The great outdoors in the United States has a lot to offer. Geography can change drastically in a matter of a few miles, offering seascapes, deserts, plains, and mountain ridges. There’s no better time to explore some of these regions than in the summer and fall, when hiking trails become more accessible and the weather becomes perfect for lacing up your boots for just a few miles or for a week-long excursion.
Just as the country’s landscape varies, so does its hiking trails. Some of the most renowned hiking locations are easy enough for beginners, and others are best left for when you’ve earned your hiking stripes. No matter what, there’s something for everyone. There are hiking trails to be found in almost every corner of the state, but there are some that rise above the rest. If you’re ready to see the great outdoors, we’ve compiled a list of must-hike trails recommended by the experts and hikers who know them best. If you’re staying out overnight, most trails and national parks require permits, so make sure you’ve completed the necessary steps to prepare for whatever length of trail you’re undertaking.
Whether you’re looking for a guy’s weekend, a trip with your significant other, or quality time in solitude, these are some of the best trails in the U.S. if you’re looking for a quality outdoor adventure. Most of the skill levels have been classified by Trails.com, though it will vary depending on how long and which sections of certain trails you travel through. If you’re an avid outdoorsman you probably have a list of your own must-visit spots, but take the word of some other adventurers to expand your horizons.
1. Dosewallips to Lake Quinault, Olympic National Park in Washington
Trail length: About 34 miles
Skill level: Moderate
Reason to go: This particular hike is endorsed by Sally Jewell, the U.S. Secretary of the Interior herself. Jewell grew up on the trail and completed it for the first time at age 12, so the stretch isn’t particularly intense. (Other areas, like the trail from Dosewallips to Lake Constance, are much more intense.) “Be prepared for wildlife, wildflowers, history, serenity, and a comfortable, three-day backpack—with a bear canister for food, of course!” Jewell wrote for a post in National Geographic.
If you’re looking for some peace and quiet, this trail might be for you. Lonely Planet writes that the Quinault River Valley is one of the least crowded areas of the park, so you’ll have the chance to enjoy nature’s serenity.
2. Pacific Crest Trail in California, Oregon, and Washington
Trail length: 2,650 miles
Skill level: Varies per section
Reason to go: Even though the PCT’s fame was well known long before Wild, the popular memoir helped make it known to non-hikers. Like many other long-distance trails in the country, the PCT boasts a welcoming hiker’s community no matter the distance you travel. You can take the trail in very short sections, though some choose to hike the entire thing in a season. “Long-distance hiking on the PCT should not be underestimated. Especially amongst thru-hikers, the failure rate is high. Approximately 50% of those who start a thru-hike, finish. Injuries are unfortunately common. Substantial dangers present themselves; you meet the wilderness on its terms,” the trail’s website explains.
Wild has definitely boosted the popularity of the PCT, and the trail now limits 50 people per day starting at the southernmost point. Thankfully, trail experts say novice hikers are still choosing shorter weekend trips and leaving the longer ventures to those who have more than a few miles under their belts.
Thru-hiking the entire PCT has been a lifelong dream for hiker and ultra-running champion Scott Jurek, who already hikes portions of the trail. “The sheer beauty and variety of the great Pacific mountain ranges along with the journey of a long thru-hike traversing the U.S. north to south has been the main allure,” he said.
3. John Muir Trail, Yosemite National Park in California
Trail length: 211 miles
Skill level: Moderate
Reason to go: The John Muir Trail, named for the founder of the Sierra Club, stretches across the Sierra Nevada mountain range from Yosemite to Mount Whitney. Hiking is best from July to September when the snows have melted (and before they begin again). The trail is technically part of the larger Pacific Coast Trail, so you can experience both at once if you don’t plan to thru-hike the larger PCT.
