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20 Legendary Day Hikes In The National Parks

by Robert Earle Howells: The greatest hikes in U.S. national parks aren’t necessarily the longest. Here are 20 treks that get hikers into the best a park has to offer in just a day…

Picture of Icefield Trail in Kenai Fjords National Park


Hike: Harding Icefield Trail
Round-Trip: 9 miles
When to Go:
July to August
Level: Easy

Over the course of this steep, steady ascent—the trail gains nearly 1,000 feet a mile—you’ll leave the world as you know it and enter the frigid realm of the Pleistocene epoch, or what’s left of it. You’ll skirt Exit Glacier along the way, and hear its cracking ice. But Kenai Fjord‘s Harding Icefield is the real payoff for your effort. It covers more than 700 square miles of the Kenai Mountains in the same glacial ice that blanketed much of south-central Alaska over 23,000 years ago. The vast world of ice will take away what’s left of your breath.

Insider Tip: Watch for black bears and mountain goats along the way. Pack dry clothes for your downhill return.

Picture of Grand Teton National Park


Hike: Highline Trail
One-Way: 11.5 miles
When to Go: Summer
Level: Moderate

Glacier’s fabled Highline Trail from Logan Pass Visitor Center to The Loop on Going-to-the-Sun Road embodies all the wild, almost treeless glory of the park’s high country—soaring peaks and ostentatious wildflowers, plus the possibility of spotting mountain goats, bighorn sheep, and bears. (Be sure to maintain a safe distance between you and the critters.) Although the hike follows the course of the Continental Divide, it’s surprisingly easy, mainly because it remains a merciful 2,000 feet beneath the Divide’s serrated summits (and, thanks to the park shuttle, you don’t have to retrace your steps). Midway, take the 0.9-mile Grinnell Glacier Overlook Spur for a high view of the rapidly retreating glacier. Then take a break at historic backcountry Granite Park Chalet before dropping steeply down to The Loop trailhead on Going-to-the-Sun Road for a shuttle ride back.

Insider Tip: Highline Trail is typically not free of snow until mid- to late July.

Picture of a hiker in Olympic National Park, Washington


Hike: Hoh River Trail to Cougar Creek
Round-Trip: 9 miles
When to Go: Late June through September
Level: Easy

The Hoh Rain Forest, which gets up to 14 feet of rain a year, is one of the finest temperate rain forests in the U.S. This hike in Olympic National Park plunges right into its deep, mossy, densely forested core. Though it parallels and flirts with the Hoh River, this mostly level trail remains mainly beneath the canopy of massive old-growth trees—bigleaf maple, western hemlock, Sitka spruce, and Douglas fir. Fallen giants serve as “nurse logs” to saplings. Giant ferns rise from the soft forest floor. But for the sound of the river and perhaps some rain tapping on leaves, a hush prevails here.

Insider Tip: The trail actually runs a total of 17.4 miles to Glacier Meadows, trailhead for an ascent of Mount Olympus. At 2.7 miles you’ll pass by Mineral Creek Falls on the Hoh River, and later a spot known as One Square Inch of Silence—considered by preservationists to be the quietest place in America. If you can, continue to Cougar Creek at 4.5 miles, where you can hike through a remarkable stand of old-growth western red cedars.

Picture of Arches National Park, Devil's Garden trail


Hike: Devils Garden Trail to Landscape Arch
Round-Trip: 1.6 miles
When to Go: Year-round
Level: Easy

In a park that contains the most concentrated collection of natural sandstone arches in the world, none is more inspiring than Landscape Arch. One of Earth’s longest arches at more than a football field in length, it looks like a red rainbow and seems nearly as delicate—a long, thin section tapers to just six feet thick. It frames a landscape of sandstone hills punctuated by piñon pines and junipers. Arch lovers particularly favor this hike because it passes by two arches before Landscape—Tunnel and Pine Tree. If you’re seeking a challenge, continue around the Devils Garden Primitive Loop to see more arches and complete a strenuous 7.2-mile round-trip.

