North America is a hiker’s dream destination for a number of reasons. Similar to Asia, the American continent is incredibly diverse and contains almost every type of landscape within its borders.
From deserts to mountains, rainforests to beaches, it’s all there.
There are unlimited opportunities to connect with nature, with 58 national parks and over 6,000 state parks to choose from. Oregon, Utah, California and Hawaii are often named as the best states for hiking trails but in fact there are scenic areas across the country with equally good options.
Each state offers distinct features, from the steep-sided Grand Canyon or the lava fields of Hawaii to the snow-capped Rockies and the towering giant sequoias of Yosemite.
With every type of terrain and climate to choose from, it is no wonder that millions of people from around the world hit the trails of North America each year.
Whether you’re looking for an extreme activity or a leisurely stroll, there is something to suit everyone. The key influence over which hike is best for you will be the amount of time you have to play with and your level of fitness.
With a seemingly endless variety of amazing routes to discover, it was difficult to narrow down a list to the 10 best hikes in the US. Below we have pulled out just a handful of our favourites, based on the incredible sense of adventure they provide.
The Triple Crown – made up of the Appalachian, Pacific Crest and Continental Divide trails – is an almost mythical endeavour. These three trails take thru-hikers across the country in some of the most scenic, remote and illustrious landscapes in America.
The Appalachian Trail (AT) is recognised as the longest and hardest of them all, thus drawing in people who want to take on a real challenge.
It is considered a rite of passage and ultimate tick on the bucket list for long-distance hikers.
Each year up to three million people trek at least a portion of the trail but less than 2,000 of those take on its entire length.
The trail traverses the length of the east coast of the USA, running from Springer Mountain in Georgia to Mount Katahdin in Main through wilderness areas and several sub-Appalachian ranges.
The route is full of history and tradition, passing through 14 states to experience diverse scenery, challenges, food and culture. But it is more than just a long-distance footpath.
It is the sweeping views, the plants and animals, the communities and the feeling of achievement as you cross the finish line so many millions of steps after setting off.
It is also the camaraderie with other hikers that makes the experience so special. The Appalachian Trail is a melting pot of nationalities and people of all ages and backgrounds.
The route follows the spine of the Appalachian Mountains, meaning that there is plenty of elevation gain along the way – around 157,000 metres in total, which is the equivalent of summiting Everest more than 17 times.
For this reason, it should only be attempted by the steeliest of trekkers.
Lewis and Clark National Historic Trail
This lesser-known trail starts out in the lively city of St Louis and heads north-west over the Rockies to Oregon. It follows the historic routes of the Lewis and Clark Expedition after they were sent to explore the West by President Jefferson in 1804.
Although it took them two years, most people complete the route in around six months.
When including the preparatory section from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania to Wood River, Illinois, the full route stretches 7,880 kilometres.
Every year 250,000 people visit some part of the trail, but just a tiny handful have every completed it from start to finish.
The Trail connects 16 states and many tribal lands, crossing rocky canyons, lush green forests and skirting various bodies of water.
The Upper Missouri River Breaks in Montana is one of the best stretches of the trail, with a sublime beauty that captures the romantic view of the American West.
As you proceed through the the ever-changing landscapes and geological features, it is hard to not be humbled by the size and diversity of the country.
Some days will take you through bustling towns whereas other days you may encounter few people with just the eagles and ospreys flying overhead for company.
Continental Divide Trail
The Continental Divide Trail (CDT) is also part of the Triple Crown and is more than just a line on a map or tick on your list – it is a place to reconnect with nature and a living museum of the American West.
Of the three long-distance routes, the CDT is by far the least-used of the three but not because it lacks beauty or challenge.
This hike showcases one of the most spectacular parts of the world – the snow-covered Rockies and the alpine wildflowers and high-elevation forests en route.
Trekking the length of the country allows visitors to take in the remote, rugged lands that divide the watersheds of the Pacific, Atlantic and Arctic Oceans.
Yellowstone national park, on the Wyoming border, offers a chance to spot grizzly bears, bison and wolves, whilst all along the trail, hikers can see the stars more vividly than anywhere else in the country.
The trail runs from the Canadian border in Montana to the Mexican border west of El Paso in the south, moving down the spine of the United States. Southbound hikers start in Glacier National Park in mid-June to early July to be able to finish the trail at the Mexican border in October before the weather turns.
The CDT is a combination of dedicated trails and small roads, only considered around 70% complete with the other 30% requiring road-walking.
