The 10 Best U.S. National Parks for Hiking
GET THE MOST OUT OF THESE SCENIC SITES BY LACING UP AND HITTING THE TRAIL.
There are plenty of ways to steep yourself in nature, from setting out to view wildlife or even taking in the changing seasons with a drive. But if you're looking to truly immerse yourself in the great outdoors, there's practically no better option than a trip to a national park. The beloved sites span coast to coast and cover almost every type of environment, providing a little something for everyone. And while many can be seen with the help of your vehicle, choosing to hit the trail offers an entirely different kind of experience. Read on to see which U.S. National Parks experts say are the best for hiking.
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Zion National Park
Few places in the U.S. are as synonymous with a scenic trek as one of the Southwest's most beloved sites, Zion National Park. But don't assume you need to be a seasoned pro to partake in the paths.
"Zion National Park is one of the mighty five national parks in Utah. It's home to several unbelievable hikes that challenge guests," says Rae Miller, full-time traveler and co-owner of Getaway Couple. "The most accessible trail in the entire park is Riverside Walk. This is a 2.2-mile roundtrip hike along a paved trail that allows you to experience the natural beauty that makes this park unique."
"However, give Angel's Landing or The Narrows a try if you want to get your heart pumping or live a little more dangerously," she suggests. "These more challenging hikes are very popular and do require a permit. You've hit the jackpot if you can snag one for one of these epic hikes!"
Acadia National Park
Whether you're based in the Northeast or not, one iconic New England site has become a go-to for travelers looking to hit the trail.
"Acadia National Park in Maine is a great pick for hiking due to its beautiful coastal setting and varied trails," Fred Baker, senior travel editor of Travelness, tells Best Life. "Don't miss the chance to hike up Cadillac Mountain, the highest point on the Atlantic Coast!"
But there are plenty of other options if you're looking to take in more of the sights. "While there are several great hikes in the park, like the 1.5-mile Beehive Loop Trail or Gorham Mountain Loop, our favorite hike in Acadia National Park is Jordan Pond Path," says Miller. "This 3.1-mile loop is not only very flat but also provides incredible views and opportunities to see wildlife. This trail is incredibly popular, so arrive early or late afternoon to find a parking spot."
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Guadalupe Mountains National Park
While many of the sites in the National Park System are practically household names thanks to their beauty, there are still plenty of lesser-known places that are worth a visit—especially if you're looking to get in a memorably fantastic trek.
"One underrated park that features lots of amazing hikes, including extended backpacking trails, is Guadalupe Mountains National Park in Texas," Alisha McDarris, writer and co-founder of sustainable travel blog Terradrift, tells Best Life.
"Not only is Guadalupe Peak and the 8-mile roundtrip hike to the summit the highest point in Texas, but it's easily accessible to hikers in even decent shape," she says. "It offers sweeping, 360-degree views across West Texas and New Mexico, plus has the added benefit of being just a short drive over the state line from Carlsbad Caverns, so you could easily explore two national parks in one trip!"
Canyonlands National Park
Utah is in the enviable position of being renowned for its national parks and hiking options overall. But even though Zion tends to make its way onto the majority of bucket lists, experts say there are plenty of other options in the state for hitting the trail that are worthwhile as well.
"My absolute favorite park for hiking is Canyonlands, namely the Needles District!" Dolev Schreiber, a former camping tour guide and founder and CEO of DetourOn, tells Best Life. "Put aside the amazing weather, beautiful views all around, and the clean air that lets you see for miles—the hiking trails themselves are a sight to behold."
"I've hiked in a lot of places all over the world, and never have I taken so much pleasure in simply walking as I do in Canyonlands," she explains. "There's a system of well-maintained trails at the Needles District all around Chesler Park in which one can walk in loops for days on end. One trail leads you up a ladder and through a hole in the sandstone, another trail takes you to a slot canyon called the Joint, and yet another leads to a jumble of rocks affectionately known as Devil's Kitchen. And there's still so much more to discover!"
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Yosemite National Park
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On the list of national parks, Yosemite arguably ranks near the top in terms of name recognition. But experts say there's a reason it remains one of the most visited sites for an excellent reason.
"Yosemite has inspired artists and beckoned hikers for over a century. The incredible, diverse wilderness and mountainous landscapes are unlike any other place," says Adam Marland, a travel photographer and writer for We Dream of Travel.
"While Yosemite Valley gets most of the drive-through traffic, there is a myriad of incredible nature hikers of all lengths and difficulty spread throughout the park. These include the harrowing chain-link path up to Half Dome, a long leisurely stroll through several meadows, a steep hike to the Yosemite Sequoias, and so much more," he suggests. "Whether you are looking for a quick jaunt or an extended trek, Yosemite National Park has it all with some of the most beautiful scenery you will find on any trail."