Insider Tip: Since parking is limited at the trailhead and summer days are very hot, get an early start for this hike.

Picture of a man hiking in North Cascades National Park with view of Mount Baker


Hike: Cascade Pass to Sahale Arm Trail
When to Go: July to September
Round-Trip: 12 miles
Level: Strenuous

Cascade Pass Trail is the most direct route to the essence of the North Cascades—true alpine high country with craggy summits that look like multiplied Matterhorns. After six miles and an elevation gain of more than almost 4,000 feet, you’ll come face-to-face with the foot of the Sahale Glacier and views of trophy peaks, such as Johannesburg, with its hanging glaciers. You may even be able to spot Mount Rainier in the far distance on a clear day.

Insider Tip: By camping at Sahale Glacier, you position yourself to bag 8,680-foot Sahale Peak by way of the glacier the next day. You’ll need mountaineering skills for the ascent. Backcountry permits to stay overnight are available 60 days in advance, but some walk-up permits are available daily at the park’s Marblemount Wilderness Information Center.

Picture of a park ranger in Mammoth Cave National Park


Hike: Wild Cave Tour
Round-Trip: 6 miles
When to Go: Year-round
Level: Strenuous

Most cave tours are sedate affairs, floodlit with mood lighting and gussied up with amenities such as stairways and handrails. That’s not the case with Mammoth Cave’s Wild Cave Tour, where you’ll slither sideways through narrow crawlways with names like Birth Canal and No Name Pass. The passageways are so narrow that visitors with chest or hip measurement that exceed 42 inches are steered to a more conventional tour. Plan on some crawling, crouched duckwalking, free climbing, and plenty of upright walking deep inside the world’s longest cave system. It’s a six-hour challenge, but the reward is hard-earned looks at astounding limestone formations, including a view of the Cathedral Domes for the luckiest visitors.

Insider Tip: The Park Service provides outerwear, knee pads, helmets, coveralls, and headlamps, but you’ll need ankle-high boots and a change of clothes and footwear.

Picture of Fern Lake Trail in Rocky Mountain National Park


Hike: Cascade Canyon Trail to Lake Solitude
Round-Trip: 14.4 miles with a shuttle boat trip, 17.4 miles without a shuttle boat trip
When to Go: Summer and early fall
Level: Moderate

The magnificence of Grand Teton National Park is in full display when you hike west from Jenny Lake up Cascade Canyon. Early on, you can do two short out-and-back hikes: one to Hidden Falls and one to Inspiration Point, with its wonderful view down to Jenny Lake and the mountains that frame Jackson Hole. (After 2017, Hidden Falls and Inspiration Point will be connected by a revitalized trail.) As you continue west, look toward the Cathedral Group—Grand Teton, Mount Owen, and Teewinot—towering above you like church spires. Press on, and the crowds will diminish. You’re likely to see moose grazing diffidently to the side of the trail. Though you can turn back anytime and have a great hike, Lake Solitude near the end of the canyon is a superb reward. There you can see the sheer rock face of Grand Teton and an open bowl spangled with mountain bluebells, columbine, paintbrush, larkspur, lupine, hyssop, and pink sticky geraniums.

Insider Tip: Save three miles of hiking by taking the shuttle boat across Jenny Lake and begin your hike from the west shore.

Picture of hikers in Wrangell-St Elias National Park, Alaska


Hike: Root Glacier Trail
Round-Trip: 4 miles
When to Go: Summer
Level: Moderate

This hike in the heart of the country’s largest national park is quintessentially Alaskan. It brings you up close to a magnificent glacier, views of the nearby mountains, and historic mining ruins. From McCarthy, take a shuttle for a fee to Kennecott and start the hike in Kennecott Mill Town. The trail heads north, crosses over Bonanza Creek, then traverses the lateral moraines of the Kennicott and Root Glaciers before reaching Root Glacier. Proceed very cautiously, and, if you’d like to get to the heart of the glacier, with crampons.

