With so many national parks in the U.S. and so much ground to explore, choosing an ideal hiking trail can be a challenge. The best hikes should get you to one or more of the park's top sights, and our 10 favorite national park hikes do just that. These trails, some more strenuous than others, guide the explorer past stunning landscapes and offer a glimpse of the park’s most remarkable treasures: rare species, peculiar rock formations, pristine beaches, spectacular canyons, or abundant wildlife. Take Grinnell Glacier Trail in Montana’s Glacier National Park to view three of the park’s remaining 25 glaciers (down from 150 a hundred years ago); or the Waikamoi Cloud Forest Hike in Maui’s Haleakala National Park to get up close to rare species found nowhere else on the planet; or the Outer Loop Trail to Yosemite’s Mariposa Grove to walk through, around, and underneath ancient towering sequoia trees. Nature’s wonderland beckons – all you need is a good pair of walking shoes, plenty of water, and a taste for adventure.
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Bryce Canyon National Park, Utah
Queens Garden Trail Bryce Canyon in southwest Utah boasts a unique beauty, thanks to multi-hued rock formations known as hoodoos. These spire-like formations (ranging from the height of the average person to that of a 10-story building) were created from the erosion of layers of sedimentary rock. Despite its name, Bryce Canyon isn’t actually a canyon, but a series of depressions formed by erosions in the Paunsaugunt Plateau; the largest, Bryce Amphitheater, is 12 miles long, 3 miles wide, and 800-plus feet deep. Queens Garden Trail is the easiest way to get you into the amphitheater.
Length 1.8 miles round-trip; 1-2 hours
Location Trail starts and ends at Sunrise Point
Difficulty Easy to moderate
Scenery Hike down into the canyon to see Bryce’s signature otherworldly hoodoos.
Cumberland Island National Seashore, Georgia
Willow Pond Trail With three different ecosystems and a maximum of 300 park guests per day, the Cumberland Island National Seashore, located just north of the Georgia-Florida border and only accessible via ferry from St. Mary’s, is perfect for nature lovers seeking quiet and crowd-free exploring. Established as a national seashore in 1972, the island’s beaches, salt marshes, and maritime forests are gorgeous. The Willow Pond Trail will take you from the rugged coast into the verdant forest.
Length 1.5 miles each way; .5 hours
Location Willow Pond Trail is located about 5.5 miles north of Sea Camp Dock along the Parallel Trail (about a 2-hour hike)
Difficulty Moderate; you’ve already hiked a few miles just to get to the trail so heat is your biggest obstacle
Highlights After beachcombing for sand dollars on the eastern coastline, hikers can trek into a forest of towering oak trees dressed in Spanish moss and encounter an array of wildlife, including wild horses, birds, deer, turkeys, and armadillos.
Glacier National Park, Montana
Grinnell Glacier Trail Covering more than a million acres in northwest Montana, Glacier National Park brims with rich forests, craggy mountains, tranquil lakes, and lush alpine meadows. Close to 270 species of birds and mammals call this park home, including grizzly bears, gray wolves, and golden eagles. With over 740 miles in trails, there's no shortage of options for exploring, but the Grinnell Glacier Trail (hikeable from mid-July through September) takes visitors especially close to the glaciers. Sadly, the park’s namesake features have disappeared at an alarming rate over the past 100 years: Where once there were over 150 glaciers, today there are only 25.
Length 5.5 miles each way; full day (Note: It is also possible to take a boat from the Many Glacier Hotel across Swiftcurrent Lake, then transfer to another boat at Josephine Lake and pick up the trail from there, which will shorten the trail length to 3.8 miles each way.)
Location Trail starts and ends at Many Glacier Hotel
Difficulty Strenuous; the length and high elevation make it a challenging hike
Highlights The Grinnell Glacier Trail takes you up 1,600 feet in elevation to the Viewpoint, where you’ll marvel at three glaciers: Grinnell, Salamander, and Gem.
Grand Canyon, Arizona
South Kaibab Trail Forgo being swept along with the tourist crush that winds its way down Grand Canyon National Park’s more-popular South Rim thoroughfare, the Bright Angel Trail, in favor of the lesser-trammeled South Kaibab Trail, just east of Grand Canyon Village. The well-maintained route affords superlative scenery, tracing the canyon’s ridgeline via a series of switchbacks on a steep descent to the Colorado River.
Length Ooh-Aah Point (.9 miles); Cedar Ridge (1.5 miles); Skeleton Point (3 miles); Colorado River (6.7 miles); Bright Angele Campground (7 miles)
Location Trailhead starts from the South Rim’s Yaki Point, off of Desert View Drive. Access is only via the free park shuttle.
Difficulty Moderate; the trail descends some 4,500 feet in elevation so be sure to allow twice as long to hike back up
Highlights Ooh-Aah Point, with its sweeping panoramas of the eastern canyon; Cedar Ridge, where toilet facilities and mule pitches invite hikers and mule trains to rest; and Skeleton Point, boasting 360-degree views of the canyon and the first glimpses of the Colorado River.
Grand Teton National Park, WY
Laurance S. Rockefeller Preserve Primary Loop Hike Laurance S. Rockefeller returned this formerly private, 1,106-acre preserve to the public in 2007, adding eight miles of trails to Grand Teton National Park, about a mile above the Jackson Hole valley. We recommend the primary loop, including trails Lake Creek and Woodland, for its tranquil views and summertime appeal. Locals fancy the shoreline for a run or hike, followed by a splash into the waters from Phelps Lake Rock, a 20-foot high perch midway around the pond.
