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Best National Park hiking trails

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Hiking trails are among the key attractions at National Parks and each year, thousands of avid (and not so avid) hikers are drawn to them to test their stamina and mettle on these legendary trails. While many of the trails require physical exertion, the benefits are breathtaking - inspiring views, incomparable beauty and majesty, and sights that leave most awestruck.

What then are the best National Park trails to hike on? We've handpicked some of our favorites. Read on to find out which trails make the cut.

Bryce Canyon National Park, Utah

Hiking the trails of Bryce Canyon National Park can be a surreal experience. Nowhere else in the world can you walk amidst such ethereal spires colored red, orange and white rising up to the sky. The name "Bryce Canyon" itself is a misnomer, as it is actually a natural amphitheater created by freeze-thaw cycles rather than river erosion. Within that amphitheater are eight marked and maintained trails where you can find fir forests as well as see wildlife, including mule deer, bobcats, black bears, mountain lions, and the threatened Utah prairie dog.

Our Pick: Navajo Loop - Queen's Garden Trail

Of the eight maintained trails in Bryce Canyon, we recommend the Navajo Loop - Queen's Garden Trail. Offering the most scenic views of the park, this mix of two trails is 2.9 miles long and will take you only two to three hours to complete roundtrip. Start at Sunset Point and head northward on the canyon rim. Once you get to Sunrise Point, follow the trailhead to the Queen's Garden Trail. There you will find unique rock formations resembling a garden, as its name suggests, with another rock formation resembling Great Britain's Queen Victoria overlooking the garden. On Queen's Garden Trail you will find a four-way crossroad; go straight ahead and enter the Navajo Loop through its Wall Street entrance. The Navajo Loop contains the most remarkable of the rock formations found in the park. Its end will take you back to Sunset Point. Take care, though, because falling rocks are not uncommon along this trail.

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Wall Street - Navajo Trail, Bryce Canyon National Park
Amongst the hoodoos on the Navajo Trail, Bryce Canyon National Park

Glacier National Park, Montana

Glacier National Park is considered to be a hiker's paradise; the park has over 700 miles of trails offering spectacular views of glaciers, clustered mountain peaks, alpine lakes, coniferous forests and fields of wildflowers. The park is also home to hundreds of animal species, including rare and threatened animals such as grizzly bears, Canadian lynxes, wolverines and mountain lions.

Our Pick: Highline Trail

Glacier National Park's Highline Trail is appealing because of its variety; this seven-mile trail has gentle and steep grades and gorgeous views. The trail begins near the Logan Visitor Center just off the Going-to-the-Sun Road and takes you on an easy hike to exposed ledges and open hillsides where you will find magnificent views of mountain peaks and opportunities to see wildlife. Where Highline Trail meets the Grinnell Glacier Overlook trail, you will have to do some steep and strenuous climbing. But at the end of it all is the Grinnell Glacier Overlook, which will give you spectacular views of the Grinnell Glacier and Grinnell Lake, one of the most beautiful lakes in Glacier National Park. It often takes a whole day to hike the Highline Trail.

Our Pick: Bowman Lake Trail

If you want a challenge and perhaps a chance to hike off the beaten path in Glacier National Park, you should go for the Bowman Lake Trail. This scenic trail stretches approximately 35 miles roundtrip, mostly following the northwestern shoreline of Bowman Lake. From across the lake you can see the glaciers of Mount Carter, Square Peak and Rainbow Peak. Bowman Trail is also home to elk and white-tailed deer, as well as ospreys and bald eagles. It is also gray wolf territory, the only one in the whole of Glacier National Park.

While the Bowman Lake Trail is considered to be one of the most beautiful trails in Glacier, it receives fewer visitors. That is because the trail takes you zigzagging across tricky forested paths and then climbing some 2,000 feet within a short span of three miles. Your strength and stamina will be fully challenged if you attempt this trail, but the beauty awaiting you is truly worth it. We recommend that you devote two or three days for this hiking trip. You will need your backpacking gear and backcountry permits as well.