At an average elevation of 3,500 metres, the CDT is the highest of the Triple Crown trails, so be prepared to tackle some steep terrain and watch out for signs of altitude sickness.
John Muir Trail
The John Muir Trail (JMT) offers some of the most scenic vistas on the continent.
This magnificent and challenging route passes through three of the best national parks in California – Yosemite, King’s Canyons and Sequoia – and officially ends atop the summit of Mount Whitney, the highest mountain in the USA.
The hike begins in Yosemite National Park and travels along the High Sierra mountain range.
With almost 46,000 feet of elevation and six high elevation mountain passes to cross, it goes without saying that the route is pretty strenuous.
However, it brings with it great rewards in the form of unparalleled views of endless peaks and lakes and some of the best back-country campsites in the US.
For about 260 kilometres the trail follows the same footpath as the longer Pacific Crest Trail, crossing paths with walkers from the social and friendly trail community.
With a bit of due diligence and proper planning, the JMT is one of the best long-distance hiking trails in the world. Hiking southbound means a progressive elevation gain, providing good altitude training for the increasingly difficult upcoming passes.
It’s worth noting that this route requires a permit and they are like gold dust, so applying in advance is crucial.
The final part of the Triple Crown trio is the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT), a long-distance hiking trail that runs along the west coast of the USA from Mexico to Canada via California, Oregon, and Washington.
It is possible that you may recognise the route’s name, made famous by the film ‘Wild’ starring Reese Witherspoon as Cheryl Strayed, who took on the trail with little hiking experience as a way of dealing with great personal loss and grief.
Every year adventurous hikers take on the challenge of the full, high route that winds through the Sierra Nevada and Cascade ranges.
Snaking its way through desert, before climbing up to the High Sierra and John Muir’s fabled “Range of Light”, the route goes through 57 major mountain passes, dips into 19 canyons and meanders alongside more than 1,000 lakes and tarns.
Rivers flowing through huge glacial rocks and voids between the high mountains and low valley will make you feel very small.
Continuing north, hikers progress onward to the volcanic peaks of the Pacific Northwest, with plenty of steep climbs and potentially chilly nights of camping.
For those who don’t have the time or stamina to walk the entire route, it is broken into sub-sections for shorter, multi-day treks, many of which offer the same dramatic scenery and enchanting wilderness experiences.
The Wonderland Trail is a circuit around Mount Rainier volcano, climbing ridges and descending into valleys over the course of 10 or so days.
For those that don’t have the time or inclination to hike for months on the longer-distance trails mentioned above, the Wonderland Trail is the perfect option, providing the biggest reward for a small amount of time and effort.
The trail, which falls entirely within the national park, passes through different environments that range from lowland forests to sub-alpine meadows of wildflowers and provides views of all sides of the Cascade’s highest volcano, carved by 25 glaciers.
An estimated 200 to 250 people a year complete the entire trail with several thousand others doing shorter sections of it.
Completing the full circular hike allows visitors to take in all the majestic nuances of Mount Rainier’s domain.
Every time you turn a corner the aptly named Wonderland Trail reveals new glaciers, cascading waterfalls, rivers, lakes and canyons – set to the expansive backdrop of Washington. When the wind drops, lakes offer exquisite reflections of the volcano, the perfect time to stop and catch your breath.
The route is almost always climbing or descending the ridges around the mountain, making it a relatively strenuous hike.
The steep ridges require multiple climbs above 2,000 metres from deep green valleys, heading upwards into a high wilderness of ice and rock.
However, 360-degree views of the mountain, cathedral-like ancient forests and the combination of alpine meadows with high volcanic ridges make it well worth the effort.
Ice Age Trail
The Triple Crown routes all follow mountain ranges running from north to south but the Ice Age Trail offers something a little different. This route follows the edge of the last Ice Age from east to west across Wisconsin.
The Ice Age national scenic trail follows the zig-zagging line of the terminal moraine from the last Ice Age through 30 of Wisconsin’s 72 counties. Ice Age relics on offer include the long ridge lines called eskers, gigantic boulders and small basins left by melting ice chunks that are now kettle ponds.
Features along the trail are protected in the Ice Age national scientific preserve, part of the national park system, meaning they have changed very little for thousands of years.
The undulating landscape of Wisconsin alternates between mature forests and open fields connected by streams and rivers. One of many lakes that is passed en route is Lake Michigan, where you can stop and cool off, or continue on towards the western half of the state, made up of further state parks and beautiful rural counties.
