The best places for hiking in the US 

Spring may not yet have sprung but we’re already researching all the best places to get out on foot to embrace the crisp April air amongst budding natural landscapes. Regardless of whether you’re a pro-hiker or someone who’s yet to buy their first pair of hiking boots, our list of the best mountains to climb in the US covers all levels, allowing anyone with the motivation a chance to conquer new ground. From Yosemite to the Smoky Mountains, discover the best national parks and their hikes below.

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1. Yosemite National Park, California

An epic start calls for a visit to Yosemite National Park, a vastly impressive site proffering 200-foot waterfalls, prehistoric trees, glaciers and 1,280 kilometres of valley trails to keep you busy for weeks. With only a day or two to spare, the 25-kilometre Half Dome day hike is a fantastic way to spend time, challenging hikers with an elevation gain of 4,800 feet spread over 10-12 hours of hiking. Permits are reserved for just 50 early-bird experienced hikers each day, but those that get to tackle the Ferrata-style ropes, ladders and cables of the trail will be rewarded with mesmerising views from one of the park’s most famous rock formations. Bear in mind that incidents do occur regularly on this trail due to the rocks becoming slippery and dangerous in rain. Mist Trail wins out as the park’s scariest trail, however, seeing 14 deaths in the last 10 years alone, making it one of the most dangerous hikes in the US. Nevertheless, hikers on the Mist Trail get the honour of passing over both Vernal and Nevada Falls, a magnificent spot where swimming is prohibited.

Two slightly less crowded (and far less dangerous) trails in the park, blanketed in wildflowers, giant sequoias and plenty more rock formations are the Four Mile Trail and Swinging Bridge Trail, with certain areas of Yosemite Valley, such as Mirror Lake and Bridalveil also deserving to be seen despite their popularity. Other trails to consider include Glacier Point Road’s Sentinel Dome, Mono Meadow and Glacier Point, while in the southern section of the park, Wawona and Mariposa Grove come covered in sequoia trees over 2,700 years old. Then, perhaps the most legendary hike in Yosemite is the John Muir Trail, which rolls on for 339 kilometres over the Sierra Nevada Mountains and Yosemite Valley to reach the highest peak in the continental United States – Mount Whitney – at 14,495 feet.

Yosemite National Park | Photo: Nathan Dumlao

Yosemite Falls | Photo: Jeb Buchman

2. Zion National Park, Utah

For endless trails of religious beauty, it’s to Utah’s Zion National Park we venture, finding eroded sandstone cliffs some 18 million years old, free-standing arches and hikes for all levels. Sunrise and sunset are particularly godly here, allowing for spectacular shots of peachy sunlight on the cliffs and rivers below. Those looking for an easy hike can start off at the West Wall of Zion Canyon where the Emerald Pools Trails lead to waterfalls, alongside alternative options such as Kayenta Trail and East Rims Trail. The Narrows meanwhile – though popular – offer the chance to get wet and wild, hiking through the river between the Temple of Sinawava and Big Springs (5.8 kilometres) or camping halfway on the top-down hike from Chamberlain’s Ranch, for which you’ll need a permit. The Virgin River at the bottom of the canyon is a good way to test your abilities, allowing you to bail out easily at any time as difficulty increases.

Of the park’s more challenging terrain, the 8-kilometre round trip at Angels Landing is packed with lofty overlooks and narrow paths, while the 12-kilometre Observation Point round trip wins out as the park’s most difficult, climbing 2,000 feet to the canyon’s rim via switchbacks that pass Echo Canyon and the White Cliffs. Zion is both convenient for new hikers and challenging for more experienced ones, running a shuttle bus to a number of trailheads and offering camping options for backpackers. Be sure to do your homework before visiting, especially if you’re new to hiking, as the sheer number of options can be bewildering and seasonal dangers do present themselves, such as when flash floods occur and the canyons become hazardous for campers.

Zion National Park | Photo: Yannick Menard

3. Denali National Park, Alaska

The rugged bear of national parks in the US is Alaska’s Denali National Park, a unique adventure requiring some navigational skill. After leaving the entrance area, there are no marked trails here at Denali meaning that things work a little differently once you go beyond the entrance. Of the named trails signposted at the entrance, the forested Mount Healy Overlook Trail passes into tundra after epic valley views from the ridge, while Savage River Loop Trail allows for the sense of wilderness just 24 kilometres from the park entrance. Kesugi Ridge Trail is another lesser-known ridge hike, more challenging than the last thanks to its series of steep ascents and boulder field crossings.

Denali is home to some of the hardest hikes in the US, notably the snow-laden summit hike to Denali (formerly Mount McKinley) which stands as the tallest peak in North America at 20,194 feet. More of a mountaineering trek than a hike, Denali should not be underestimated, as you’ll have to brave icy conditions, backcountry terrain, high winds, glacier crossings and wildlife encounters all to come face to face with possible altitude sickness near the peak. Training is required for a hike of this level and, even with training, only 50% of hikers ever make it to the top. If Denali’s challenging terrain and lack of signposting sound troublesome, instead try the 1,110 kilometres of trails on offer around Alaska’s Mendenhall Glacier and Tongass National Forest, where you’ll find waterfalls (Nugget Falls), meadows, caves and boardwalks all laden with wildlife, including bald eagles and black bears!