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Great Smoky Mountains National Park, Tennessee/North Carolina

Great Smoky Mountains National Park has more than 800 miles of hiking trails, 70 miles of which include the Appalachian Trail. Old-growth forests, wildflower fields and waterfalls and endless views of soaring peaks and deep valleys are what you can expect when you hike on Great Smoky Mountains National Park trails.

Our Pick: Alum Cave Trail

The most popular hiking trail in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park is the Alum Cave Trail, one of the five trails that lead to Mount LeConte. Alum Cave Trail's popularity stems from its short length (5 miles), its gradual incline, and its scenery. The Alum Cave Trail starts near the Alum Cave Creek and follows the creek for a mile or so. Along the trail you will find Arch Rock, a natural arch cut from black slate, and the Alum Cave Bluff, a rock shelter famous for its salt deposits. At the end of the trail is the LeConte Lodge, where you can choose a path that will take you to the Cliff Tops or to Myrtle Point. Cliff Tops and Myrtle Point are two of the four peaks of Mount LeConte. You can complete the hike from the creek to LeConte Lodge in around three and a half hours, making the roundtrip journey a full day hike.

Our Pick: Lower Mount Cammerer Trail

If you want an alternative to hiking the Alum Cave Trail, you should take the beautiful and exciting Lower Mount Cammerer Trail, which will take you to the Mount Cammerer Fire Tower. Starting from the Cosby Campground, the Lower Mount Cammerer Trail runs some 15 miles roundtrip across creeks, off-road footpaths and the Appalachian Trail and makes a steady but gentle climb. Once at the fire tower, you can relax at the tower's wraparound deck and drink in the sights of the Great Smoky Mountains, Mount Guyot and the valley right below. If you start early, you can reach the fire tower by lunchtime and be back at the Cosby Campground by late afternoon.

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Haleakala National Park, Hawaii

Located in the island of Maui, Haleakala National Park is one of the most unique National Parks in the United States. The park's highlight is the Haleakala Crater, the crater of a potentially active volcano that makes up most of Maui. Trekking the 30-mile hiking trails to this crater literally takes you to an alien world, a world that is often compared to the planet Mars because of its red-hued landscape dotted by cinder cones.

Our Pick: Sliding Sands Trail

Stretching a mere four miles, the Sliding Sands Trail is nonetheless considered to be one of the more challenging half-day hikes in the Haleakala National Park. You'll find its trailhead at the Haleakala Visitor Center, and the trail will take you descending 2,500 feet to the floor of the Haleakala Crater. The hike can be strenuous because of the steepness and the lack of oxygen in the crater floor, but this is where you will see the park's cinder cones and reddish terrain. If half a day in the crater floor is not enough for you, you can proceed to where Sliding Sands meets the Halemau'u Trail for five miles and half a daymore of exploring the crater.

Our Pick: Hosmer's Grove Nature Loop

If you want to see other sights at Haleakala or if you have small children with you, the trail you should take is the Hosmer's Grove Nature Loop. This half-mile hike will take you to Hosmer's Grove, an experimental forest planted with flora taken from other parts of the world, such as eucalyptus from Australia, pines and firs from North America, and the Japanese Cedar. To get to the Grove, you'll need to turn left at the mile marker 10.5 on Highway 378 right at the entrance to the park. It's only a short walk and will take no more than an hour roundtrip.

Our Pick: Papwai Trail

Another alternative to exploring the Haleakala Crater is hiking the Papwai Trail in the Kipahulu Valley. This four-mile roundtrip hike will take you to the base of the lovely Waimoku Falls, the 400-foot waterfall that is thought to be the tallest in Hawaii. Below the Waimoku Falls are the seven sacred pools of the Ohe'o Gulch. You can complete the Papwai Trail in around three hours.

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Mount Rainier National Park, Washington

Mount Rainier National Park has more than 260 miles of hiking trails, many of which offer outstanding panoramas of lush valleys, snow-covered peaks, icy glaciers, old growth forests, waterfalls and meadows. The highlight of the scenery in this park is none other than Mount Rainier, a massive active volcano that is considered to be one of the most dangerous in the world.

