During our 4 months on the road, Jon and I hiked approximately 100 miles. Our hikes ranged from 0.25 mile nature trails at national parks, to the 18 mile out-and-back to the peak of half dome, and two overnight backcountry trips.
Picking our favorite hikes is incredibly difficult. Both of us tended to be biased towards longer hikes because they stood out the most in our memory. The weather and season of our hike also impacted our decision, as well as the hike’s uniqueness from others we’d already placed on the list. The biggest challenge of this ranking was compromising when we had different opinions of a hike.
The hoodoos in Bryce Canyon National Park are one of the most unique features we saw all trip. They are amazing to view from the top of the canyon, but even more amazing to wander through on a hike. Hiking in the hoodoos is so incredible that we doubled our 3 mile hike to 6 miles, to complete the Queens Garden, Navajo Loop, and Peekaboo Loop. This is called the Figure 8 Combination. I also enjoyed the added incentive of finding park benchmarks for a small prize.
Angels Landing is a strenuous and daunting 5 mile round trip hike in Zion National Park. The trail switchbacks to a peak overlooking the Zion valley with an elevation gain of almost 1,500 feet. The last half mile of the hike is along a narrow ridge with steep drops on both sides and a chain railing. This trail is not for those with a fear of heights. At the end of the ridge is 360 degree views of the canyon valley and the Virgin River.
If you are unable to hike Angels Landing, the 0.5 mile Canyon Overlook trail offers a similar view without all of the ‘fun’ of walking along the chain route ridge.
The Narrows is a famous canyon hike in Zion National Park. The Narrows stands out because you walk in the water for this out and back. The current and rocky riverbed make this a very difficult hike, but the amazing scenery is worth it. The canyon walls get narrower and narrower as you go. Since the Narrows is 16 miles long, you will only be able to see part of it. Another option is to hike from the top down and camp overnight (permit required). A walking pole and a dry suit for cold weather are highly recommended for either hiking option. For extra fun, you can try canyoneering over some obstacles in the Orderville tributary offshoot from the Virgin River.
The Highline trail is an 11 mile hike that started at the Logan Pass shuttle stop and ended at the Loop shuttle stop. The first 7 miles are an incredible hike along a trail carved into the Garden Wall hillside above Glacier National Park. The trail has relatively little elevation change, beautiful wild flowers, and amazing views of mountains, glaciers, and wildlife. The last 4 miles are a steep 2,000 foot decent on switchbacks.
This beautiful hike was recommended to us in our guidebook. It is a 5.5 mile hike in the Paradise area of Mt Rainier National Park. The hike passes waterfalls, ice fields, wild flowers and has incredible views of both Mt. Rainier and its glaciers. From Panorama Point, the view faces other peaks such as Mt. Saint Helens and Mt. Adams.
As an alternative; try the Burroughs hike at Mt Rainier. This hike doesn’t have the distant views of other mountain tops or the wildflowers, but it is as close to Mt. Rainier as you can get without climbing the mountain itself.
Situated in an Arches National Park, this 7.2 mile loop will take you past 7 natural arches, including the football field size Landscape Arch. The trail itself is along the ridges of narrow rock fins in Devil’s Garden.
As an alternative in Arches, try these:
- Fiery Furnace – This maze like area of fins in Arches National Park can only be entered as part of a ranger guided tour or with a backcountry permit. The guided tour is approximately 2 miles and lasts 3 hours. The tour includes canyon walking and light canyoneering skills, as well as ranger talks about the geology, flora, and fauna of Arches.
- Delicate Arch – This hike isn’t higher on our list because 2/3rds of this 3 mile round trip hike is relativity unimpressive, however, the payoff of this hike is spectacular. Delicate Arch is the most iconic arch in the park and is perched on top of a stone basin.
This was probably the most difficult hike of our trip, making its inclusion on our list a debate. In all, from our campsite, the hike was 18 miles round trip and an elevation gain (and descent) of 4,700 feet. We started the hike in the dark and ended it in the dark. This hike makes our list because it is a once in a lifetime type of hike. Only 300 people per day are permitted to climb the ‘cable route’ to the summit and passes are awarded by a lottery earlier in the season. Also the view from the summit and joyous feeling of making it to the top can’t be beat.
Located in Shenandoah National Park, this hike is an annual event for us. The trail consists of an 8 mile loop with a 2,500 foot elevation gain to the peak of Old Rag Mountain. The view is amazing, but for us the highlight of the hike is the mile long rock scramble just before reaching the peak.
If Old Rag’s length, elevation gain, and rock scrambling is intimidating to you, try Bearfence as an alternative. This is a one mile trail with light rock scrambling to a view similar to Old Rag’s.
Cathedral Rock is one of our few favorite hikes that isn’t located in a National Park. In Sedona, AZ, Cathedral Rock is a red rock monolith in the Coconino National Forest. While most hikers take a 0.7 mile path to the rocks, we took the advice of a forest ranger and extended our hike to 1.9 miles (one way) by parking further away. The last 0.5 miles is an exhilarating rock scramble to an amazing view point.
In Badlands National Park, Saddle Pass was our longest hike here. The trail led to the Medicine Loop and Castle trails, which in all was a 4 mile round trip hike through rocky hills and vast grasslands. Also not to miss are a series of shorter hikes, including the Door Trail and the Notch Trail. The Badland’s landscape is like no other, and once you are a few yards from the trailhead you are left to yourself in its otherworldly terrain.
Honorable Mention: High Dune (Great Sand Dunes)
Our hike to High Dune is one of Jon’s favorites although not as highly ranked by Alexis. Hiking in sand is deceptively difficult, especially uphill in the windy chill of dusk. However, Great Sand Dunes National Park is unlike any others we visited in America and the closest we may ever get to an iconic Sahara-like desert landscape. Hiking in sand also has its benefits, like its ability to cushion a long jump off of a high peak.
Honorable Mention: Mammoth Cave Wild Cave Tour
The Wild Cave Tour in Mammoth Cave is an ‘honorable mention’ because it requires technical skills beyond that of a regular hike, however it was one of our favorite days and is worth mentioning. The Wild Cave tour is spelunking and requires a mix of hiking, crawling, rolling, and bouldering skills to traverse 5 miles in a 6 hour tour.
Honorable Mention: Harney Peak (Black Hills)
Harney Peak is the highest point of South Dakota and is located in the Black Hills National Forest. Most people we met on the trail love to hike this 3.5 mile trail to a fire lookout tower (open to the public) at the top and make it an annual trek. We lengthened the trek into an overnight 12 mile hike on trails that were closed due to downed trees. This made our experience incredibly difficult and knocked it out of our favorites.
Honorable Mention: Burro Wash Canyon (Capitol Reef)
Like Mammoth Cave, Burro Wash requires more technical skills because it involves canyoneering. This 3 mile out and back in Capitol Reef National Park starts in a wide flat wash, but ends in a deep slot canyon. Canyon walking, climbing over boulders, and even wading into water (depending on the season) are needed. Burro Wash is a good canyon for people starting on canyoneering without the need for rope work.
If you’d like to start canyoneering with a guide, or to experience the repelling and rope work that can be involved, we recommend canyoneering outside of Zion with a guided group.