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National Parks Special
2007: Hiking
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The Best of the National Parks: Hiking
Fifty easy-to-execute plans that put you in the wild heart of America's national parks, whether you love hiking, paddling, climbing, wildlife viewing, or sublime lodges.   By Robert Earle Howells   Illustration by Jesse Lefkowitz

Illustration: Hiker's boot

National Parks 2007:

Best Hikes  Best Paddling  |  Best Wildlife  |  Best Treks 

Best Drives  |  Best Climbs  |  Best Lodges  |  See All National Parks

Best Trip: Rafting the Grand Canyon

Great Smoky Mountains National Park, Tennessee and North Carolina
Mount LeConte
There is beauty in balance, and of the peaks in the East (or West for that matter) none attain the ideal equilibrium of Mount LeConte. Views come at just the right moments. Knee-straining steeps and breath-catching breaks alternate as if they were planned. Along the way are forest, history, and geologic oddities. And though LeConte is not the highest summit in the park (it's the third), it has the greatest vertical relief of any mountain in the East (5,301 feet [1,616 meters]).

For a first go, take the 5.3-mile (9-kilometer) Alum Cave Trail, a classic for its steady, 2,500-foot (762-meter) ascent. At mile 1.4 (kilometer 2) you'll scramble up steep stone stairs beneath Arch Rock. Then, at Inspiration Point, you'll take in peregrine falcons performing acrobatics and distant ridgelines folding upon one another like a rumpled carpet. At mile 2.3 (kilometer 4) you'll reach Alum Cave, a great slate overhang and site of a Confederate saltpeter mine. It makes a handy shelter in the ever wet Smokies, where high country can receive up to 80 inches (203 centimeters) of rain annually. On the lower slopes you pass through groves of ten-foot (three-meter) rhododendrons, so lush they seem to have grown straight out of the Silurian. As you climb the steep saddle just below the summit, look for cable handholds; they're a godsend if it's wet or icy. Then you've arrived. Or have you? It takes an altimeter to ascertain the apex of LeConte's four-point massif, composed of West Point, Cliff Top, High Top, and Myrtle Point. For the record, High Top is it, but the best view is from Myrtle Point. On a good day, you can see clear to Pigeon Forge, which is Tennessean for "forever."

Inside Word: Carry a good-size rock with you from down below to place at High Top. Why? To honor the work of locals hoping to "grow" their favorite mountain into the park's highest.

Vitals: The Alum Cave Trail is accessed from Newfound Gap Road. For maps, visit At the summit, LeConte Lodge has cabins ($93;

Haleakala National Park, Hawaii
Halemauu Trail
Bereft of vegetation and striated with red-and-black cinder cones, volcanic Haleakala's summit crater is more like Mars than any spot on this blue planet. And the dramatic Halemauu Trail, which plunges a dizzying 1,200 feet (366 meters) and 2.1 miles (3 kilometers) from crater rim to floor, is the best way to experience it.

For maps, visit          
Point Reyes National Eashore, California
Tomales Point Trail
Wave-crashed headlands, islands teeming with gulls and cormorants, maybe even gray whales bound for Alaska—you can get it all on a ten-mile (16-kilometer) round-trip that starts near poppy-dappled meadows at Upper Pierce Ranch, bisects a narrow peninsula, and culminates at the cusp of the continent.

Most whales pass by in January and March. For trail information, visit
Wind Cave National Park, South Dakota
Highland Creek Trail

Think of it as hiking the nation's heart. This 7.3-mile (12-kilometer) trail encompasses plains, prairies, and ponderosa pines, peppered with the same sweeping vistas the pioneers must have seen as they wagoned west. Like them you'll have plenty of chances to spot bison, prairie dogs, and pronghorn, plus maybe the odd rattler to keep you honest.

For maps, visit         
Yosemite National Park, California
Half Dome
It's one of the most legendary sites in all the national parks, and making the huge 17.2-mile (28-kilometer) round-trip from valley floor to Half Dome's rounded granite crown is a rite of passage. From the Happy Isles Trailhead follow the Mist Trail to the John Muir Trail to the Half Dome Trail, then grab those steel-cable lifelines on the exposed slab to reach the 8,842-foot (2,695-meter) summit.

For more information, visit

National Parks 2007:

Best Hikes  Best Paddling  |  Best Wildlife  |  Best Treks 

Best Drives  |  Best Climbs  |  Best Lodges  |  See All National Parks

Best Trip: Rafting the Grand Canyon

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