Our Pick: Wonderland Trail

Wonderland Trails stretches 93 miles and encircles Mount Rainier itself. Hikers often complete Wonderland Trail in ten to 14 days whilecamping in the backcountry. The trail takes you through the various facets of the park, from its lowland old-growth forests and its lovely wildflower fields up to Mount Rainier's icy ridges.

Our Pick: Green Lake Trail

If you don't have two weeks to spend completing Wonderland Trail, you can try the Green Lake Trail. The Green Lake Trail covers 9.6 miles round-trip and takes around four hours to complete. It will take you through forests of Douglas firs that are at least 800 years old. At the end of the trail, you can find Ranger Falls and Green Lake, the most serene spots in the whole of the park.

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Yosemite National Park, California

Yosemite National Park has 800 miles of hiking trails with storybook scenery. When you visit Yosemite National Park, expect to be awed by sights of massive granite boulders, groves of giant sequoia trees, dreamlike waterfalls the height of skyscrapers, glaciers, fields of wildflowers and untouched forests.

Nearly four million tourists visit Yosemite National Park every year, and nearly all of them stay in the Yosemite Valley. They trek the various trails in the valley so they can get a glimpse of the park's popular destinations, including the granite peaks of Half Dome and El Capitan as well as Bridalveil Fall, Yosemite Falls and Mariposa Grove. Ironically, Yosemite Valley makes up only a small portion of the park itself.

Our Pick: Clouds Rest Trail

If you want to see something different in Yosemite National Park, if you are feeling adventurous, and if you are not afraid of heights, you should spend one day climbing the Clouds Rest trail. You will find its trailhead at the west end of the crystal-clear Tenaya Lake just off the Tioga Pass Road. The trail will get you hiking 14.5 miles roundtrip and facingan elevation gain of around 1,700 feet or so. Strenuous and tricky, the trail is also rocky and can be wet at the Tenaya Lake outlet and where it meets the path to the Sunrise Lakes. You will also have to do a number of switchbacks around 1.5 miles into the hike. The challenge is definitely worth it, though. At the end of the trail is Clouds Rest some 9,900 feet above sea level, where you can treat yourself to 360° stunning views of Yosemite National Park's landmarks and even beyond. Reaching Clouds Rest on a clear day is like being on top of the world.

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Zion National Park, Utah

Zion National Park is famous for its dramatic landscapes amidst the arid desert. Its towering canyons, massive monoliths, multi-colored sandstone cliffs and natural arches attract millions of visitors annually. Because of its astounding sights, the whimsical would be quick to call Zion a magical realm. The highlight of Zion National Park is the scenic Zion Canyon, a reddish sandstone canyon 15 miles long and half a mile deep.

Zion Canyon is the primary destination of hikers visiting Zion National Park. The canyon leads to the more popular trails in the park such as Angels Landing, Weeping Rock and Emerald Pools. Those who wish to avoid the crowds in Zion Canyon often go to Kolob Canyon instead. In Kolob Canyon, you'll be able to find Kolob Arch, one of the largest natural arches in the world. But the trail that you should not miss on your visit to Zion is none other than The Narrows.

Our Pick: The Narrows

The Narrows is an unusual and tricky trail in the upper Zion Canyon. The trail requires you to trek through water and, at points, swim the river. It is tricky because the riverbed you have to walk on is filled with boulders the size of bowling balls. The Narrows is also prone to flash flooding, which is one of the reasons why Zion's management requires permits to hike this trail. The trail is unique in that the trail cuts through massive reddish canyon walls, which surround you during your hike. At some point, these walls are less than 40 feet apart. You can complete the Narrows in one day, but it's often recommended that you get an overnight permit from the Zion park management.

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Hiking trails are a key feature of the National Parks. Many of these trails are considered to be the best in the world. Some of them are easy to navigate while some will truly test your strength and endurance. But whatever difficulties you experience in hiking these trails, you will find at the end of your trek that the rewards are definitely worth the trip.

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