One of the greatest things about the United States is the amount of public land that is available to everyone. While it varies by state, with Alaska having the most public land at 96 percent and Rhode Island having the least at 1.5 percent, the US as a nation is made up of 40 percent public land.
Thanks to protections put in place to help preserve special places, we can hope to enjoy America’s public land for years to come.
One of the best ways to do this is to take a hike. Yes, there are many amazing sights you can visit from your vehicle! Hiking adds another dimension to your outdoor experience. The outdoor writer Edward Abbey said, “A man on foot, on horseback or on a bicycle will see more, feel more, enjoy more in one mile than the motorized tourists can in a hundred miles.
”There are great places to explore no matter where you live; you don’t need to take a trip across the country to have an awesome hiking experience. Selecting the best hikes in America is highly subjective because everyone has different preferences for what they might enjoy in a hiking trip.
Depending on your values and comfort zone, a hike that a magazine article might rave about might not appeal to you. Some people hike because they crave solitude, others seek companionship. Wide open, glorious views appeal to certain people, while secretive cove trails full of interesting plants and animals appeal to others. Accessibility matters, too.
Distance, length, and difficulty can make a trail a fun challenge for some people while creating an unenjoyable obstacle for others. Guide books can be a major help when choosing trails. Want to see a waterfall? Many hiking guidebooks will detail where to find one as well as the terrain along the way.
The best route to the top of a peak? Check a guidebook. There are thousands of awesome trails in America, and the more you get out there the more likely you are to find your favorite(s)! To get you started, we have put together a list of some of our favorite hiking trails in America.
Havasupai Trail, Arizona
Havasu Falls is one of the best-known waterfalls in the world, and you’ll understand why once you reach the end of a 10-mile trail to see the bright turquoise blue pool contrasting with the red desert rock. The 100 foot tall Havasu Falls is located at the bottom of the Grand Canyon, and the hike is difficult, through desert terrain along the way.
One thing to be aware of in advance is that you will need a reservation and a permit to travel past the Indian town of Supai to the falls. Most of the tribe’s income comes from tourism, and permits are bought quickly. The permit application date is February 1, and you can buy permits for the entire year.
The trail starts at Hualapai Hilltop, and descends 10 miles to the falls over sandy and gravel terrain, through canyons and along arroyos and creek beds. Havasu Falls doesn’t dry up like many other desert water features because it is fed by a natural spring, so you can see it year-round! This iconic trail has everything to earn its place as one of the best hikes in the US.
Yosemite falls trail, California
Yosemite Falls is the tallest waterfall in North America, at 2,425 feet. The 7.2 mile trail is a steep climb for most of the way, but the views of the waterfall make it worth the effort over the 2,700 feet of elevation gain. The trail climbs through oak woodlands and then up onto steep, rocky terrain to views of the valley including Half Dome and Sentinel Rock.
The fall dries up depending on rainfall, but you can call ahead to check on the conditions of the falls and the terrain. Generally, late summer is when it is the driest.
Kalalau trail, Kauai, Hawaii
This 11 miletrial is located on the island of Kauai, in Hawaii. This trail goes from Ke’e Beach to Kalalau Beach along the Na Pali Coast. The trail winds through five valleys and along steep sea cliffs and over streams. Beaches, waterfalls, mountains, sea caves… the dramatic scenery and lush vegetation provides something for everyone.
The first two miles of the trip has the most people, but the remainder of the trail has more solitude. Most people backpack the trail, which requires a permit. The end of the trail is at Kalalau Beach, which is only accessible to people who have hiked the trail.
Summer is the best time to hike the Kalalau Trail because the weather is pretty dry. During the rainier months, be aware that streams can undergo flash flooding. This remote, gorgeous trail is a must-do for any hiker that gets the chance to visit Kauai.
Greenstone ridge trail, Michigan
The largest island in Michigan, located in Lake Superior, is Isle Royale. The trail that runs from end to end? The Greenstone Ridge Trail. The trail is 40 miles in length, and most people complete it in four or five day long backpacking trips. You can extend your hiking trip by connecting side trails (there are about 165 miles of trail total in the park).
The ridge trail gives you great views of the surrounding forest, lake, and surrounding islands. Isle Royale is probably most famous for its wolves and moose that live on the island. The trail is pretty easy to follow, and it has eight high points of 1,300 feet or more in elevation. It’s a great trail for family backpacking trips as well due to the relative lack of strenuous climbs.