There are many groups that offer guided hiking, which might be a good idea for those who have hiked before but haven’t yet undertaken a multi-day trip. The trail rarely drops below 8,000 feet in elevation, and rises above 13,000 feet in the southernmost segments. Hiker Michael Lanza describes some of the beauty that the JMT offers in a post for Backpacker: “…almost-constant alpine vistas of snow-slathered mountains and jagged granite spires. Passes at 12,000 and even 13,000 feet. And a constellation of lakes reflecting it all upside down.”
4. Franconia Ridge Loop in New Hampshire
Trail length: 8.2 miles
Skill level: Strenuous
Reason to go: Many big trails are located west of the Mississippi, but this trail is popular because of its location just a few hours from Boston and civilization on the East Coast. The trail has earned its difficult ranking because the beginning of the hike is pretty intense: You climb 3,480 feet in just four miles. It’s more like the Alps than the Appalachians for that reason, Backpacker.com explains. The alpine views in the midst of the White Mountains is something to behold, however. “Once you’re on the ridge, the hiking is fairly easy provided you have clear skies, warm temperatures, and little wind,” writes hiker Philip Werner. Those days can be few and far between, however, so be prepared for any sort of weather while up on the ridge.
Author and photographer Jonathan Waterman told National Geographic that it’s one of his favorite spots, especially on less-crowded weekdays. “If you catch the trail in isolation early or late in the year, its miniaturized flowers and intricately placed stone steps (to keep you from trampling the fragile flowers) offer a glimpse of alpine worlds otherwise found far away from the well-trammeled White Mountains. As a boy, I knew of no headier experience than this trail,” he said.
5. Appalachian Trail from Maine to Georgia
Trail length: 2,168 miles
Skill level: Varies from easy to very strenuous
Reason to go: Perhaps the most famous trail in the eastern half of the U.S., hiking through the entire trail is a dream for many hikers and outdoor enthusiasts. Average hikers take about six months to complete the entire thing, though several have completed it much faster. “A hike through the most visited national park makes for a classic Southern backpacking trip,” The Wilderness Society writes.
Zach Davis, author of Appalachian Trials, a book about his own experiences thru-hiking the A.T., writes that hiking such an iconic trail requires a purpose — 70% of the hikers who start the trail in Georgia aren’t able to complete it in Maine. Tactical Gear reminds us that it might not be the longest hiking trail in the world or even the country anymore, but it goes through 14 states, six national parks, and eight national forests. “After 75 years, it remains an American treasure for backpackers and day hikers alike,” the site contends.
6. Continental Divide Trail from Canada to Mexico
Trail length: 3,100 miles
Skill level: Varies per segment, but many parts are strenuous
Reason to go: You obviously have your pick of geography with this trail, which spans the entire country north to south. The Wildnerness Society recommends the portion that traverses 100 miles through Glacier National Park in Montana, where it also connects with the Pacific Northwest Trail. For more novice hikers, there’s an 11-mile section that’s relatively easy. Your efforts through that section and the rest of the state are rewarded with breathtaking views of “jagged peaks, bright wildflowers, and lucky glimpses of mountain goats and bears,” the society writes.
Avid speed hiker Jennifer Pharr Davis, who hiked the Appalachian Trail in a record 46 days, has completing this entire trail on her bucket list. It’s a brutally long trail, but completes the “Triple Crown” for serious hikers that also includes the Pacific Crest Trail and the Appalachian Trail. There are many hikers who keep online journals of their experiences to document the good, difficult, but ultimately “glorious” experience of hiking the CDT.
7. Sierra High Route in California
Trail length: 195 miles
Skill level: Strenuous
Reason to go: This trail follows the same terrain as the John Muir Trail but is, well, higher. The elevation, which varies from 9,000 to 12,000 feet, is what makes the trail particularly feat-worthy. The views are worth it, despite the fact that National Geographic explains the trail isn’t maintained as well as the JMT. This isn’t for the first-timer, because about half of it requires route-finding on your own and scrambling over ridges to complete the journey.
If you work up to it, though, long-distance hiker Andrew Skurka describes why it’s worth it: “The John Muir Trail is an overcrowded highway, and it too often goes low when the best terrain is almost always high. The Sierra High Route is not necessarily more stunning than the other big trails/routes I’ve done, but it’s certainly more concentrated, putting the effort- and time-to-reward ratios off the charts,” he said.