Insider Tip: Local outfitters lead guided hikes with crampons if you desire the full glacier experience. Depending on the changing landscape, you’ll see some combination of beautiful blue pools, sculpted concavities of ice, and cascading waterfalls.

Picture of Grand Canyon National Park


Hike: Rim Trail, Maricopa Point to Hermits Rest
One-Way: 6.4 miles
When to Go: Year-round
Level: Easy

Any section of the Rim Trail serves up jaw-dropping looks into the Grand Canyon, but the unpaved section between Powell Point and Monument Creek is a dirt path and feels more like a genuine hike than its paved sections. But what’s underfoot doesn’t matter as much as what lies just beyond—canyons within canyons and cauldrons of rapids far below. Hike it late in the day and watch the sunset over the scene.

Insider Tip: Head to Maricopa Point by park shuttle (not available in the winter) to start the hike, then take the shuttle back from Hermits Rest to Grand Canyon Village when you’re done. Be sure to keep track of your time, since the last one leaves 30 minutes after sunset.

Picture of Upper Yosemite Falls, California


Hike: Yosemite Falls Trail
Round-Trip: 7 miles
When to Go: Late spring to early summer
Level: Strenuous

In Yosemite, you can be a gawker or you can be part of the action. This is an action hike. It starts with a stimulating climb up from the floor of Yosemite Valley—2,700 feet of climbing in 3.6 miles—right to the top of the tallest cascade in North America, fifth tallest in the world. You’ll stand where Yosemite Creek plunges off the granite rim of the valley, 2,425 feet above the gawkers clustered at the bottom of the lower fall. Along the way you get a great look at the hard-to-see middle cascade, plus views of the valley that will make you feel like a big-wall rock climber.

Insider Tip: If you’re not inclined to go to the top, a worthy turnaround spot is the one-mile point, about a half mile past Columbia Rock, where you’ll get a view of both the middle cascade and the base of the upper fall—and you may be refreshed by its mist.

Picture of a historic fire lookout tower built by Civilian Conservation Corps in 1937


Hike: Mount Cammerer and Big Creek Loop
17.8 miles
When to Go: Spring through fall
Level: Strenuous

This hike touches one of the most remote sections of the Appalachian Trail and provides visitors with one of the park’s best views. From Big Creek Ranger Station in the northeast part of the park, hike the Chestnut Branch Trail to the Appalachian Trail. Then travel westward to 4,928-foot Mount Cammerer, where a 0.6-mile spur leads to a fire tower made of a rock and wood by the Civilian Conservation Corps during the Depression. It offers a view of the east end of the park—showcasing seemingly endless ridges of the forest-cloaked Smoky Mountains. Descend by way of Big Creek Trail.

Insider Tip: On the way back, pause to cool off in any of the deep pools that lie beneath tumbling cascades along Big Creek.

Picture of a hiker in Acadia National Park


Hike: Sargent Mountain Loop
Round-Trip: 4.8 miles
When to Go:
May to October
Level: Strenuous

One of the charms of Acadia is the way its man-made improvements subtly enhance accessibility to its thick spruce-fir forests, rugged mountains, and steep cliffs. Such is the case with this loop that rises from the park’s most civilized venue, Jordan Pond House at 200 feet to the 1,373-foot summit of Sargent Mountain. On the way, you’ll skirt Jordan Cliffs, though the section is sometimes closed during peregrine falcon nesting season, and East Cliffs by way of constructed steps and fortuitously placed iron rungs, making the hike possible, though far from easy. The reward is a view of Mount Desert Island and its surrounding bodies of water—Somes Sound, Frenchman Bay, and the Gulf of Maine—and an inland vista that extends on a clear day to distant Mount Katahdin.

Insider Tip: Cool off with a brisk plunge into Sargent Pond on your way down from the mountain.