Great Smoky Mountains National Park
Speaking of highly visited places, you can't beat Great Smoky Mountains National Park. The site sits atop the list, with 14.1 million visitors in 2021, according to the National Park Service (NPS). However, experts say the it provides plenty of inspiration for anyone considering another bucket list trek.
"If you've ever wanted to taste the Appalachian Trail, this is the park to do it," says Miller. "The most popular way to get that experience is to hike from Newfound Gap to Charlies Bunion. This trek provides some of the best views of the entire park and may be enough to convince you to add a thru-hike from Georgia to Maine to your bucket list. You can even make the short but steep hike up from the parking lot to the top of Clingmans Dome, the highest point in Great Smoky Mountains National Park."
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Glacier National Park
Part of what makes exploring national parks so great is the seemingly unlimited access to breathtaking views. And according to experts, stepping out in Glacier National Park will both challenge and awe anyone who hits the trails there.
"Glacier National Park in Montana has some of the nation's most dramatic scenery, with abundant wildlife, alpine lakes—including some with literal icebergs—and rugged, snow-capped mountains," says Jessica Schmit, owner of Uprooted Traveler. "The Highline Trail provides jaw-dropping views of Glacier's Rocky Mountains and eventually climbs to the Grinnell Glacier Overlook, where an ancient glacier feeds a shockingly blue turquoise lake in a bowl of mountains. For an easier trail, the Hidden Lake Overlook provides more vistas of alpine lakes and is also an excellent spot to see mountain goats or even bears."
But don't be worried if you're still working on your trekking expertise. "The views aren't only reserved for the extreme hikers, and there are plenty of opportunities to avoid the crowds as well," Kristin Halls, a national parks hiking expert at Upaway, tells Best Life. "For example, Highline Trail can be as short as you'd like for inexperienced hikers or turn into a full-day challenging adventure for experienced hikers."
Big Bend National Park
Looking for an all-in-one experience? Experts say one park in the Lone Star State can provide plenty to see, do, and experience in a single visit.
"Located along the border of Texas and Mexico, Big Bend may be Texans' favorite national park. And for good reason: there are plenty of backpacking trails, unique wildlife and plant life, epic views from Emory Peak—the highest point in the park—and natural hot springs that allow for soaking post-hike right next to the Rio Grande," McDarris says.
And according to Steve Prohaska, travel expert and founder of See the Best Places, there's more than one route that's not to be missed. "At the end of the 2-mile Grapevine Hills Trail, there's a surreal sight: Balanced Rock, a giant boulder perched seemingly precariously on some other tall rocks. Or hike the Santa Elena Canyon trail: You'll see two imposing mountain walls, one of which belongs to the United States and the other to Mexico. The Santa Elena River runs through them."
Hawaii Volcanoes National Park
Any visit to a national park will remind you that the Earth's surface is teeming with plant and animal life. But a visit to Hawaii Volcanoes National Park proves that the planet itself is alive in its own way on the inside.
"This park is home to two of the most active volcanoes in the world, Kīlauea and Maunaloa," says Trysta Barwig, travel expert and the founder of This Travel Dream. Hiking through lava fields is an otherworldly experience that everyone needs to experience at least once. The scenery is constantly changing as new lava flows form and old ones cool and solidify, so there's always something new to see. And there are multiple trails of varying difficulty to choose from, so there's something for everyone."
Rocky Mountain National Park
Easy access to nature is one of Colorado's defining characteristics. Not surprisingly, experts say one of the state's most notable parks makes for one of the more approachable places to explore on foot.
"What makes Rocky Mountain National Park so special is its easy access to the alpine tundra ecosystem," Dan Meyer, founder and director of Back&Pack, tells Best Life. "About one-third of the park is alpine tundra, making it one of the largest protected alpine tundra ecosystems in the contiguous United States. Regardless of one's mountain skills or physical ability level, hikes there can give everyone a taste of what it's like to be at a high altitude. It's a very accessible park," he adds.
Other experts agree that there's something for everyone to enjoy. "There are so many scenic hikes in Rocky Mountain National Park, but the best starting point, no matter what level hiker you are, is the Glacier Gorge Junction Trailhead," Ashley Tepen, co-founder of outdoor adventure website HelloTrail, tells Best Life. "It's only two hours from Denver, so whether you are just visiting the area or need to get away from the city for a day, it's easy to get to. Unless it's winter and there's been a good amount of snowfall, of course!"
"From this single trailhead, you can start with an easy one-hour out and back hike to see Alberta Falls or continue on and choose from two more challenging hikes that lead to alpine lakes that top out over 10,000 feet elevation, the Sky Pond Trail or Black Lake Trail," she says. "These two hikes are strenuous, but you are rewarded with unforgettable views."