In the barren, rocky wilderness you can picture yourself plodding along in the footsteps of the woolly mammoths that once grazed in these grasslands.
Not only will you be transported back in time by the region’s geological history, but you can catch sight of various species of mammals along the trail, including red fox, red squirrels, deer, eagles, black bears and grey wolves.
Half Dome Trail
Yosemite National Park, California, USA
Yosemite has made it onto our list twice, and with good reason.
This National Park is easily one of the best in the USA, and the Half Dome is its most iconic attraction and most prestigious hike.
The route passes highlights such as Vernal Fall and Nevada Fall and through the shady forests of Sequoia trees before reaching the cables on Half Dome’s steep granite domes.
Some would argue this is the best and most exciting part of the trail, earning your reward from the top – the best view of all of Yosemite.
Before going vertical on the granite monolith, the hiking trail features waterfalls, slippery staircases and rocky switchbacks up the sub dome.
Once you take to the 120 metres of cable, surrounded by a sheer wall of rock and panoramic views of the Sierra Nevada and Yosemite Valley, you will feel completely exposed but utterly invincible.
The steel cables and wooden planks are placed along the dome to assist hikers to the summit but the incline is extremely sleep, surfaces can be slick and many are surprised by the difficulty of this section.
The trail to Half Dome from the valley floor is a strenuous hike gaining 1,500 metres of elevation so you’ll need to be in good shape, even though it is only a day hike.
On the way back down you can choose to veer off onto the Muir Trail, adding a few extra kilometres but saving your knees the savagely steep descent. The Muir Trail also gives you a great view of the back of Half Dome and Nevada Fall.
Since 2010, the National Park Service has required hikers to have a permit to climb Half Dome, with a cap of 300 people per day.
Zion National Park, Utah, USA
For the ultimate adventure seekers, this should be near the top of your bucket list. Zion National Park is an incredible nature preserve distinguished by the canyon’s steep red cliffs and unique array of plants and animals.
However, all of this will fade into the background as you teeter along the top of a ridge at 500 metres above the floor below.
This hike climbs from the floor of Zion Canyon to a jaw-dropping, tunnel view atop Angel’s Landing. Even though Angel’s Landing is lower in elevation than the rims, it has an amazing 360-degree view that rivals any other viewpoint in the park.
It’s not just the height that will have your blood pumping. Although the hike begins with a leisurely, four-kilometre stroll beside Utah’s Virgin River, Walter’s Wiggles is a section soon after that features 21 switchbacks during which you will really feel your thighs burning.
If you’re brave enough to look down, the Virgin River looks tiny in the valley far below.
The middle part of the trail is a blast, if you like that kind of thing.
The final kilometre to Angel’s Landing, however, is along an extremely narrow and rocky path that requires the use of chains for safety.
This last part is nothing short of exhilarating – traversing the narrow spine of the mountain with many exposed sections where you can look down on both sides to the canyon below.
It is important to not underestimate this hike.
There have been 17 deaths on the Angel’s Landing trek, with people falling to the canyon below, so always make sure you keep your eyes on where you’re walking.
However, the view is worth the risk as this five-hour trek delivers one of the most stunning views in America.
Grand Canyon, Arizona, USA
The Grand Canyon is one of the most widely-recognised landmarks in the USA. Carved out by the Colorado River thousands of years ago, people flock to its trails to get up close and personal with the canyon’s powerful and inspiring landscape.
Skeleton Point is located on the South Kaibab Trail, lying five kilometres down into the gorge from the rim.
The South Kaibab is one of the steepest routes and has three stopping points – Ooh-Aah Point, Cedar Ridge and Skeleton Point. The trail basically goes downhill for the first five kilometres out to Skeleton, followed by a very steep uphill climb on the way back.
Most visitors are unaware that there are several maintained hiking trails that will take you on a quiet scenic journey through the inner canyon, most of which are short enough to incorporate into a day trip.
If an overnight hiking trip all the way down to the river isn’t for you, a day hike is your next best option and Skeleton Point should be at the top of your list.
The rocky outcrop offers 360-degree views of the Grand Canyon and the Colorado River, making it a perfect turnaround point. This half-day adventure is tough yet rewarding due to the peacefulness and breathtaking views on offer.
If you fancy something a little tougher, it is possible to walk the full South Kaibab trail to the valley floor then head back out on the Bright Angel Trail the following day. Just remember, what goes down, must come up!
Either way, there really is no better way to explore America’s natural wonder than embarking on an amazing hike.
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