Here at Mountain House, we contend (and we have a feeling our blog readers will agree) that some of the very best the United States has to offer can only be appreciated on foot, away from roads and cities amid the country’s sweeping wilderness landscapes.
Here we’ve pulled together our roundup of the best hiking trails in the U.S.—that is, our roundup for today, because if you ask us tomorrow we may well be swapping in other equally praiseworthy routes. When it comes to top-grade trails, a Top Ten list seems woefully inadequate—but like our loyal Mountain House-scarfing wilderness warriors, we like to rise to a challenge. So take a gander at what we consider the best hikes (or at least some of the best hikes) in the country, and let us know in the Comments section which ones you think downright blasphemous to have left off!
It may be a little arbitrary, but we’re excluding officially designated National Scenic Trails from this list—our only reasoning really being that you could easily populate most or all of this list with these long-distance stunners. So consider this note a shout-out to the rhododendron tunnels of the Appalachian Trail, the one-two Sierran/Cascadian punch of the Pacific Crest Trail—plus the hidden wonders of less-celebrated odysseys, from the rustic glacial landscapes of America’s Dairyland on the Ice Age Trail to the subtropical swamps and palmettoed pinewoods of the Florida Trail.
The Southern Appalachians reach a spectacular culmination in the Great Smoky Mountains, home to some of the most rugged terrain and most beautiful, biologically diverse forests (including extensive old-growth) in the East. A highlight reel of an introduction to the park lies in the northeast along the Rainbow Falls Trail, which manages to hit up Great Smoky Mountains National Park’s tallest single-drop waterfall as well as the sixth-highest mountain east of the Mississippi: 6,593-foot Mount LeConte.
OK, we’re maybe cheating just slightly given this is a compilation of trails, but the route is such an iconic American hiking challenge that we’d feel remiss leaving it off. This celebrated walkabout among the highest peaks of the Northern Appalachians, the Presidential Range of the White Mountains, proves that gnarly mountainscapes are by no means restricted to the West. Going the traditional north-to-south way down the Presidential spine, follow the Valley Way, Osgood, Gulfside, Crawford Path, and Webster Cliff trails to summit such regal peaks as Mount Madison (5,366 feet), Mount Jefferson (5,712 feet), and, of course, New England's stormy apex, 6,288-foot Mount Washington.
One of the best hiking trails in the Midwest, this pilgrimage along Greenstone Ridge shows off the wild splendor of remote Isle Royale National Park, moated by Lake Superior off the northern shores of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. Greenstone Ridge is Isle Royale’s spine, a long crest of the Superior Syncline running the length of the island and encompassing its highest ground (Mount Desor, at nearly 1,400 feet). You can take the Greenstone Ridge Trail between Windigo in the southwest and Rock Harbor in the northeast, camping along the way at remote forest lakes and keeping an eye out for moose, black bears—maybe even one of the island’s famous, long-studied wolves (should their naturally declining populations recover).
This popular 8.7-mile trail leads to the esteemed centerpiece of Wyoming’s mighty Wind River Range: the truly sublime alpine wonderland called the Cirque of the Towers. Easygoing in its initial five miles, the route steepens past Big Sandy Lake to attain 10,800-foot Jackass Pass amid increasingly stunning scenery. You can drop down to Lonesome Lake for one of the classic views of the Cirque of the Towers, the granite horns of which—Pingora Peak, War Bonnet, Wolf’s Head, and others—form one of the legendary climbing hubs in the Rockies.
Among the real celebrity dayhikes in the U.S., the route up to Angel’s Landing in Zion National Park serves up so much head-spinning scenery you might be pinching yourself all along the way. Commencing from the Grotto, you’ll leave the North Fork Virgin River via the West Rim Trail, climbing through Refrigerator Canyon and along Walter’s Wiggles to Scouts Lookout. That’s a plenty ravishing viewpoint in and of itself, and more vertiginous hikers may turn back here, but otherwise we recommend the final ascent to the 1,488-foot fin of Angels Landing, attained with the help of anchored chains. The vista of Zion Canyon from here—unforgettable.
photo credit @traveldrifter
From Angel’s Landing to Bright Angel: This 9.5-mile-long path serves as the safest on-foot descent into the monumental innards of the Grand Canyon of the Colorado River, perhaps America’s single most famous landform and one of the planet’s most breathtaking defiles. Halfway down you’ll come to the ancient oasis of Indian Garden where the Tonto Platform divides the upper and lower sections of the Grand. Down at the bottom you’ll find the cottonwood refuge of the Bright Angel Campground, tucked into the heart of this vast and fiery chasm.
If it’s mountain scenery you’re after, it’s hard to beat the 211-mile-long John Muir Trail, which links Yosemite Valley with the Lower 48’s loftiest peak: 14,495-foot Mount Whitney along the Muir Crest of the Sierra Nevada. This high-elevation route—adopted for much of its length by the Pacific Crest Trail—is named for the great Scottish-American naturalist John Muir, whose favorite stomping ground was the glacier-buffed backcountry of the High Sierra. Celebrate the man and the stomping ground both on this bucket-list hike.
Another iconic footpath overlapping partly with the PCT, the Wonderland Trail is the nearly 100-mile-long circumambulation of Mount Rainier, the ice-capped giant crowning the B.C.-to-California rampart of the Cascade Range. Towering Pacific Northwest conifer forests and some of America’s loveliest subalpine parklands make a stirring trailside foreground for dreamlike views of the titanic volcano.
With its epic, world-class wilderness, Alaska is a hiker’s paradise, though many of the finest routes are cross-country. But for an on-trail look at classic Last Frontier scenery, you can’t do better than the Harding Icefield Trail in Kenai Fjords National Park. This moderately challenging 8.2-mile there-and-back rises from riparian forest through verdant meadows to a surreal vista encompassing the 700-square-mile Harding Icefield, a frozen Pleistocene-style wilderness of blue-white glaze and black nunatuk crags.
The northwest coast of the Hawaiian island of Kauai is a roadless masterpiece of green-and-brown sea cliffs (pali) and sharp pinnacles, and the 11-mile-long Kalalau Trail offers the only terrestrial access to its farflung tropical shores. It’s a rigorous undertaking that can be hazardous in rainy weather, but Kalalau Beach at the terminus is a vision of paradise.