Picture of a hiker in Zion National Park


Hike: Angels Landing
Round-Trip: 5.5 miles
When to Go:
March to October
Level: Strenuous

Zion’s red-rock walls and sandstone canyons are stunning from any perspective, but none is more rewarding than the one from the top of the sandstone fin known as Angels Landing. Earning the view requires some serious sweat equity. The first couple miles gently skirt the Virgin River on the West Rim Trail and pass through Refrigerator Canyon. Then the heart thumping commences—climb up the 21 switchbacks called Walter’s Wiggles and up an exposed rock spine that requires the aid of built-in chains. The drop-off on either side is 1,000 feet, meaning this is definitely not a hike for anyone with a fear of heights, nor for children. Suddenly it’s all at your feet—360 degrees of canyon walls, piñon-juniper forests, the Virgin River, and distant, craggy peaks.

Insider Tip: Get out early for the best light on the rocks and to minimize company on the narrow trail.

Picture of Bear Gulch Cave Trail, Pinnacles National Park, California


Hike: High Peaks to Bear Gulch Loop
Round-Trip: 6.7 miles
When to Go:
September through May
Level: Strenuous

America’s newest national park is a dramatic realm of volcanic spires, boulders, and summits that rise out of the grassy hills of the Salinas Valley. See much of the park’s features on this challenging hike that gains 1,425 feet en route to its namesake pinnacles formation. Watch for two standout threatened species: California condors soaring high above and Townsend’s big-eared bats hanging out in Bear Gulch Caves (closed roughly from mid-May to mid-July). Formed by tumbles of talus boulders, these are not true caves, but they’re fascinating and labyrinthine, replete with hidden waterfalls. Bring a flashlight.

Insider’s Tip: Rock climbers will find compelling intermediate routes on the park’s volcanic breccia rock, but it can be cookie-crumbly. First-timers should secure a guide by contacting Friends of Pinnacles for a list of guiding services.

Picture of hikers near Fern Lake Trail in Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado


Hike: Bear Lake to Fern Lake Loop
Round-Trip: 9 miles
When to Go: Summer to mid-fall
Level: Moderate

This slice-of-heaven hike has everything you’d hope to find in a Rocky Mountainhike. Climb beside streams, pass roaring waterfalls and massive boulders, hike through forests, and reach high, trout-filled lakes—all beneath towering peaks. From the trailhead at Bear Lake, make a long steady climb before reaching Odessa Lake, then dropping to Fern Lake—both nestled below Little Matterhorn (11,586 feet), Knobtop (12,331), and Gabletop (11,939) Mountains. As you complete the open loop, you’ll pass by Marguerite Falls, Fern Falls, and the Pool—a swirling rock-walled water pocket beneath the confluence of Spruce and Fern Creeks with the Big Thompson River. Follow the Big Thompson out to the Fern Lake Trailhead.

Insider Tip: Take the Bear Lake shuttle from the Park & Ride lot to the trailhead at Bear Lake, do the hike, then meet the bus at the Fern Lake Trailhead. The Park & Ride fills by 10 a.m. on most summer and fall days, so plan ahead.

Picture of hikers at Tokopah Falls National Park, California


Hike: Lakes Trail to the Watchtower
Round-Trip: 7 miles
When to Go: Summer and fall
Level: Moderate

The start of this gradually rising hike through mixed conifers is pleasant enough, but when it breaks out of the woods, it becomes stunning. As you approach the park‘s Watchtower—a granite prominence high above the Marble Fork of the Kaweah River—you’ll get a bird’s-eye view of Tokopah Falls’ 1,200-foot cascades. Then, from the Watchtower itself, take in the grandeur of the High Sierra—the canyon of the Kaweah, the soaring peaks of the Great Western Divide beyond, and far below, the forests you traversed to get there.

Insider Tip: On the way to Wolverton Picnic Area, the trailhead for this hike, find trails that lead past the park’s famous giant sequoias, including the massive General Sherman Tree, 275 feet tall and 36.5 feet in diameter.

View of the Blue Ridge Mountains from Hawksbill Summit, in Shenandoah National Park, Virginia.


