En español | What is it about our desire to get to mountain summits? George Mallory, before his fatal attempt to climb Mount Everest in 1924, answered most memorably with “because it’s there.” Other reasons: gorgeous views at the top and a nice feeling of accomplishment. Many mountains in the national parks have well-marked and maintained trails that lead hikers to their peaks and can be walked in the space of a day. (Some are very challenging, but we’ve noted where going partway offers a satisfying trek as well.) Here are some of our favorites.
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PHOTO BY: TMI / Alamy Stock Photo
Mount Washburn (Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming)
Mount Washburn is one of the most accessible high mountains in this crown-jewel park, and offers a variety of attractions, including outstanding views. The shortest route to the top of this 10,243-foot peak is a pleasant walk up the old Chittenden Road; this well-graded, gravel road is open only to official vehicles and is rarely used. The walk ascends 3.1 miles and climbs about 1,500 feet, making for a hike of only moderate challenge. Along the way, you’re likely to be dazzled by wildflowers, pass snow drifts that may last until August, and see bighorn sheep — either on the open slopes of the mountain or at its summit. The mountain marks the northern edge of the giant caldera that defines much of Yellowstone. At the summit you’ll find a fire lookout (still in use), a small visitor center and expansive views all the way to the Teton Mountains to the south.
Time required: about three hours roundtrip
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PHOTO BY: Anand Goteti / Getty Images
Cadillac Mountain (Acadia National Park, Maine)
Cadillac Mountain is the highest in the park and the first place the sun strikes the continental U.S. during much of the year. The summit is only a little over 1,500 feet, but most hikers start near sea level, so it’s a substantive climb. We suggest picking up the trail where it crosses Maine Rt. 3 (there’s plenty of roadside parking), making for a roundtrip hike of 7 miles. The South Ridge Trail offers a long, gradual ascent, and the occasional scramble up and over rock ledges only adds to the adventure. Hikers quickly rise above tree line to appreciate far-reaching views. Look for evidence of the glaciers that retreated some 10,000 years ago — the summit’s distinctive rounded dome and the smoothly polished granite under your feet are good examples.
Time required: about four hours roundtrip
Shorter option: 1 mile up to Eagles Crag Loop, which offers clifftop panoramic views
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PHOTO BY: Mark Wetters Images / Getty Images
Guadalupe Peak (Guadalupe Mountains National Park, Texas)
A 400-mile reef of undersea fossils that has been uplifted by tectonic forces, the Guadalupe Mountains may be the most unusual in the national parks. The park’s most iconic hike climbs its namesake peak, the highest in all of Texas. This 8.4-mile (roundtrip) hike rises 3,000 feet to reach the mountain peak at 8,751 feet. The journey starts among the cactuses and yuccas of the Chihuahuan Desert, rises gently through pine forests, and finally scrambles up the exposed bald of the summit. Views from the top are humbling and can extend 100 miles or more.
Time required: about five to six hours roundtrip
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PHOTO BY: Jon Massie / Alamy Stock Photo
Mount LeConte (Great Smoky Mountains National Park, Tennessee)
Several trails lead to the summit of this 6,593-foot mountain, and we suggest the Alum Cave Trail. Yes, it’s the shortest route to the summit (about 10 miles roundtrip and 3,000 feet of elevation gain), but it’s also especially scenic, including Alum Cave Bluffs, showy rhododendrons and Arch Rock. Just before you reach the summit, you pass romantic LeConte Lodge; built in the 1920s, it’s a rustic resort of cabins and a restaurant, the only accommodations in the park. The lodge makes a great base camp, but it’s rustic and you’ll need to reserve well in advance (though it offers snacks and pack lunches to day hikers).
