Half Dome Trail, Yosemite National Park, CaliforniaPhotograph by Bernd Jonkmanns, laif/Redux
When you’re immersed in nature, there’s no such thing as a boring hike. But if you’re looking to discover some unfamiliar terrain, head to one of these five spectacular trails. Each one represents a different version of the word "wild"—like scaling a well-known granite wall or exploring an uninhabited, Martian-like landscape—yet they all offer challenging journeys across America’s craziest geological wonders. These epic routes celebrate taking it slow in heart-racing places.
Half Dome Trail, Yosemite National Park, California
Since the first cables went up on California's Half Dome in 1919, thousands of visitors have come to Yosemite National Park with a permit and a prayer to scale the granite monolith. Once thought to be unclimbable, the 8,842-foot iconic site has become one of America’s most tremendous day hikes. Still, most people with a solid pair of hiking gloves and devil-may-care attitude about great heights can take on the adventure, open from May through October. [Read about the first climber to complete the most dangerous rope-free ascent.]
Before going vertical on Half Dome, the 16-mile roundtrip trail features waterfalls, slippery staircases, and rocky switchbacks up the sub dome. It’s not until you’re squeezing 400 feet of cable, surrounded by a sheer wall of rock, blue skies, and panoramic views of the Sierra Nevada and Yosemite Valley, that you feel completely exposed and totally invincible.
Consider avoiding the bottlenecks on the cables by getting an early start after sleeping at Little Yosemite Valley campground, 3.5 miles from the summit of Half Dome.
The Narrows Trail, Zion National Park, Utah
Whether you tackle the 10-mile Bottom Up hike to Big Spring or slosh around the gorge for an hour, you’ll never forget the experience of holding a backpack above your head while wading through Utah's mighty Virgin River—flanked by two-thousand-foot-tall vermillion sandstone walls.
To beat the crowds and evade the hot desert sun, explore the narrowest section of Zion Canyon (it’s often only 20 feet wide) first thing in the morning, when you’ll be alone with only the company of your thoughts and the soft picture-perfect light hitting the striking sculptural cliffs. Traversing the Narrows is one way to come to terms with your smallness in the universe, but it’s not the only travel-worthy hike in Zion National Park. Make time for Angel’s Landing, a formidable 2.5-mile trail that climbs 1,488 feet to a jaw-dropping summit.
West Branch Trail, Rawah Wilderness, Colorado
Colorado may be known for its 14ers, but if you’re looking for a taste of true wilderness, forget bagging a summit for bragging rights and discover the Northern Colorado backcountry. Considered one of America’s top digital detox destinations, the Rawah Wilderness (pronounced RAY-wah by the Ute Indians to denote a “wild place”), harbors a vast under-the-radar expanse of outdoor paradise within Roosevelt National Forest, 2.5 hours from Denver.
Among Rawah’s 85 miles of diverse trails, the 14-mile out-and-back West Branch Trail, with a peak elevation of 11,130 feet, offers a powerful cornucopia of natural beauty: glacier-carved valleys, columbine-dappled meadows, trout-rich alpine lakes, aspen groves, and nonchalant moose. It intersects with other scenic routes, such as Camp Lake Trail and Blue Lake Trail, and ends in a dreamlike vision of Island and Carey Lakes.
The Knife Edge Trail, Baxter State Park, Maine
The Knife Edge trail won’t leave you wanting for anything—except maybe a magic carpet for your descent of Mount Katahdin, the highest peak in Maine. Following an already strenuous trek up the Hunt Trail, you’ll reach the start of the mind-and-leg-bending 1.1-mile route—a steady onslaught of rock scrambling, technical climbs, narrow ledges, steep drop-offs, and 360-degree views of the state’s largest wilderness area. After roughly an hour on the Knife Edge, you’ll reach 5,267-foot Baxter Peak, the northeast terminus of the Appalachian Trail and one of the planet’s most terrifyingly beautiful summits. At the top, you’ll look back at the seemingly impassable jagged trail you just conquered and know what it truly means to live on the edge.
- Nat Geo Expeditions
Wave Trail, Vermillion Cliffs National Monument, Arizona/Utah
Walking on waves of bright red-orange rock feels like you’ve won the hiking lottery. Indeed, you have. The 294,000-acre Vermilion Cliffs National Monument only allots 20 permits per day for access to the ancient sandstone rainbow in Paria Canyon. Located an hour from the Grand Canyon’s North Rim, the Wave Trail, also known as Coyote Buttes North, is a six-mile out-and-back adventure through open desert, best enjoyed in the cooler spring and fall months.
While you’ve come for the dazzling striations, dinosaur tracks and striking ice cream swirl formations, there are no formal trails or markers—only a guide sheet from the Bureau of Land Management—so brush up on your compass and navigation skills before heading out into the off-the-grid Martian-like terrain. Arrive shortly after sunrise when the sandstone buttes burst with fiery colors, and leave time to explore 16-mile Buckskin Gulch, the longest and deepest slot canyon in the world.