Top Day Hikes in America’s National Parks
The best day hikes have an element of quest, or mission, which is why so many of them climb to the top of a mountain or a landmark. Such is the case with many of the hikes presented below. But there’s no serious mountain trekking here—the point of each hike is the experience of getting there—and the inspiring view gained at the quest’s end.
> Sargent Mountain Loop, Acadia National Park (Maine)
Can a single hike distill all the beauties of coastal Maine’s Acadia? This 5.4-miler comes close, offering a pleasant walk in the woods, a challenging ascent, and a glorious view from 1,373-foot Sargent Mountain, the second highest summit in the park. As an added bonus, the trail provides timely assists in the form of beautifully crafted stone steps and thoughtfully placed iron rungs.
Start at the Jordan Pond House, follow the Spring Trail across the Jordan Cliffs Trail, and take the Sargent Mountain East Cliffs Trail to the summit. Once there, just turn slowly and start identifying.
On a clear day Maine’s highest mountains, Baxter Peak and Katahdin, are visible far to the north. To the south are the Cranberry Isles, to the west Somes Sound, and to the east the granite domes of Pemetic and Cadillac Mountains.
Worked up a sweat? Take a dip in Sargent Pond before returning via the Penobscot Mountain Trail.
> Alum Cave Trail, Great Smoky Mountains National Park (Tennessee)
Few peaks anywhere are as beloved as Mount LeConte. People return to it year after year. LeConte lovers are slightly chagrined that it’s only the third highest peak (at 6,593 feet) in the Smokies, so they’re endeavoring to raise it—hence the growing pile of rocks at its summit.
The 5.5-mile (one way) Alum Cave Trail is the shortest, steepest (2,600 feet of gain), and most interesting path to the top. It features more open ridges than other routes, so the views are greater—though always best in the haze-free shoulder seasons.
Its wonders include two varieties of rhododendron (rosebay and Catawba), peregrine falcons doing aerobatics at Inspiration Point, and forest habitats that include old-growth hardwoods.
The cable handholds along the ledge just below Cliff Top might seem unnecessary on a dry day, but when the rock is slick or icy, you’re grateful to have them.
Alum Cave, at mile 2.3, is a great slate overhang and site of a Confederate saltpeter mine. The true summit is High Top, site of the huge cairn. But proceed to Myrtle Point for the Great Smoky view that draws visitors back to LeConte time and time again.
> Specimen Ridge Trail, Yellowstone National Park (Wyoming)
In northwest Wyoming, the Specimen Ridge Trail off Yellowstone’s Northeast Entrance Road rises 1,600 feet in 3.5 miles without relief, so only hiking gluttons begin this challenging hike, let alone reach the ridge top and the spectacular views it affords.
When standing high on the ridge, the hordes at Old Faithful become a cloudy memory. After the trail passes through some grassy sagebrush meadows and clears a Douglas-fir forest, it emerges into vast open country that’s like a secluded grandstand overlooking the park’s northeast quadrant.
To the north is Lamar Valley—wolf country. To the south, Mount Washburn (10,243 feet) rises over central Yellowstone. In between are expanses of meadows, and the foreground is special, too. The specimens in question are petrified stumps of oaks, redwood, birch, and maple trees as well as conifers—this is one of the world’s largest petrified forests. Late summer wildflowers round out the show.
As the trail continues, the views magnify. The ridge summit, 9,614-foot Amethyst Mountain, is at mile 11 of the hike, and if you’ve arranged a car shuttle, you can proceed seven more miles down to the Lamar River Trailhead. Or just turn around anywhere, anytime. The view’s just as good going down.
> Highland Creek/Centennial Trail Loop, Wind Cave National Park (South Dakota)
The aboveground scenery is just as compelling as the subterranean stuff at South Dakota’s Wind Cave National Park, and what a remarkable contrast.
After their stygian stint, visitors emerge to encounter big skies, wide-open spaces, abundant wildlife, and a solitary, almost elegiac experience of a primal American—the prairies that once covered a third of the North American continent.
This 7.3-mile loop starts on the Highland Creek Trail, which later intersects the Centennial Trail; the trailhead for the Centennial is the destination. The hike begins on mixed-grass prairie with distant views of the Black Hills and close-up views of a huge prairie dog colony.
The trail then edges some lovely riparian stretches along Beaver Creek and Highland Creek and traverses ponderosa pine forests. Watch for bison wallows or, better yet, the beasts themselves—the park is home to hundreds of them. But beware: Their docile appearance is deceptive; they can charge at surprising speed. Elk, coyotes, deer, and pronghorn are also plentiful.
> Old Rag, Shenandoah National Park (Virginia)
Although 50,000 hikers a year summit Old Rag in Virginia, climbing to the 3,291-foot granite peak is no walk in the park. There’s nothing easy about it, but everything alluring.