Time required: about six hours roundtrip
Shorter option: a 4.4-mile roundtrip hike on the Alum Cave Trail
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PHOTO BY: TMI / Alamy Stock Photo
Wildrose Peak (Death Valley National Park, California and Nevada)
A maintained trail leads to the summit of 9,064-foot Wildrose Peak, an 8.4-mile (roundtrip) route with an elevation gain of about 2,200 feet. At the trailhead you’ll find 10 striking (but surreal) beehive-shaped charcoal kilns that were used to help fuel silver mine smelters in the late 1800s. The trail travels through a lovely pinyon-juniper forest characteristic of much of the Southwestern U.S. At higher elevations, look for long-lived bristlecone pines. Reaching the bald summit requires negotiating only one short, steep pitch of trail, most of it above tree line. Look to the east to Badwater Basin, the lowest point in the continental U.S. (282 feet below sea level), then turn around to see Mount Whitney to the west, the highest (14,505 feet). Remarkable! This high-elevation trail is a good choice in summer, when most of the rest of the park swelters.
Time required: About five hours roundtrip
Shorter option: Stop 2.9 miles up, where you’ll find great views of Death Valley and Badwater Basin.
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PHOTO BY: Dennis Frates / Alamy Stock Photo
Lassen Peak (Lassen Volcanic National Park, California)
Summiting 10,457-foot Lassen Peak, the park’s namesake volcano, is the glamour hike in this park and many of your new best friends will join you for this very doable and satisfying trek, about 5 miles roundtrip, with an elevation gain of 2,000 feet. Much of the trail is a persistent series of switchbacks that climb moderately, but the sweeping views demand regular stops for photos (and allow for a few deep breaths). Hemlocks are found at the lower elevations, but yield to a krummholz of stunted white bark pines higher up. At about 9,000 feet you reach the alpine zone, where only low-lying vegetation can survive the severe winter winds and weather. At the summit you see the dramatic remains of the park’s other volcanoes. Reverse your course back to the trailhead, greeting other climbers with encouraging words.
Time Required: about three hours
Shorter option: 1.2 miles to the tree line for great views of surrounding extinct volcanoes
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PHOTO BY: Design Pics Inc / Alamy Stock Photo
Old Rag (Shenandoah National Park, Virginia)
Many national parks have a “glory hike,” and at Shenandoah, it’s Old Rag, a challenging trek to one of the park’s higher peaks. The mountain’s unusual name comes from the more formal, Old Ragged Mountain, referencing the rough rocks near its summit. The classic route starts just outside the park and is a 9.2-mile loop trail that’s defined by two long scrambles over massive billion-year-old granite boulders. After a moderate 3-mile climb through an attractive forest, the action begins. A first series of scrambles will test your ability to navigate this unusual terrain, reducing most hikers to three and four-point stances in some places. A second stretch of boulders is a little easier than the first (but maybe we were just getting used to the climb). Soon after, you’ll reach the summit, where the views were glorious, the mountain laurel spectacular and the sense of relief overwhelming.
Time required: about eight hours
Difficulty: very challenging
Shorter option: 2.3 miles to top of ridge and the start of the mountain’s great boulder fields
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PHOTO BY: Cavan Images / Alamy Stock Photo
Wheeler Peak (Great Basin National Park, Nevada)
This is the prize in this lovely, lonely park, a serious hike to the 13,063-foot summit of Wheeler Peak, the highest mountain in the park. From the 10,000-foot trailhead, walk gently uphill through a series of aspen groves and then some open meadows with great views of the ridgeline of the Snake Mountains, including your goal. Eventually, the trail climbs more steeply, rising above tree line and mounting the mountain’s great northern ridgeline. Follow this all the way to the summit and take in the astounding views of the vast basin and range geographic province that marks much of the American West. The trail is along a massive talus and scree (rock-covered) slope with rough footing and can seem relentless at times. This is an 8.6-mile roundtrip hike and gains about 3,000 feet; summiting can be taxing, but richly rewarding.
Time required: five to six hours
Difficulty: very challenging
Shorter option: 2.1 miles to Stella Lake for great views of dramatic Wheeler Peak
Robert and Martha Manning are authors of Walks of a Lifetime in America’s National Parks. He is professor emeritus in the Rubenstein School of Environment and Natural Resources at the University of Vermont, and was director of the university’s Park Studies Laboratory.
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