We've spent much of our adult lives in the national parks, even living in several of them for a year at a time. Most recently we've explored them to research our book, Walks of a Lifetime in America's National Parks, scouring the 62 parks for the very best trails. The following are our ten favorites (in no particular order); each offers hikers a sense of the importance, diversity and beauty of its spectacular location. Note that a few, such as Zion National Park's Virgin River Narrows hike, are very challenging, even for experienced hikers; others (Acadia National Park's Ocean Path) are far easier trips of a few hours or less. Many can be shortened or lengthened as time and energy demand.
1. Delicate Arch Trail (Arches National Park, Utah)
Just three miles round trip, though uphill through most of the first half, this hike offers a stunning view as its reward. Just beyond the trailhead, you'll find the remains of historic Wolfe Ranch and a rock art panel that was probably made by Ute Indians several centuries ago. Soon the trail climbs onto a vast expanse of red slickrock, the way guided by a string of cairns. The short, final leg of the trail is a path that's been cut from the wall of a cliff (no guardrails here), but right around the corner you'll get your reward: a view of the massive, freestanding Delicate Arch — 46 feet high and the park's most iconic image — framed by the snow-covered La Sal Mountains in the background.
2. Skyline Trail (Mount Rainier National Park, Washington)
The most popular place in the park is a beautiful area aptly known as Paradise, only accessible on foot. There are easier routes, but we recommend the Skyline Trail, a 6-mile loop that offers walkers stunning views of wildflowers, waterfalls and Mount Rainier, and a taste of genuine mountain hiking. Lovely Myrtle Falls is found just a half mile along the trail (walking in the counterclockwise direction). Eventually the trail climbs, gaining 1,700 of elevation, until reaching Panorama Point, where you and many other hikers will stop for water, snacks and the jaw-dropping views of the mountain with its many active glaciers. Follow the trail downhill to reach the visitor center and close the loop.
3. Ocean Path (Acadia National Park, Maine)
At Acadia, big things tend to come in small packages and the impressive Ocean Path is a good example. This 2-mile footpath parallels the ocean shoreline, connecting several of the park's most iconic features, including Sand Beach, Thunder Hole and Otter Cliffs, and provides dramatic views of what may be the most scenic and photographed section of Maine's rocky coast. The trail is generally flat and well maintained, making it an especially good walk for less avid hikers. Walk Ocean Path out and back for a total of four miles or park at Sand Beach, ride the park's Island Explorer Shuttle Bus to Otter Cliffs and walk two miles back to Sand Beach.
4. Grinnell Glacier Trail (Glacier National Park, Montana)
This is a challenging trail, departing from the Many Glacier area: 11 miles (round trip) with about 1,600 feet of elevation gain. You can shorten this hike by a few miles by taking a tour boat across Swiftcurrent Lake and then on to the upper end of Lake Josephine (and the return trip that way as well); check the park's website for schedules and fares. The trail first follows the shores of the two lakes, rising at times, then leveling off in delightful alpine meadows. The last climb is up and over the large terminal moraine left by Grinnell Glacier and on to the shores of alluring Upper Grinnell Lake, where you'll get a close-up view of Grinnell Glacier and Gem Icefield. This hike can be shortened further by simply turning around once you've reached the open meadows that you'll find as the trail emerges from the lower-elevation forest.
5. South Kaibab Trail (Grand Canyon National Park, Arizona)
The 7-mile South Kaibab Trail (about 14 miles round trip) is one of the two primary routes from the South Rim to the Colorado River and starts at Yaki Point, accessible by shuttle bus. Much of the trail follows a natural ridgeline in the canyon, offering spectacular panoramic views, but it's challenging: steep and with nowhere to replenish drinking water. Consider hiking partway to other destinations along the trail, and then returning to the trailhead; popular sites include Cedar Point (3 miles round trip) and the Tip Off (9 miles round trip). Both of these destinations will give you the genuine experience of being in the canyon, something the vast majority of Grand Canyon visitors leave the park without.
