The crowds in some areas of America's national parks can make Old Faithful feel as congested as downtown Manhattan, but if you explore the park system’s 18,000 miles of trails you can usually find both scenery and serenity. Here are seven less-strenuous, less-obvious hikes — all less than 6.5 miles — that offer everything from rushing rapids to precious silence, starting with the easiest.
Everglades National Park, Florida
The trail: Anhinga, 0.8 miles round-trip
Why it’s unique: It’s a seriously flat hike.
How flat are the Everglades? The park’s highest point has an elevation of eight feet. This short hike is more like a stroll, and it’s also wheelchair accessible. It is loaded with wildlife: The Everglades are home to more than 350 species of birds plus a variety of endangered species. The trail starts at the Royal Palm Visitor Center and extends through sawgrass prairie. There’s a good chance you’ll see turtles, egrets, herons and, yes, alligators.
Arches National Park, Utah
The trail: Landscape Arch, 1.6 miles round-trip
Why it’s unique: You’ll see North America’s longest arch.
The otherworldly desert landscape in Arches National Park has appeared in such films as Star Trek, Thelma and Louise and Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. For an easy hiking option, park at the Devils Garden trailhead and take the Landscape Arch trail, which will lead you to an impressive 306-foot-long arch. If you'd like something more strenuous, the iconic Delicate Arch trail is a challenging 1.5-mile uphill trek — and with precious little shade, so be prepared. The 7.2-mile Primitive Trail is fairly flat, but you’ll need to scramble up rocks and deal with occasional uneven surfaces. The payoff: You’ll pass eight arches and unforgettable red-rock scenery.
James Walley / Alamy Stock Photo
Yosemite National Park, California
The trail: Artist Point, 2 miles round-trip
Why it’s unique: You get iconic views, minus the crowds.
Most people drive to the jammed parking lots at Tunnel View to see sites such as El Capitan, Half Dome and Bridalveil Falls. But if you hike one mile to the wonderfully uncrowded Artist Point, you’ll not only find the same vista, you'll also see sites that aren’t visible from Tunnel View, such as Bridalview Meadow. To get there, hike 0.5 miles on the Pohono Trail and then turn left on an old stagecoach road.
Pat & Chuck Blackley / Alamy Stock Photo
New River Gorge National River, West Virginia
The trail: Endless Wall, 2.4 miles round-trip
Why it’s unique: It puts the gorge in gorgeous.
OK, New River Gorge is actually a national river, not a national park. But it’s managed by the National Park Service and many people point to Endless Wall as their favorite national park hiking trail. What makes it so special? The trail starts at the Fern Creek parking lot and winds through thick forests and along cliff edges, looking down on the churning New River, which has some of the nation’s biggest whitewater rapids. Plentiful scenic overlooks will give you time to gaze, particularly at Diamond Point, which offers wow-inducing panoramic views.
Isle Royale National Park, Michigan
The trail: Scoville Point Loop, 4.2 miles round-trip
Why it’s unique: It's on an isolated island, with beautiful lake views.
National parks offer a variety of stunning lake trails (add the 5.1-mile Hidden Falls at Jenny Lake loop in the Grand Tetons to your must-hike list), but Isle Royale, an island on Lake Superior near Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, has one big advantage: solitude. It’s one of the nation’s least-visited national parks, accessible only by seaplane or ferry. The rewards are peaceful forests, jagged shorelines and, of course, the massive lake. Backpacker magazine has dubbed this four-mile hike “among the best 100 miles of trail in the whole national park system.” And it's full of wildlife (you might see a moose).
Kevin Shields / Alamy Stock Photo
Acadia National Park, Maine
The trail: Ocean Path, 4.4 miles round-trip
Why it’s unique: You'll hear weird wave sounds.
You don’t have to walk far on this oceanside hike to be wowed by nature. In just 0.7 miles, you’ll reach a sea cave called Thunder Hole. Large waves can trap air in the cave, and when it escapes you’ll hear a thunder-like boom — definitely a one-of-a-kind experience. The hike starts at Sand Beach, a 290-acre beach surrounded by trees and granite cliffs, and offers worth-the-walk views of the rugged coastline and the Atlantic.
Spring Images / Alamy Stock Photo
Olympic National Park, Washington
The trail: Hoh River, 6.4 miles round-trip
Why it’s unique: It includes America’s quietest spot.
The trail through this temperate rain forest is 17.4 miles long and rises nearly 4,000 feet, but if you hike 3.2 miles from the visitor's center you’ll reach what acoustic ecologist Gordon Hempton has declared the quietest place in America. The spot is on a 200-yard side path (you walk through a natural tunnel in a Sitka spruce tree; Hempton has posted directions), marked by a red stone on a moss-covered log. The quiet, however, is under threat: The U.S. Navy wants to use the Olympic Peninsula as an exercise area, which would lead to hundreds of military jet flights. But Hempton remains optimistic. “The profound impact of the silence, aided by moss drapes that absorb sounds, surprises visitors in an unexpected way,” he says. “We not only open up our senses, but we also become more optimistic about the future of this planet.”