10 Most Breathtaking Day Hikes in the U.S.
By Nick Wharton on 18 May 2018
The United States is home to some of the most diverse landscapes on the planet, ranging from barren deserts and vast canyons to lush forests and snow-capped mountains. Because of this, it's no surprise that it also has some of the most spectacular and accessible hiking trails in the world.
The National Park Service has done wonders to preserve the trails and scenery that make these destinations so special. Here are some of the best national parks for hiking in the U.S., as well as some easy day hikes that you can do within each park. Of course, there are plenty of multiday treks available in most parks as well, but if your time is limited or you'd simply rather spend your time doing other things, day hikes may be what you're looking for.
So get your boots on, get your daypack stocked, and get ready for a look at the 10 most breathtaking day hikes in the United States. (See also: How to Save on National Park Visits in 2018)
1. Yosemite National Park
Located in California, Yosemite sits amid the stunning granite peaks of the Sierra Nevada. Within the park, there are countless waterfalls, including nine with drops cascading over 1,000 feet, so no matter where you go in the park, you're bound to be wowed. Yosemite is also known for groves of ancient, giant sequoia trees, some of which are estimated to be around 1,800 years old and stand at over 200 feet tall.
- Vernal and Nevada Falls: This hike only takes around 2–5 hours, depending on how far you go. It's around three miles round-trip to Vernal Fall, and seven miles round-trip to Nevada Fall, with an elevation gain of 1,000 feet. The stunning scenery makes this one of the best day hikes at Yosemite, so if you only have time to do one hike, make it this one.
- May Lake: This hike only takes around 45 minutes to 1.5 hours, but it really is beautiful. It's 2.5 miles round-trip to May Lake, and an elevation gain of 500 feet. Almost exactly at the park's geographical center, Mount Hoffmann stands at 10,850 feet and commands spectacular views of Yosemite.
2. Grand Canyon National Park
Arizona's awe-inspiring Grand Canyon is over 270 miles long, at some points 18 miles wide, and in some places up to a mile deep. Considered one of the seven natural wonders of the world, there are several ways to explore the scenery — with helicopter rides, rafting, and cycling all popular options.
Hiking, however, provides you with a unique experience among the canyon's landscapes. You'll get to experience the different weather systems it creates, ranging from chilly to balmy, and feel the sheer awe as you peer out across this massive crevice. (See also: 11 Incredible UNESCO World Heritage Sites Right Here in the U.S.)
- Bright Angel Trail: This lovely walking trail begins west of Bright Angel Lodge and is a distance up to 12 miles (round-trip), depending on how far you want to go. There's a bit of shade, but bring plenty of water and know that this is a seasonal trail with ice in winter and early spring.
- North Khabib Trail: This is one of the best trails on the North Rim and while the trail itself to Coconino Overlook (1.5 miles round-trip) or Supai Tunnel (four miles round-trip) isn't too difficult, some hikers struggle in warmer months due to the heat at these lower elevations. The views are worth every drop of sweat along the stunning path!
3. Glacier National Park
In northern Montana, skimming the border with Canada is the wondrous Glacier National Park. It has so many lakes (762 in total) that only 131 of them have ever been named. There are also 175 mountains, including Mt. Cleveland, which stands at over 10,000 feet tall. And of course, there are the 26 glaciers that have shaped the landscapes and given the park its name. The biggest of these is the incredible Harrison Glacier. The park has over 700 miles of trails allowing visitors to discover the picturesque scenery by foot. (See also: 20 Hiking Hacks to Take to the Trails This Summer)
- The Highline Loop: This 11.8-mile hike is definitely one of the best trails in the park and will take you around 7–9 hours. It can be windy, so bring warm clothes and plenty of food and drinking water as the trail water in the park isn't always potable.
- Grinnell Glacier Trail: The hike to Grinnell Glacier Viewpoint is a beautiful 10.3-mile haul that will likely take around 6–8 hours to complete. Here you'll enjoy stunning views of the lakes and jagged cliffs in this part of the park.
4. Arches National Park
Deriving its name from the 2,000 plus, naturally formed stone arches, this national park has some of the most distinctive scenery in the U.S. Besides the arches, you'll also find towers, turrets, and rocks balanced on top of each other, all from the same striking sandstone. Utah's Arches National Park has various trails that weave their way through, over, and even under the main attractions here, giving visitors a remarkable perspective of them. (See also: 7 Best Free Treks in the World)
- Devil's Garden Trail: Spanning a breathtaking 7.5 miles of well-maintained trail, the Devil's Garden hike is one of your best options for a power walk in Arches. Be sure to stop and take photos of the cool rock formations on the way including: Double O Arch, Landscape Arch, Partition Arch, Pine Trail Arch, Navajo Arch, Tunnel Arch, and the Dark Angel.
- Delicate Arch Trail: Another place to check out a beautiful rock formation, Delicate Arch is one of the shorter options in Arches. The entire trail is just three miles round-trip and shouldn't take you more than two hours (depending on how many photo stops you take!)
5. Denali National Park
Boasting the record for being North America's highest peak, the inimitable, snowcapped Denali (aka Mount McKinley) is undoubtedly the main attraction for the national park that bares its name. Standing at over 20,000 feet, it casts a vast shadow over the surrounding area, but there's a lot more to be discovered here including lakes, rivers, and wildlife such as bears, wolves, and caribou.