Length 2.9 miles round-trip, 1.5 hours
Location Laurance S. Rockefeller Preserve Center, in the southeast section of the preserve
Highlights Moose roam this peaceful trail, which winds through the woods before culminating at Phelps Lake. The main route goes to the lake and back, providing expansive mountain views from a series of rest stops. When still, the sapphire waters reflect the craggy Teton peaks.
Haleakala National Park, Hawaii
Waikamoi Cloud Forest Hike Maui’s Haleakala National Park is named for its showpiece 10,000-foot Haleakala “crater” (actually an erosional depression), and comprises five different climate zones and amazingly contrasting nature realms of coastal jungles and stark subalpine desert mountains. The upper Kipahulu Valley, the result of erosion at the summit, is home to Waikamoi Preserve where rainforests shelter some of the world’s rarest species of plants, insects, and birds. Only a guided hike led by the park staff will get you there. Waikamoi hikes leave every Monday and Thursday at 8:45am. Reservations required.
Length 3 miles round-trip, 3–3.5 hours
Location Usually Hosmer Grove; call to confirm
Difficulty Moderate; can be strenuous due to uphill hiking
Highlights During the oft misty, cloud-cloaked trek, you’ll see native Hawaiian birds like honeycreepers, red ‘I’iwi and ‘apapane, gorgeous feathery ferns, and perhaps ahinahina or silverswords (a silvery spikey plant).
Mammoth Cave National Park, Kentucky
Star Chamber Tour A limestone and sandstone labyrinth lurks beneath the rolling hills of Kentucky’s Mammoth Cave National Park, home to the world’s largest known cave (the current surveyed distance is 400 miles, though scientists estimate the subterranean complex extends for as many as 1,000 miles). Intrepid explorers can walk through this fascinating underworld, which inspired Ralph Waldo Emerson’s transcendental appreciation of nature, on the Star Chamber Tour, a guided, evening hike.
Length 1.5 miles round-trip, 2.5 hours
Location Trail starts and ends at the Visitors’ Center
Highlights When the cave’s man-made lighting system shuts off for the day, hikers descend 160 feet underground to explore the passageways by lantern. You'll wander into the “hospital,” where 19th-century cave owner Dr. John Croghan treated tuberculosis patients, convinced the cool underground air was healing, and the namesake Star Chamber, which creates an illusion of the night sky.
Mesa Verde National Park, Colorado
Cliff Palace Hike The cliff dwellings at Colorado's Mesa Verde National Park are among the best preserved in North America. Occupied for about 100 years between the late 1190s and 1300 by Pueblo Indians, these sandstone brick structures were built with wooden beams and mortar; some contain just one room while others are massive complexes resembling mini-villages. Cliff Palace is by far the largest dwelling at Mesa Verde, with 150 rooms believed to have housed a population of about 100 people.
Length .4 miles round-trip; 1 hour
Location Start and end at Cliff Palace Overlook, 6 miles from the Visitor Center
Difficulty Strenuous; extensive climbing at a 7,000-foot elevation
Highlights On the hour-long ranger-led trek to Cliff Palace, you’ll climb ladders, explore kivas (religious ceremonial chambers), and learn about how the Pueblos lived.
Shenandoah National Park, Virginia
Skyland to Big Meadows via the Appalachian Trail With 101 miles of Appalachian Trail, Shenandoah National Park is an ideal compromise for hikers who want to trammel the legendary, 14-state path but can’t commit to the half-year the 2,200-mile journey demands. Though the Appalachian Trail sections at Shenandoah don’t delve as deep into the wilderness as the park’s remaining 399 miles of paths, the historic route offers plenty of opportunities to take in the many shades of the Blue Ridge Mountains – and supplies serious bragging rights.
Length 7.9 miles round-trip, 6-7 hours
Location Trail starts just south of Skyland Resort, in the north section of the park, and ends at Big Meadows Lodge
Highlights This lodge-to-lodge section of the Appalachian Trail skirts the famed Skyline Drive and affords sweeping views of the mountains’ hazy hues.
Yosemite National Park, California
Mariposa Grove, Outer Loop Trail Natural attractions at California's Yosemite National Park are bountiful: Half Dome, one of the park’s hallmark rock formations, towers 5,000 feet above the valley floor; Horsetail Fall, a cascade that reflects the sunset and turns a fiery shade of red in February; and Glacier Point, an overlook with expansive views of the park. Yet the appeal of giant sequoias – almost fantastical in their proportions, with trunks wide enough for cars to pass through – is irresistible. Hike to Mariposa Grove along the Outer Loop Trail where there are some 500 mature sequoias.
Length 6.9 miles round-trip, 5 hours
Location Trail starts and ends at Mariposa Grove parking lot, near Yosemite’s south entrance
Highlights About .8 miles from the parking lot sits the 1,800-year-old Grizzly Giant, one of the largest in the grove, and the California Tunnel, a sequoia cut in 1895 to allow carriages to pass through. Continuing on the National Park hike reveals the Faithful Couple, two sequoias fused together at their trunks like conjoined twins, and the Clothespin Tree, a giant with a hollowed out trunk resting on two slender legs, resembling its namesake.