Healthy Outdoor Living

15 Best National Park Day Hikes

More from Outdoor Living Newsletter June Outdoor Living Newsletter

Many of us love hiking in National Parks as a great way to explore and appreciate the beauty. National Parks are full of spectacular hiking trails. However, the best ones provide great scenic views, or offer close up sightings of waterfalls, arches, pinnacles, trees and landmarks. We've listed our 15 favorite day hikes at the National Parks.

Acadia National Park, Maine

Acadia National Park is the oldest National Park east of the Mississippi River. Located mostly on Mount Desert Island and formerly known as Lafayette NP, this crown jewel of Maine offers a myriad of stunning landscapes made up of granite mountains, a rugged coastline and coniferous forests. Acadia has around 120 miles of interconnected trails. Trails like the old Carriage Roads will take you 200 years back in time, when 18th-century rusticators chose the island as their retreat from the busy city life. On the other hand, trails leading to Acadia's summits, island lakes, along its shoreline and through its forests will allow you to get immersed in the natural beauty of the park.

Our Pick: Sargent Mountain Loop
Length: 5.5 miles
Difficulty: Moderate
Duration: 3 hours minimum

Hiking Upper Yosemite Falls Trail, Yosemite National Park
View of Yosemite Valley hiking up Upper Yosemite Falls Trail, Yosemite National Park

Sargent Mountain Loop is one of the less crowded trails in Acadia. That's probably because it is not for the fainthearted. Stretching 5.5 miles, this moderate trail loop rises 1,373 feet up to the summit of Sargent Mountain. To get to that summit, you will have to skirt the Jordan Cliffs and climb constructed steps and iron rungs. From Jordan Pond House, follow the Spring Trail across the Jordan Cliffs Trail and take the Sargent Mountain East Cliff Trail to the summit. This hike is definitely worth the effort as the sights from the summit are breathtaking. From there, you'll have panoramic views of Acadia, including the Pemetic and Cadillac Mountains to the east, the Porcupine Islands to the northeast, and the Cranberry Isles to the south. You'll even get to see Somes Sound, which is the only fjord on this side of the Atlantic. The Appalachian Mountains are also visible from the Sargent Mountain summit on a clear day. Stop by Sargent Pond for a quick swim on your hike back down via Penobscot Mountain Trail. Allow 3-4 hours minimum to hike.

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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
Length: 2.9 miles
Difficulty: Moderate
Duration: 2 hours minimum

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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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
Length: 15 miles round trip or 13.5 miles one way
Difficulty: Strenuous
Duration: 7 hours minimum

Glacier National Park's Highline Trail is one of the country's most spectacular hiking trails offering stunning views of glaciers, mountains and lakes. 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 Garden Wall Trail at mile 6.9, you will have to do some steep and strenuous climbing of around 900 ft in 0.6 miles. 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. If you backtrack, the total hike will be about 15 miles long, but if you want to explore more scenery, continue hiking toward Granite Chalet, the trail will eventually end at The Loop at mile 13.5. At that point, a shuttle waits to take you back to where you began, at Logan Pass. It takes the best part of a day to hike the Highline Trail.

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Grand Teton National Park, Wyoming

The dramatic Tetons, of Grand Teton National Park, have long attracted hikers, artists and photographers to this particular spot in Wyoming. Being able to see for yourself these awe-inspiring crystalline mountains towering over the Jackson Hole Valley is too difficult to resist. The glacial lakes at the base of the mountains, the wildflower meadows and the coniferous-deciduous forests are an added visual treat.

Our Pick: Cascade Canyon Trail to Lake Solitude
Length: 14.4 miles round trip.
Difficulty: Strenuous
Duration: 7 hours minimum

Hiking the Cascade Canyon Trail to Solitude Lake will allow you to experience the best views that Grand Teton NP has to offer. Along the Cascade Canyon Trail, you will see Hidden Falls, a 100-foot waterfall, east of Cascade Canyon, and Inspiration Point, where you can see wonderful views of Jenny Lake. This trail lies in the shadow of the Cathedral Group - Teewinot, Mount Owen and Grand Teton, the tallest peaks in this NP - always visible west of the trail. To get to Lake Solitude via the Cascade Canyon Trail, start from the western shore of Jenny Lake and head north. The Lake Solitude Trail starts at the Forks of Cascade Canyon. When you get to Lake Solitude, you'll be rewarded with a spectacular view of this glacial lake edged with pockets of colorful wildflowers. The Cascade Canyon and Lake Solitude Trails have a combined length of 14.4 miles.

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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
Length: 11 miles round trip to Conte Lodge or 12 miles round trip to Myrtle Point
Difficulty: Strenuous
Duration: 7-8 hours minimum

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 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: Mount Cammerer Trail
Length: 12 miles round trip
Difficulty: Strenuous
Duration: 6 hours minimum

If you want an alternative to hiking the Alum Cave Trail, you should take the beautiful and exciting Mount Cammerer Trail, which will take you to the Mount Cammerer Fire Tower. Starting from the Cosby Campground, the trail runs some 12 miles roundtrip across creeks, off-road footpaths, the Appalachian Trail and steadily climbs. 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
Length: 8 miles round trip
Difficulty: Strenuous
Time: 4 hours minimum

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: Papwai Trail
Length: 4 miles round trip
Difficulty: Moderate
Time: 2-3 hours minimum

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: Green Lake Trail
Length: 9.6 miles round trip
Difficulty: Moderate
Time: 4 hours minimum

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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Point Reyes National Seashore, California

Point Reyes National Seashore is one of those rare places in the world where man coexists peacefully with nature. Point Reyes is home to several marine and wildlife sanctuaries; at the same time, it contains agricultural and commercial lands. For hikers, Point Reyes offers a 150-mile network of trails that will take you to interesting spots like the San Andreas Fault Zone, the Point Reyes Lighthouse and replicas of Coast Miwok Indian villages; to sand dunes and wildflower fields; to ravines, grasslands and beaches.

