southeast. The northern route goes through Indiana, Northern Illinois, Iowa, and Nebraska. It enters Colorado in the northwest corner of the state.

Asked which route she preferred, DeSanctis half-jokingly replied, “I hated them both equally.”

She clarified that both were just long slogs through largely flat and featureless terrain, and the northern route was especially miserable because she was doing it in winter. Still, she said the people she met and the encounters she had were genuinely inspiring. There were Trail Angels and Trail Magic at every step of the journey, she said; and oftentimes, the people helping her had never heard of either.

“One of my biggest takeaways was just how much kindness I’ve been shown by other people,” she said.

Highlights, Low Points, and ‘West Is Best’

(Photo/Briana DeSanctis)

Asked which half of the trail she liked better, east or west, again, DeSanctis didn’t hesitate to answer: “The west is best,” she said. “Hands down.”

“I remember I was just entering Pueblo or leaving Pueblo or something, and it was the first time on this trail that I finally saw the [Rocky] mountains,” DeSanctis recalled. “And I was just so happy because I’d been anticipating that. I remember thinking, ‘I just walked 2,700 miles for my first view.'”

From Denver, the ADT links up with the Colorado Trail (CT) and the Great Divide Trail passing through Georgetown, Leadville, and Buena Vista, and exiting the state near the western town of Loma.

One of the most challenging days in the entire trail took place in this section of the ADT. DeSanctis was camping up near Lake Anne Pass when she saw a disheveled-looking hiker coming down from the pass. She asked him casually how it had been, and he sat down next to her.

“He just completely unloaded on me,” she said. The hiker had been turned back by the pass twice already. A huge cornice of snow — an ‘ice wall’ as he described — was blocking the route, and there was no way safely past it.”

A selfie in her tent, surrounded by snow; (photo/Briana DeSanctis)

The next morning when she woke up, she said she was nervous about what lay ahead. The hiker’s words had stuck with her. And indeed, when she got to the top of the pass, the snow was almost impassable. Almost.

“I got up there and I was terrified. Like, that’s the only time I’ve been scared on this entire trail was when I was trying to get through that. It was just so narrow, and we made it across just in time,” she said.

At one point on an extremely steep patch of snow, she dropped her trekking pole and watched it descend, sliding out of control below. Had she lost her footing or slipped even a little, her fate would have been the same.

But DeSanctis made it through Lake Anne Pass — if barely — and she continued west.

Briana DeSanctis Crosses the ADT Finish Line

Briana in Utah; (pPhoto/Briana DeSanctis)

She followed the ADT into Utah. There, it links up with the Kokopelli Trail, the Great Western Trail, and several others. Then, she crossed into Nevada hiking along the Pony Express National Historic Trail, Tahoe Rim Trail, and others.

And, finally, in January 2024, just after she’d spoken with GearJunkie, she set out on the final leg of her journey. The last 200 miles. And it was all through California, palm trees, wine country, and eventually the Pacific Ocean: DeSanctis’s terminus.

When GearJunkie caught up with DeSanctis on the Monday after she finished the trail, she seemed both excited and reflective.

“The first step is the hardest step. But the hardest thing to do is usually the best thing to do,” DeSanctis wrote in a text message when asked what she hopes people can take away from her journey. “Even the biggest goals can be met by taking little steps.”

DeSanctis’s journey is far from over. As she travels back toward Maine, she’ll be stopping to give talks at some of her favorite places along the ADT, with the hope of inspiring others.

“It feels great to have opened up this new world to be able to speak to other people and to empower the youth of America by teaching others that anything that they set out to do can be accomplished,” DeSanctis said.

DeSanctis also writes a column for the Daily Bulldog called America on Two Feet. She says she’s also working on a potential book about her solo-hike experience on the ADT.

DeSanctis will stay busy. She knows she’ll soon start saving up, researching, looking for her next big challenge — doing everything she can to stay outside.

Inside Briana DeSanctis’s Pack: The Gear She Used

(Photo/Briana DeSanctis)

Briana DeSanctis said when she first started on the AT, she was not all that interested in how light her pack could be. She was largely using things from Walmart and thrift stores. But as she spent more time on the trail and talked with more gear nerds, she started to gain an appreciation for the ultralight mindset.

So now Briana DeSanctis, a qualified obsessive, has her backpacking gear dialed. We talked with her about the most essential gear kit. Here was what she pointed to.

If you were going to hike 6,800 miles and spend 2 years on trail, what would you bring?

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