Experiencing the best hikes in the national park system
Our national parks are home to some of the biggest mountains, grandest views, and best trails in the country. Here are eight truly epic national park hiking trails to add to your adventure bucket list.
The Narrows — Zion National Park, Utah
Turquoise water, lush vegetation, and multi-colored thousand foot cliffs illuminated by the midday sun… We’ve all seen pictures of the Zion Narrows inside Zion National Park, but there’s nothing like seeing this southern Utah oasis in person. Exploring it requires splashing your way down the riverbed (a.k.a., the trail), sometimes in waist-deep water. It can be tough, but on a hot day, it feels absolutely glorious.
If you only have a couple of hours, start at the Riverside Walk Trail and head upstream into the Narrows as far as you want before turning around. Make sure to stop at one of the beaches for a dip in the Virgin River. For a longer adventure and a little more seclusion, get dropped off at the very top of the Narrows, at Chamberlain Ranch, and take one or two days to make your way downriver; this route covers the entire 16-mile long canyon.
Clouds Rest — Yosemite National Park, California
Skip the lines at Half Dome (and the cumbersome permit process) and get an even higher vantage point of Yosemite National Park from the top of Clouds Rest. At 9,931 feet, the summit of Clouds Rest towers over Half Dome by more than 1,500 feet and offers iconic views of the glacier-carved Little Yosemite Valley.
Cloud’s Rest, photo by Kristen Bor
The summit alone is worth the 1,800 feet of elevation gain, but the real highlight of the trail is the tapered ridge that leads to the summit, where you face a sharp, 5,000 foot drop-off on both sides. It’s challenging but totally non-technical terrain, and it only requires that you go slow and watch your footing. The easiest and most common route is 14 miles round trip and departs from the western end of Tenaya Lake on the Tuolumne side of the park. Get those lungs ready, because more than half of the elevation gain occurs right off the bat. Note that the road is typically closed from November to late May.
Swiftcurrent Pass — Glacier National Park, Montana
Fourteen miles of alpine views, ample water, and wildflowers make the hike to Swiftcurrent Pass one of the best in Glacier National Park. Wildlife encounters are also common on this trail. Watch out for moose, mountain goats, and the occasional grizzly (park officials recommend carrying bear spray, which is available for rent). With 2,400 feet of elevation gain, this hike is pretty tough, but the final push to the top of Swiftcurrent Pass gets hikers panoramic views of permanent snowfields, steep peaks, and five glacial-fed lakes.
Old Rag — Shenandoah National Park, Virginia
There aren’t too many places in the mid-Atlantic where you can get above tree line. Old Rag, in Shenandoah National Park, is one of them. While the Blue Ridge Mountain views from the 3,291-foot summit are gorgeous, especially in fall, the real draw of Old Rag is the journey to the top. A good chunk of the trail is defined only by large granite slabs and requires hikers to scramble up and over some pretty hefty boulders, posing an exciting challenge. For the best experience, try and visit on a weekday when you’ll find fewer people on the trail.
Wonderland Trail, photo by Kristen Bor
Wonderland Trail — Mount Rainier National Park, Washington
The Wonderland Trail is 93 miles of pure evergreen goodness inside Mount Rainier National Park that loops all the way around Mt. Rainier, one of the country’s most recognizable volcanoes.
As the fifth-tallest mountain in the Lower 48, Rainer’s shadow has landscapes that include roaring rivers, vibrant meadows dotted with wildflowers, and jagged snow-capped peaks. Most hikers take nine or more days to complete the trail in its entirety, and the steep terrain suggests that training beforehand is wise. For those who can’t or don’t want to do the whole thing, you can hit the trail for a day-hike using one of the many access points in the park.
The Precipice Trail — Acadia National Park, Maine
Acadia National Park’s Precipice Trail covers two miles, so you’d think it’d make for an easy jaunt. Nope. This challenging and exposed loop trail requires climbing up ladders and making use of iron handrails that have been installed along the trail as you navigate the steep granite ledges. Those who aren’t thwarted by the trail’s demands are rewarded with summit views from the top of Champlain Mountain that extend all the way down to the rocky Maine coastline.
Viewfinder Tip: A general rule of thumb is to allow 1 hour for every 3.1 miles forward, plus 1 hour for every 2,000 feet of ascent.
Devil’s Garden Trail — Arches National Park, Utah
While Delicate Arch is the most popular site in Arches National Park, why limit yourself to just one arch? Devil’s Garden is a slightly primitive and lesser-traveled loop trail that follows quintessential southern Utah slickrock to not one, but a whopping eight arches in just seven miles. Among these are Landscape Arch, considered to be the longest natural arch on the planet at almost 300 feet, and Double O Arch, where you get a two-for-one. Not only that, but the Devil’s Garden Trail offers vast desert views the entire time. Summers here get unbearably hot, so try to visit in the spring or fall, and if you want to camp, make sure to book your site as far in advance as possible.
Mount Ida — Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado
If big mountain views are what you’re after, the trail to Mount Ida in Rocky Mountain National Park is your ticket. Starting at the Poudre Lake Trailhead, you’ll be above the tree-line for eight of the trail’s 10 miles. With hikers and peak baggers drawn to Colorado’s 14,000 foot peaks, it’s also likely that you’ll have much of the trail to yourself on your way to the 12,889-foot summit. Keep an eye out for the elk and bighorn sheep that like to hang out at high elevations, and watch for cairns marking the trail as you make your final ascent. It’s also recommended that you start your hike early to avoid the afternoon thunderstorms that can be common in the region during summer.
What’s your dream hike? Let us know in the comments.
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