Denali National Park | Photo: David Mark

4. Glacier National Park, Montana

One of the country’s best parks with waterfalls like no other, Glacier National Park wows all who come here with glaciers, glittering lakes and thin crowds. Another 1,100 kilometres of trails await in this northern Montana park, with the most popular hikes surrounding the so-called Many Glacier Area, a spot comparable to the Swiss Alps for its mountain vistas and glacial lakes. Two Medicines Region is less popular but no less beautiful, allowing for retreats in solitude among wildflower meadows, lakes and mountain passes. Bears, beavers, bighorn sheep and more populate this area, all sipping on the freshwater streams that feed the park.

For a serious day hike worth the effort, set off to Cracker Lake via the trailhead at Piegan Pass (above the Many Glacier Hotel), turning left when the trail splits early on in the hike. Alternatively, try the Huckleberry Trail on Huckleberry Mountain, said to be the preferred base for grizzly bears in the park. Don’t let the grizzlies put you off, however, because the Huckleberry Trail is a high point, closed during berry season for the bears to enjoy in peace. On a practical note, across the park there’s said to be one bear for every 8 square kilometres, meaning backpackers should take precautions (by packing bear spray and sealing food after eating) wherever they go.

Glacier National Park, Montana | Photo: Sterlinglanier Lanier

Photo: Pixabay

5. Grand Canyon National Park, Arizona

Anyone considering Arizona hiking trails will immediately be drawn to those surrounding the Grand Canyon, the state’s most beloved natural landmark and national park. While the site has mainstream notoriety, there are parts of this vast park that still offer wilderness hikes away from the hordes of tourists who visit. Go beyond the rim and you’ll discover reams of trails, each leading off to impressive cliff viewpoints, foaming river rapids and beyond. Plan early for your trip to the Grand Canyon because permits for the more popular trails tend to get booked up, particularly in high season.

Those heading to the south rim can join the best of them for the 15-kilometre Bright Angel trail, a less steep yet longer version of the South Kaibab Trail. The two are often combined with a camp at the bottom, choosing South Kaibab for the descent and Bright Angel for the re-ascent. To avoid the crowds to the south, the north rim is a must, less accessible and quieter because of it. Multi-day hikes and wild camping are the things to do in the north, such as the 150-year-old Nankoweap Trail which runs 22 kilometres along a Native American pathway 6,000 feet down into the redwall canyon to the Colorado River. The intense descent of switchbacks and plunging drops is more than worth it after reaching the isolated campsite, where there’s nothing but the echo of the river on the canyon walls for company! Also among some of the best backpacking trips in the US is the multi-day Tonto Trail (South Rim, permit required) which runs from Garnet to Red Canyon with spectacular views all the way.

Horseshoe Bend, Page, Arizona | Photo: Omer Salom

6. Great Smoky Mountains, Tennessee and North Carolina

Going to the warm climate of the south lets us enjoy hiking all year round, meaning there’s never a bad time to see the Great Smoky Mountains. Not quite as unkempt as the Rockies, Tennessee’s number one hiking destination still has a lot to offer by way of crashing waterfalls (such as Laurel Creek Falls) and wildlife-packed forests all run through with crystal-clear streams and over 1,280 kilometres of trails.

Hikers looking for longer adventure vacations in USA can attempt the “Hike the Smokies” challenge, earning mileage pins for every 160 kilometres (100+ miles) explored within the park. The Appalachian Trail can be a worthy introduction, starting at Fontana Dam and sleeping at any of the free hiker huts along the way to Charlies Bunion, taking as long as you like to appreciate the unique plant life and mountain scenery. Besides the AT, the 19-kilometre round trip hike to the summit of Mount Cammerer is another favourite for its pinnacle views, while the 6.4-kilometre roundtrip known as the Chimney Tops is a steep and short rival. Of the park’s most challenging offerings is the Mount Sterling trail which runs 19 kilometres through Baxter Creek and ancient forests, with a total upward climb of 4,200 feet.

Great Smoky Mountains | Photo: Chad Madden

Great Smoky Mountains National Park | Photo: Chad Madden

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Appealing to stargazers, boaters, beach-bums and rainforest trekkers, the one million acres at Olympic National Park are all exceptionally diverse, offering 1,000 kilometres of trails that pass through ancient forests and over glacial peaks

7. Olympic National Park, Washington

Covering the north-westerly Olympic Peninsula on the border to Canada and lapped by the North Pacific Ocean is Washington State’s Olympic National Park, where there’s something for everyone. Appealing to stargazers, boaters, beach-bums and rainforest trekkers, the one million acres at Olympic National Park are all exceptionally diverse, offering 1,000 kilometres of trails that pass through ancient forests and over glacial peaks. The drier summer months are best here as the Pacific winds leave winter on the frostier side.