The unmarked nature of the hike is perfect for adventurous souls who want to make it their own, though Steve Roper’s guidebook on the trail is well-liked. Certain sections of the trail are “absolutely phenomenal,” wrote hiker Jason Hollinger. “The nearest trailheads are days away in every direction; looking down the San Joachim, everything you can see is pristine and rugged, and chances are high that there’s not a single person in any of it!”
8. Trail from Bozeman, Mont. to Jackson, Wyo.
Trail length: 216 miles
Skill level: Moderate to strenuous
Reason to go: Hiking in the greater Yellowstone area will likely be enjoyable no matter where you go. There are numerous trails to try, and vary from just a few miles to multi-day excursions in the backcountry. For those who prefer other footwear besides hiking boots, these sorts of journeys might also be taken via cross-country skis. Mountaineer Conrad Anker said his dream hike would be to ski from Bozeman to Jackson in early spring. “I have long wanted to view the Yellowstone area from the comfort of skis and a sled. A traverse of the Yellowstone hot spot would be neat from a geological standpoint,” Anker explains.
If you’re more of a snow bunny anyway, a winter trip through those passages will offer snowy landscapes you might otherwise never experience. National Geographic recommends timing this trip carefully, more likely in the spring when avalanche conditions have stabilized but before the snow melts for the summer. “Anker’s life-list trip takes in one of the wildest cores of public land in the continental United States, crossing Gallatin National Forest, Yellowstone National Park, and Grand Teton National Park,” the publication explains. Because the route isn’t pre-set and would need experience to cross snow caps and spring melt areas, this sort of journey is probably left to the most experiences hikers (or skiers) out there.
9. Rim to rim hike, Grand Canyon National Park in Arizona
Trail length: 25 miles
Skill level: Strenuous
Reason to go: “Few places in the U.S. offer more awe than this gem,” The Wilderness Society writes. You’ll take a history trip that documents the layers of earth as you go, cross the Colorado River, and sleep under the clear, starry skies. Grand Canyon Hiker suggests several itineraries since there are multiple options for this adventure. However, even the most experienced hikers should never attempt doing this hike in a single day, as the risk of dehydration and physical harm are too great. (Men’s Fitness writes that park officials actively discourage these types of adventures in the first place — this is not for the faint of heart.)
If this is on your extreme outdoors bucket list, plan to go in May or September. The canyon floor is brutally hot during the summer months, and should be avoided for extended durations. If that sounds like a little too much for your tastes, the Wilderness Society suggests the dirt path from Maricopa Point to Hermits Rest as a good alternative. It’s a fairly easy jaunt, and is a 6.4-mile adventure that still boasts the panoramic views the canyon is known for.
10. Solomon Gulch Trail in Alaska
Trail length: 3.8 miles
Skill level: Moderate
Reason to go: If you’re exploring the Alaskan wilderness, you’ve already signed up for adventure. Bear Grylls, of famed “Man Vs. Wild” and “Running Wild” TV shows, told National Geographic this 2.5-mile trail is on his hiking list when he’s back in Alaska. The terrain can be steep and gravelly at times, Grylls said, “but it is without doubt the breathtaking views from the top, over the Port of Valdez, that truly make this worth it.”
You’ll have to watch out for grizzlies and other Alaskan wildlife on this venture, but the trail encompasses the whole of Alaskan life. It begins at a fish hatchery and ends at a dam, following the Trans-Alaskan Pipeline along the way. But the views of Solomon Lake are unfettered Alaskan nature, National Geographic writes. “From the lake … the view encompasses the wild — a panorama taking in the Chugach’s glaciers and the steep peaks surrounding the fjord.”
The trail is formally known as the John Hunter Memorial Trail now. Though you’ll be in the wilderness, the trail is well marked and is one that most hikers would be able to cross off while also enjoying the unique environment.
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