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6. The Ancient Redwood Groves Trails (Redwood National and State Parks, California)
Though there are many huge redwood trees scattered through the park, a few of the largest and most majestic old-growth groves are easily accessible. The options include the Tall Trees Trail, Lady Bird Johnson Grove Trail, Stout Memorial Grove Trail and Simpson-Reed Trail. Choose one, or better yet, walk several, maybe even all of them; each seems more impressive than the last. The Tall Trees Grove has the longest trail (about 3.5 miles) and is thought by some to be the most magnificent, but it's also the only one that requires a permit from the National Park Service (NPS) to enter. Trails through the other groves are considerably shorter. Ferns and other greenery carpet all of the groves, and interpretive signs posted along the trails enhance the quality of walks.
7. Cascade Canyon Trail (Grand Teton National Park, Wyoming)
Several distinctive canyons penetrate the majestic Tetons from the east and Cascade Canyon may be the most spectacular. This route to and through the canyon begins near the Jenny Lake Visitor Center. We recommend taking the short, scenic ferry ride across the lake and starting your hike here. The hike up Cascade Canyon climbs noticeably for the first mile or so, then continues less steeply and with frequent views of Cascade Creek and the surrounding mountains. At mile 4.4, the trail splits and this marks a good turnaround point for many hikers, allowing them a memorable round-trip walk of 8.8 miles. Stronger hikers might consider continuing to the 9,000-foot Lake Solitude, but this will extend the journey to 14.2 miles round trip with 2,500 feet of elevation gain.
8. Vernal and Nevada Falls Trails (Yosemite National Park, California)
This is the hike for every Yosemite visitor, a compact tour of so many of the features for which the park is internationally celebrated: granite spires and domes, a wild river and world-class waterfalls. The park's trail system offers an appealing 5.8-mile lollipop route that gains 2,000 feet as it follows the rushing Merced River to Vernal Fall and then Nevada Fall. Start at the trailhead for the iconic John Muir Trail and admire lovely Vernal Fall after a short walk. Then turn left on the Mist Trail to the top of dramatic Nevada Fall (bring a rain jacket to shield yourself from the spray of the waterfalls). Return to the trailhead on the John Muir Trail. A shorter alternative is to walk to the Vernal Fall bridge and enjoy the very best view of the namesake waterfall, just 1.6 miles round trip.
9. Virgin River Narrows Trail (Zion National Park, Utah)
Zion includes many slot canyons (narrow and sheer-walled), but the Virgin River Narrows is the granddaddy of them all, a 16-mile route through a canyon that narrows to 20-to-30 feet across, with near vertical walls that rise a thousand feet or more. The North Fork of the Virgin River runs through the canyon — sometimes from wall-to-wall — and staying dry isn't an option. The most popular version of this hike starts at the mouth of the canyon and proceeds upstream. From the shuttle bus stop at the Temple of Sinawava trailhead, follow the paved Riverside Walk for a mile and then enter the river as it flows out of the narrows. Head upstream, mostly in the water, for as little as a few minutes or as long as a few hours. You can hike as far as Big Springs, but day hikers are not allowed beyond this point. Note that outfitters in Springdale rent specialized water shoes, hiking poles and other equipment that may be helpful. Hikers shouldn't enter the canyon when there's a threat of rain.
10. Nymph, Dream and Emerald Lakes Trails (Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado)
This string of lakes is the most popular hike in the park and for good reason. Lying high in the park's glacially carved Bear Lake Corridor, these iconic mountain lake trails offer easy-to-moderate hikes: a half-mile to Nymph Lake, another six-tenths of a mile on to Dream Lake and seven-tenths of a mile to Emerald Lake, for a 3.6-mile round-trip journey. Nymph Lake is named for its pond lilies (Nymphaea polysepala), while the name Dream Lake will be obvious when you reach it. In our view, Emerald Lake is, indeed, the crown jewel, a green-tinted glacial lake hard against the towering cliffs of Hallett Peak. Embrace the fact that so many of your fellow hikers are enjoying this trail with you.