Our Pick: Tomales Point Trail
Length: 9.5 miles round trip
Difficulty: Moderate
Time: 4 hours minimum

Tomales Point Trail is one of the most popular day hikes in Point Reyes. It passes through the Tule Elk Preserve; on any given day, you can see some of these majestic animals here. Another reason behind the popularity of this trail is the spectacular views of Tomales Bay and the Pacific Ocean that you will find here. There are also great opportunities for birdwatching along this trail. To get to the Tomales Point Trailhead, you have to drive 40 minutes to the end of Pearce Point Road from Bear Valley. From this trailhead to Tomales Point is a 9.5-mile hike.

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Sequoia National Park, California

Sequoia National Park is a haven for backcountry hikers - more than 80% of the land covered by these parks is a designated wilderness accessible only by foot and on horseback. "Awe-inspiring" is perhaps too insipid a term to describe the views and wonders you will see which include conifer forests, alpine lakes, flowery meadows, cave networks and towering granite cliffs. Most significant are the groves of giant sequoias, which contain the largest trees on the entire planet.

Our Pick: Lakes Trail to the Watchtower
Length: 12 miles round trip
Difficulty: Moderate
Time: 6 hours minimum

The hike along the Lakes Trail to the Watchtower is a treat in itself. While your prize awaits you at the Watchtower, you get to enjoy tidbits that include glacial lakes, backcountry meadows, conifer woodlands and enchanting alpine landscapes. Once you approach the Watchtower, you will find Topokah Falls, a 1,200-foot waterfall. And then, your prize - from atop the Watchtower, a granite peak that rises 2,000 feet, you get to drink in your fill of the glory of the High Sierra and enjoy a bird's eye view of the valley below. The Lakes Trail to the Watchtower starts at the Wolverton Picnic Area and is a six-mile hike one way. It's not that difficult, but the fact that it rises in elevation can be a challenge.

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Shenandoah National Park, Virginia

Just 75 miles outside of Washington, DC is the wilderness that is Shenandoah National Park. The Shenandoah is a treasure trove of scenic mountain views, wooded hollows and gorgeous waterfalls. There are around 500 miles of hiking trails through the Shenandoah, 101 miles of which form part of the Appalachian Trail. The Shenandoah is also home to the densest population of black bears in the entire country.

Our Pick: Ridge Trail Up Old Rag Mountain
Length: 9 miles
Difficulty: Strenuous
Duration: 5 hours minimum

The trails leading up to Old Rag Mountain are the most popular hikes through Shenandoah. They are also the most challenging and dangerous, as they involve steep climbs, sliding or crawling through narrow passageways, not to mention sharp turns and switchbacks. Hikers are nonetheless willing to go through the danger and the risks the trek up Old Rag entails because the mountain views are incredible and Old Rag Mountain itself is home to rare species of flora. There are several ways to hike Old Rag, but the most popular is a circuit that starts at Old Rag Parking Lot, located south of Sperryville and takes you up the Ridge Trail, across the rock scramble to the summit, then down the Saddle Trail to the Weakley Hollow Fire Road and back to where you began.

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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
Length: 14.5 miles
Difficulty: Strenuous
Time: 7 hours minimum

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 facing an 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.

Our Pick: Upper Yosemite Falls Trail
Length: 7.2 miles round trip
Difficulty: Strenuous
Time: 6 hours minimum

The Upper Yosemite Falls Trail is a difficult trail to hike because even though it's only a 7.2-mile roundtrip hike, it gets you climbing 2,700 feet and has a lot of sheer drop-offs. It's not a hike to attempt if you're not in great shape. But the payoff of this hike is incredible. Where the average visitor to Yosemite Valley will only gawk up the Falls from the bottom, you get to look at it from the top. Moreover, you get to see the entirety of the Falls, which is not possible unless you climb this trail or the top of Sentinel Dome. And the views from the top of the Falls of Yosemite Valley are just too awesome to put to words. Yosemite Falls Trailhead starts near Camp 4 (shuttle stop #7)

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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
Length: Variable, up to 16 miles
Difficulty: Easy to Strenuous
Time: 1 to 10 hours minimum

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 from the top. 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 hike the trail Bottom Up or Top down, Bottom Up is the best way for first-time river hikers and those with only a short time in the park. Starting point is the Temple of Sinawava. You'll need to ride the shuttle into Zion Canyon, to Temple of Sinawava, and that takes about 45 minutes during the summer season. Top Down you can complete the Narrows in one day, but it's often recommended that you get an overnight permit from the Zion park management. Starting Point is Chamberlain's Ranch.

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The ideal way to experience a National Park is to devote a few days of camping there and explore its attractions leisurely. But if you're like most people who can only afford to spend a weekend for a camping holiday, a day hike is the next best thing. A National Park day hike will let you see some of the best sights and leave you with a desire for more, strong enough to compel you to return.

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