Hike: Hawksbill Loop
Round-Trip: 2.9 miles
When to Go: Spring through fall
Level: Moderate

One of the beauties of Shenandoah’s Skyline Drive is the access it provides to great hikes and high points in the park. This loop is a great hike and brings trekkers to the highest point in the park: Hawksbill’s 4,050 foot summit. Start at the Hawksbill Gap parking area (mile marker 45.6) and follow the white blazes south along the Appalachian Trail to the blue blazes that mark the Salamander Trail and switchback up to the summit. Watch for deer, grouse, and peregrine falcons. On the Appalachian Trail you’ll occasionally break out of the oak and hickory forest for views down into the Shenandoah Valley. And from the stone platform atop the summit, you’ll see tree-covered mountains, defined by hollows and valleys, and the distinctive rocky outline of Old Rag looming to the east. Return by way of the Lower Hawksbill Trail.

Insider Tip: If it’s windy at the top, the Byrd’s Nest Shelter below the summit provides a protected spot for a picnic.

Picture of wildflowers in Yellowstone National Park


Hike: Mount Washburn from Dunraven Pass Picnic Area
Round-Trip: 6.2 miles
When to Go: Summer and fall
Level: Strenuous

Wildflowers and wildlife are just two glories of this hike to the top of Yellowstone‘s 10,243-foot Mount Washburn. For mountain flowers, catch the best blooms during July and August. For the chance to spot peregrine falcons, elk, mule deer, bear, and—near the top—bighorn sheep, be sure to get an early start on the trail. Flora and fauna add tremendously to the trek, but this classic hike, a must-do that many visitors traverse over and over again, is really about the views. Passing in and out of the forest, you’ll get some fine vistas, but the jaw-dropper is from the summit—the site of a still-operating fire lookout. All of Yellowstone and more lies before you—Yellowstone Lake, Hayden Valley, the Absaroka and Beartooth Ranges, even the distant Grand Tetons. Allow time to linger.

Insider Tip: Looking south with a geological mind-set, you can imagine the giant Yellowstone Caldera, a crater that was caused by a supervolcano and contains the park’s famous hot spots.

Picture of a hiker in Haleakala Crater, Maui, Hawaii, USA


Hike: Halemau’u Trail
Round-Trip: 7.4 miles
When to Go: Year-round
Level: Moderate

Perhaps you’ve heard it before, but hiking on the Halemau’u Trail is like hiking on Mars. The otherworldly quality of this dramatic, 1,400-foot plunge to the floor of Haleakalā‘s crater is part of its thrill. Before leaving Earth you pass through native subalpine shrubland that looks exactly as it did 2,000 years ago—a rarity in Hawaii, which has been overrun by nonnative species. At Crater Rim Overlook, behold a dizzying view of the crater’s multicolored pu’u (hills). Then follow a switchback down a steep, narrow cliffside and across ancient lava flows on the crater floor until you reach Holua Cabin—a reasonable turnaround point for this apparently extraterrestrial voyage.

Insider Tip: Watch for natives along the way: pueo, a little owl, and nēnē, Hawaii’s endemic goose and state bird.

Picture of Mt. Rainier from the Summerland trail


Hike: Summerland Trail
Round-Trip: 8.5 miles
When to Go: Summer
Level: Moderate

As grand as Mount Rainier’s 14,410-foot summit may be, the subalpine meadow at 6,000 feet on its eastern flank is every bit as spectacular in its own way—particularly if you enjoy a dazzling show of wildflowers. This hike starts at Fryingpan Creek trailhead and climbs alongside glacier-fed Fryingpan Creek through old-growth forest then steepens before reaching a valley where clear-day views of mighty Rainier open up. Another half mile puts you onto Summerland Meadow and a glorious show of lupine, Indian paintbrush, and avalanche lilies. People tend to toss out Heidi and Sound of Music allusions here, but the reality is even grander.

Insider Tip: Watch for mountain goats and herds of elk, though you might have to settle for omnipresent marmots.

Source: National Geographic


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