It’s what one local guide calls a “4WD hike,” meaning hikers should plan on employing every available limb and a good healthy ticker on the way up.
The 8-mile loop climbs 2,380 feet to the summit on Yosemite-style granite slabs along the way. From the top, views can stretch 100 miles in any direction. The best trailhead is at Weakley Hollow.
Old Rag can be hiked throughout the year, but locals call spring “Old Rag season” for two very good reasons: (1) sunshine and brilliantly clear blue skies, and (2) no snakes, bugs, or poison ivy to contend with.
> Rim Trail, Grand Canyon National Park (Arizona)
People come to Arizona to gape into the abyss of the Grand Canyon, to see the play of sunlight on rock, clouds on canyon, maybe to watch a rainstorm rush through, leaving a rainbow in its wake. To see the endless buttes and temples and side canyons and amphitheaters of rock.
The best way to see it all, while avoiding the pounding of a canyon descent, is to hike the Rim Trail from Maricopa Point (where it becomes a dirt path) west to Hermits Rest—a distance of 6.7 miles. Take the park shuttle to the trailhead and pick it up at trail’s end, or at six other spots along the way.
As the path undulates along the precipice, versus plummeting to the bottom, it reveals the park’s (maybe the world’s) most stunning panoramas–canyons within canyons, cauldrons of rapids far below. Do it late in the day and watch sunset do a supernova number on the scene, then hop the bus back to Grand Canyon Village. It isn’t perhaps the most challenging hike, but it just might be the most memorable.
> Valley Floor Loop, Yosemite National Park (California)
In Yosemite, counter to all reasonable expectations, the 13-mile valley trail that circumnavigates Yosemite Valley is lightly used—the park’s fabled crowds are in their cars or congregating at a few valley landmarks, leaving this gem wide open.
The trail, an old bridle path, is unrelentingly spectacular as it winds in and out of forests, connecting most of the valley’s major sights. While the loop is 13 miles in its entirety, it does come with a bailout plan–it intersects park roads numerous times, so it is possible to shorten the loop and catch the park shuttle bus back to the starting trailhead.
If starting behind Yosemite Lodge of Camp 4 and proceeding west, the trail hugs the base of mighty El Capitan with its 3,593-foot vertical wall until reaching Pohono Bridge, where it crosses over the Merced River to the south side of the valley.
The trail then turns east and goes past Bridalveil Falls, crosses El Capitan Meadow, and parallels the Merced River until it reaches Swinging Bridge. Here the trail crosses back over the Merced, affording a great look at Upper Yosemite Falls, then winds back to the starting point at Yosemite Lodge.
- Nat Geo Expeditions
> Pine Canyon Trail, Big Bend National Park (Texas)
One of the greatest pleasures of Big Bend is its ability to deliver the unexpected. The Texas park’s 800,000 acres of desert expanse are compelling on their own, but when they yield to woodlands, uplands, or the presence of water, the result is startling and thrilling.
All three can be encountered in Pine Canyon, especially in the rainy season, July to October. A high-clearance vehicle is recommended to reach the start of the hike, which begins in open Chihuahuan desert scrubland and climbs steadily into the canyon in the Chisos Mountains.
Once inside, the trail winds through a cool, shady realm of ponderosa pine, oak, maple, and madrone. After about two miles, it dead-ends at a 200-foot cliff—a “pour-off” in the local parlance—that becomes a waterfall for several days after a rain. It’s truly a world within a world.
> Cascade Canyon to Solitude Lake, Grand Teton National Park (Wyoming)
Beautiful Cascade Canyon in Wyoming’s Grand Teton National Park is extremely popular with hikers, and Solitude Lake is the goal for many.
Plenty of people set out to explore its depths—first on the shuttle boat across Jenny Lake, and then on the first few miles of the trail. But solitude and its eponymous lake lies at the end. From the boat landing, most hikers will make the steep climb to Inspiration Point for a signature view of the lake and the mountains that frame Jackson Hole, and perhaps proceed another 3.5 miles along Cascade Creek—prime bear and moose habitat—while towering pinnacles (the Grand, Mount Owen, Teewinot) loom overhead.
But by the time a hiker reaches the point where the trail splits, with the North Fork Trail leading another three miles to Solitude Lake, the majority of the crowds will have disappeared. And intrepid hikers who reach Solitude get to behold the Grand Teton as no casual tourist ever does–a sheer 1,000 feet of dark, massive, towering rock. Just as moving are the collages of wildflowers—glacier lilies, mountains bluebells, and sticky geraniums—and the flashes of colorful western tanagers in the sky.
The strenuous hike to Solitude Lake is 14.4 miles round trip from the boat landing. Hikers desiring a longer day hike can skip the boat shuttle and skirt the lake on the Jenny Lake Loop to reach the Cascade Canyon Trailhead, adding two miles each way.
This article was excerpted from the National Geographic book The 10 Best of Everything: National Parks.