The hiking in Denali is mainly free from the restrictions of marked trails, so it's an exciting opportunity for you to carve your own path in this barely touched wilderness. Many visitors end up doing a considerable amount of off-track hiking. Make sure you stay alert for wildlife as there have been bear encounters in the park. If you're new to self-guided hiking, stop in at the Denali Visitor's Center and ask about easy trails near the entrance to the park. (See also: 5 Natural Wonders You Can See for Free)
- Horseshoe Lake Trail: This is one of the short walks that start at the visitor center. It descends to the beautiful Horseshoe Lake before climbing back up toward the entrance of the park. It's only three miles round-trip and likely won't take longer than two hours to complete the journey.
- Mount Healy Overlook: This is a pretty steep, but gorgeous hike up to the Mount Healy Overlook. It starts near the visitor center, it's 5.4-miles round-trip, and will probably take up to four hours to complete. From the highest points, you'll have beautiful views of the tundra and rock outcroppings that make the park famous.
6. Kenai Fjords National Park
Situated on the Kenai Peninsula in southern Alaska, Kenai Fjords National Park is a frozen wilderness punctuated by icefields, glaciers, and of course the fjords that give it its name. The mountains appear to tumble directly into the ocean, and behind them is the Harding Icefield, which dates back to the ice age. It's here that you'll find the phenomenal Harding Icefield Trail that gives hikers astounding views of the valley floor and the famous Exit Glacier.
- Exit Glacier: This is a decent, quick hike for those who have little ones in tow. There are no really steep parts of this 1.6-mile trail and you should be able to complete it in around an hour. It brings you right up to the foot of the impressive Exit Glacier where you can stop for some photos.
- Harding Ice field Trail: This one is pretty strenuous, gaining around 1,000 feet of elevation over a grueling 8.2-mile hike round-trip. It is possible to complete this trek in around eight hours if you're fit, but you don't have to do the entire trail if you don't want to. A quick hike up to the top of the trail affords dramatic views of the valley floor and Exit Glacier.
7. Acadia National Park
Lying just off the coast of Maine is Acadia National Park, which is well-loved for hosting a diverse range of landscapes. The majority of the park lies on Mount Desert Island, but it also encompasses some of the smaller surrounding islands. Acadia National Park has over 120 miles of hiking trails that provide stunning views of the local terrain, taking in waterfalls, lakes, mountains, and harbors.
- Ocean Path: This is a really easy four-mile hike to do with the family. Ocean Path follows a very dramatic and jagged coastline between Otter Point and Sand Beach. There are plenty of beautiful landmarks to see along the way including Monument Cove and Thunder Hole.
- Cadillac Mountain South Ridge Trail: You can't visit Acadia National Park without a hike up its tallest mountain! This hike is accessible any time of the year besides the dead of winter. It's a steep one! With an elevation gain of 1,530 feet over just seven miles, you'll want to keep your footing, especially if you're visiting in the spring when the ice has yet to thaw.
8. Zion National Park
Utah's Zion National Park showcases the outstanding Zion Canyon, whose craggy red rocks protrude spectacularly from the lush greenery below. One of the main attractions here is the five-mile hike known as Angels Landing. It's consistently rated as one of the most dangerous in the world with sheer drops lining the steep ascents. However, the views across the canyon make it well worth the effort. There's also an underground hike named The Subway that includes climbing, swimming, and plenty of scrambling.
- Canyon Overlook Trail: At just one mile round-trip, this lovely and leisurely hike won't likely take you more than an hour, but it takes you through a giant natural cave and ends with breathtaking views over the Zion Canyon. The trailhead for this hike is at the east entrance to the park.
- Riverside Walk: This two-mile hike will probably take you around two hours to complete and it takes you from the Temple of Sinawava to the Virgin River through beautiful forest scenery.
- The Subway: Because this 9.5-mile hike does include some repelling and a decent amount of skill, it's not recommended that novice hikers attempt to complete the entire trail without a guide. This is a strenuous hike to complete in a day and will likely take even experienced mountaineers around seven hours. Going the "bottom up" route, some people have completed it without special gear, but it's recommended that you bring ropes and harnesses just in case.
9. Isle Royale National Park
Michigan's Isle Royale National Park is located mostly on the largest island within what is the largest freshwater lake in the world, Lake Superior. Its remote location means it can only be reached by boat or by seaplane, so just getting to this park is an adventure in itself. Wheeled vehicles are completely prohibited, with the only permitted means of navigation being on foot or on water in a boat, canoe, or kayak. Visitors are treated to a taste of real wilderness here, with the Greenstone Trail that runs from one end of the island to the other.
- Rock Harbor Trail: This scenic trail winds along the quiet shores of Rock Harbor. You can choose your distance on this one as there are numerous trails and loops to take. For a shortened version, take a walk along the bluffs to Daisy Farm (7.2 miles) without going the entire 11-mile distance to the Moskey Basin.
10. Mount Rainier National Park
Named after the 14,410 foot tall active volcano that dominates the surrounding landscape, Mount Rainier National Park is one of Washington's most prominent natural gems. The park encompasses glaciers, snowfields, meadows, waterfalls, valleys, and forests, made all the more picturesque by the backdrop of the towering, snowcapped Mount Rainier. The Wonderland Trail, which is the main hiking route, winds its way for 93 miles around the circumference of the mountain, but is also broken down into numerous magnificent shorter sections.
- The Sunrise Rim Trail: This is a great option for a day hike in Mount Rainier National Park because you can commit to the full five-mile loop or cut it short and do the more kid-friendly three-mile stroll to Yakima Park and the Emmons Overlook.
- Burroughs Mountain Trail: From sunrise viewpoint at the northeast end of the park, this 4.7-mile hike gains 900 feet of elevation. The hike will take about 2.5 hours. This is the highest trail point in the park and the views here are astonishing.