The lush Hall of Mosses Trail in Hoh Rain Forest is a perfect place to start your exploration of this International Biosphere Reserve, basing yourself at the nearby towns of Port Angeles and Forks, before summoning the energy for camping within the park. Longer missions into Hoh Rain Forest can also be had, notably the 28-kilometre Hoh River Trail which hugs the glacier-fed Hoh River with moss-covered rainforest on either side. Looking for east coast adventures? We also cover some of best hikes in the northeast and elsewhere with our waterfall guide to North America.

Olympic National Park | Photo: Jachan Devol

Photo: Cottonbro

8. Titcomb Basin, Wyoming

A renowned part of Wyoming’s already impressive Wind River Range, Titcomb Basin is a superb primer in the region with 45 kilometres of visually rewarding trails crossing boulder-strewn landscapes, alpine lakes and snowy peaks. Don’t miss camping or picnicking along the way, staying up late for glorious starscapes and waking early for peachy valley views of Gannett Peak. Reach Titcomb Lakes and the basin itself via Pole Creek Trail, Seneca Lake Trail or Indian Pass Trail, the latter running 47.5 kilometres along a moderate backtrail near Pinedale, best walked from July to September.

On the way to Titcomb Basin (and once you arrive) expect to see all manner of small wildlife, including pika, marmot, chipmunk and beaver, with lucky sightings of big mammals such as moose, elk, grey wolf and grizzly and black bears.

Wind River Range, Wyoming | Photo: Nick Nelson

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A renowned part of Wyoming’s already impressive Wind River Range, Titcomb Basin is a superb primer in the region with 45 kilometres of visually rewarding trails crossing boulder-strewn landscapes, alpine lakes and snowy peaks

9. Yellowstone, Wyoming, Montana and Idaho

Spanning the three states of Wyoming, Montana and Idaho across some 2.2 million acres, there’s no dismissing the vastness of Yellowstone National Park. Within this great park, visitors have access to around 1,600 kilometres of hiking trails, each more wondrous than the last. Of these trails, Yellowstone offers 24 kilometres of wheelchair-friendly boardwalks, along which you can meet the thermal attractions of Old Faithful and Mammoth Hot Springs. Other popular haunts include Canyon Village and Lake Village, though venturing into the backcountry will give a better chance at solitude – though you may have to share the quietude with moose, wolves and grizzlies, amongst others. Stay on the marked trails for added safety!

Summer and fall are the best seasons to visit Yellowstone, with the hot springs becoming all the more appealing in the cooler months. Expect steaming geysers, forests and wide-open meadows to take up your focus, moving away from Old Faithful for wilderness experiences. Try the hot springs of the West Thumb Geyser or get your binoculars out for wildlife spotting at Lewis River Channel and Dogshead Loop. Elsewhere, the white-water Yellowstone River makes itself known with two incredible waterfalls, best seen along the North Rim Trail. If heights aren’t your thing, stay around Clear Lake, taking the Ribbon Lake Loop from the South Rim and onward to Ribbon Lake through the meadows. Otherwise, brave the elevation of the Mount Washburn summit, starting at Dunraven Pass north of Canyon Village and ending in panoramic views of Yellowstone.

Yellowstone National Park | Photo: Tevin Trinh

Yellowstone National Park | Photo: Austin Farrington

10. Hawaii

We could stick to the mainland, discussing Acadia hiking trails or Austin hiking trails for days, but we couldn’t pass up this opportunity to mention oft-overlooked Hawaii, for all its rugged hiking potential. The Big Island especially has us rapt, across its 2.5 million acres that hold not one but two active volcanoes. With a diverse landscape that’s forever changing, the Big Island never grows tiresome, especially within Hawai’i Volcanoes National Park where it’s all there for the taking. Volcano fans can consider the Kilauea Iki Trail, a tough hike through rainforest and across a lava lake, eventually reaching summit vistas. Pu’u Huluhulu is another heated journey, covering 5 kilometres over lava flow and lava trees to the summit. The 17-kilometre Crater Rim Trail thereafter is reserved for the brave, only accessible at times of lesser volcanic activity.

More Martian landscapes can be found on Mauna Loa, a mountain doable on a tough day-hike starting at the end of Mauna Loa Observatory Road. Sadly, the majority of volcanic peaks in Hawaii Volcanoes National Park are closed however due to recent volcanic activity but check with the national park service for updates. Outside of the Big Island, vacationers can consider the best hikes in Maui with waterfalls or head to the Nā Pali Coast of Kaua’i, the paradise island used as a filming location for both Avatar and Jurassic Park. The Kalalau Trail showcases great cliffs and Pacific blues as well as rainforest landscapes inland. A loop trail running 17 kilometres, the Kalalau Trail also passes through two volcanic ridges, a site so beautiful that campers often stay the duration of their 5-night permit, spending their days at Hanakāpī’ai waterfall. If day hiking, however, stick to the length of Hanakāpī’ai Beach, a beauty in its own right for its crashing waves and jagged cliffs.

Hawaii | Photo: Darren Lawrence

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