Highline loop, Glacier national park, Montana
The Highline Loop Trail is a very popular trail in Glacier National Park, and it is only accessible to hikers during a small portion of the year because you have to access it at Logan Pass, which is off Going To The Sun Road. Most years, Logan Pass isn’t open to vehicles until late June.
Roundtrip, the Highline Loop Trail is 11.8 miles and begins on the north side of Going To The Sun Road. It hugs cliff sides and has spectacular views of mountains, glaciers and green valleys the entire length of the trail. Mountain goats are common, and bighorn sheep are also spotted frequently along the trail.
There are a few side trails, including one up to Swiftcurrent Peak. Hikers can also access the Granite Park Chalet here.
If you want incredible views of the “crown of the continent”, this trail will give them to you. One warning: if you have a fear of heights, the section of the trail along the Garden Wall can be frightening as there is a very steep drop off.
Angels Landing, Zion National Park, Utah
Angels Landing is an extremely popular trail in Zion National Park, Utah. The trail is only 2.5 miles long, and leads to amazing views of Zion Canyon and the 270-million-year-old layers of rock. The first two miles of the trail are relatively easy but then comes the challenging part after Scout Landing.
The last half mile goes over a sandstone fin that has steep drops on both sides, where people have fallen and died in the past. The trail itself is not physically challenging, but people who have a sever fear of heights and small children might want to turn back at Scout Landing, which provides amazing views itself.
Stony Man, Shenandoah National Park, Virginia
The Stony Man Trail in Shenandoah National Park is 1.6 miles long, and it has some spectacular views of the Appalachian Mountains, Shenandoah National Park, and the Allegheny Mountains.
When the mountain laurel is blooming in the early summertime, the hike is even more beautiful. Shenandoah reintroduced peregrine falcons to the park, so there is a chance you could see some on your hike.
Mount Scott Trail, Crater Lake Natonal Park, Oregon
The Mount Scott Trail is 2.5 miles long and ascends to an elevation of 8,929 feet. It’s located in Crater Lake National Park, which was named for a lake formed in the caldera of an inactive volcano.
It’s best to plan your Mount Scott hike for the summer because the park is a snowy place and the higher elevations can be inaccessible to hikers from November to June (or even a smaller window depending on the year). The top of Mount Scott gives you great panoramic views of Crater Lake, Mount Shasta, and the Three Sisters mountains in Oregon.
The beginning of the trail winds through a forest of hemlock, fir and pine before emerging into an open environment before you reach the summit.
Rhododendron Trail, Grayson Highlands State Park, Virginia
One of the most interesting places along the Appalachian Trail is the stretch that travels through Grayson Highlands. This area is famous for its rocky outcrops and sweeping vistas, as well as the wild ponies that live there.
You can hike the Rhododendron Trail up to Massie Gap on the Appalachian Trail, and follow the AT up to the summit of Mt. Rogers. Grayson Highlands is a popular place to visit, and there are plenty of opportunities for camping in the area, as well.
Coastal Plain Trails
Torreya Challenge Loop, Florida
You don’t generally think of Florida as having very much challenging terrain, but at Torreya State Park there are many ravines and bluffs over the Apalachicola River. The Torreya Challenge Loop is a seven mile long loop around the state park and winds its way through marshy forests and deep gorges.
Hikers who are training for Appalachian Trail trips often use Torreya as a place for weekend day hikes. The hike is mostly flat, but there are some awesome views of gorges along the way, as well as several campsites.
Cape Henry Trail, First Landing State Park, Virginia
The Cape Henry trail is six miles long and is the most popular trail in First Landing State Park. It is paved at the beginning but much of the trail is sandy and loose material. The trail goes through a coastal forest that has Spanish moss and bald cypress trees.
You can expect to see some wading birds such as egrets and herons. The habitat is great for birds, so if you’re a birdwatcher the Cape Henry Trail can be a good choice.
Assateague Island National Seashore, Maryland
Assateague Island, which is located in both Maryland and Virginia, is a protected barrier island that is most famous for its population of wild horses on the island.
The island is an excellent place to go to explore natural coastal habitat since there are dunes, forests, marshes and smaller bodies of water throughout the island to explore. In the springtime, warblers migrate through and there are many opportunities to see the horses throughout the island.
Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve, Colorado
Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve in Colorado features the tallest sand dunes in North America, which are still growing to this day. There are also creeks, caves, and mountains within the park, and one of its other claims to fame is that it is the quietest of the national parks.
One unique service offered by the park is that it owns two sand wheelchairs, one for adults and one for kids. You can reserve a sand wheelchair in advance to access some great areas of the park that are inaccessible to those with thin-wheeled chairs.
Oregon Redwoods Trail, Rogue River-Siskiyou National Forest
Located near Brookings, Oregon, the Oregon Redwoods trail is a 0.8-mile interpretive trail that is wheelchair accessible and includes interpretive signs that have information about the ecology of the trail.
The redwoods located here in the Winchuck River drainage are the only coast redwoods in the Pacific Northwest region. At the end of the trail, there is a picnic stop and a wooden deck that allows you to go inside a hollowed out redwood tree.
Midwestern Long Distance Trails
Ozark Highlands Trail, Arkansas
The Ozark Highlands Trail is 218 miles long and covers some pretty awesome Midwestern wilderness terrain. It goes along the White River in the Lower Buffalo Wilderness, which is one of the Midwestern outdoors’ best-kept secrets. There are numerous stream crossings and up-and-down terrain to make it more challenging than one might expect for the Midwest.
The beautiful scenery and refreshing creeks are great in the summer, but that time of year poses its own challenges of ticks, mosquitoes, and briars. Fall is a beautiful time to hike the Ozark Highlands Trail.
Ice Age Trail, Wisconsin
The 1,200 mile Ice Age Trail in Wisconsin is not yet finished, but its main route links several state parks and wilderness areas. It’s called the Ice Age Trail in reminiscence of the landforms that it traverses, which are unique and left over by ice during the glaciated periods in history. This includes kettles, lakes, boulders and potholes of great geologic interest.
Half of the trail is on footpaths, but the rest travels along country roads. Kettle Moraine State Park in southeastern Wisconsin is very popular and includes a section of the trail within its trail system if you want to get a taste of the trail but don’t have the time to hike the entire thing.
Superior Hiking Trail, Minnesota
The Superior Hiking trail begins in Duluth, Minnesota and travels north along a ridge on the northwest shore of Lake Superior. It is 296 miles long, but there are numerous access points along the way so the trail can be easily split up into shorter day hikes. As it is Minnesota, the trail goes past many lakes other than Lake Superior.
The best time of year to attempt the Superior Hiking Trail is in the late summer or the fall. If you want a great north woods hiking experience with theflexibility of your route, the Superior Hiking Trail is a great choice.
Petrified Forest National Park, Arizona
The Giant Logs Trail is a very short trail in Petrified Forest National Park, at only 0.4 miles long. But this is a great trail for kids because of the interesting and up close petrified trees. Old Faithful, the largest of the petrified logs at the park, is found on this trail, so kids can get a close-up look at the huge rock formations and the minerals that formed them.
It’s a great opportunity to teach kids about nature without worrying about them getting too bored or tired on a longer hike.
Kephart Prong Trail, Great Smoky Mountains National Park
Round trip, the Kephart Prong trail is 4 miles long. It’s a good trail for school-age children who like to learn. Along the trail, there are remnants of historical buildings like the Civilian Conservation Corps camp and an old fish hatchery. There are a few log bridges that cross the creek, and you can find salamanders in the stream.
Great Smoky Mountains National Park is one of the best places in the world to find a large diversity of salamanders! This trail makes a good day hike for families with kids who like to explore.
Hurricane Point Trail, Olympic National Park, Washington
On a clear day, the view from Hurricane Point is unbeatable. It’s only a mile and a half hike up to this point, and it offers views of Vancouver Island, the Pacific Ocean, and the Olympic mountains.
There are many shorter trails in Olympic National Park, through a wide variety of habitats—temperate rainforests, the Pacific Ocean coastline, and high alpine hikes. This park has something for everyone!
America is chock full of amazing places, and hiking is one of the best ways to get up close and personal with them.
One of the best things about hiking is that you can return to the same trail time after time and have a different experience on each hike. Seasons, wildlife sightings and weather can make your experience on the trail unique from time to time.
Everyone has different ideas about what makes a great trail, but there truly is something for everyone. As you get to know an area, it becomes possible to move on from more popular trails to hidden gems that you won’t find rave reviews about online or in guidebooks.
If you have a favorite trail and would like to share your experience, please feel free to tell us about it in the comments!