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.