The Best National Park Hikes — For Beginners & Experts
It’s time to hit the trails.
On August 25, 1916 then President Woodrow Wilson signed an act establishing the National Park Service, an entity designed to protect and conserve the nation’s most valuable real estate. In 2021, almost 300 million visitors spent time at the now 423 parks in the system, with hiking serving as an essential activity for those heading outdoors. The best National Park hikes depend on your own interests and skill levels, but both the most popular parks and ones that fly under-the-radar can offer a great excuse to visit.
“You don’t need a lot to get started,” says Cimarron Anderson, REI Co-Op field experiences supervisor. “You just need to get outside. Walk around. Listen to the wind, to the birds, feel the wind and sun on your skin. That’s what it’s all about.”
While you may already recognize the sweeping vista of the Grand Canyon or the towering shadow of Half Dome in Yosemite, know that even parks you’re pretty familiar with might have hiking opportunities you haven’t yet had the chance to discover. Out-and-back hikes are often a way to take in points of interest — waterfalls, summits, and viewpoints. Loop hikes may take you through many types of terrain, forests or fields of flowers, eventually dropping you off back at the trailhead.
“Exploring via foot allows you to notice what surrounds you more easily and appreciate all that nature provides,” says Smith Ketterer, eCommerce Associate at Outdoor Voices and the brand’s resident hike expert. “Being outside brings me so much joy.”
To help get you started on your hiking journey, TZR tapped a handful of outdoor enthusiasts for their recommendations (in addition to our own). Now, all that’s left is to pack your snacks, lace up your boots, and hit the trail.
Grand Canyon National Park
“Backpacking rim to rim in the Grand Canyon is an incredible experience,” says Ketterer of the 24-mile, advanced hike. “I backpacked with a group of friends, and putting my body to the test while carrying a 60-pound pack over a course of a few days all while being self-sufficient outside is something I hope everyone can do. The vastness of the Grand Canyon is breathtaking and the endorphin high you get when reaching the rim is indescribable.” In addition to the more advanced hike that takes you all the way from the top of one edge of the canyon, down across the Colorado River, and up the other side, there are a range of easier hikes along the edge of the canyon.
Bryce Canyon National Park
Located in southern Utah, Bryce Canyon is an arid National Park, known for sweeping canyon views. “It feels absolutely otherworldly,” says Brooke Murray, a Merrell ambassador and co-founder of family adventure club WildKind. “I always feel like a child in a play land as I hike under the giant hoodoos. Pro tip: Visiting in the winter is just as unique and amazing as visiting in the summer — and much less crowded!”
The park is one that has a number of shorter trails that are wheelchair accessible and also manageable for young hikers. “The Rim Trail is an easy one-mile hike with some of the most stunning views of the amphitheater,” Murray says. For more advanced hikers, she recommends the Fairyland trail (7.8 miles). “ This trail is a bit longer than most in the park, but it takes you through the most stunning terrain in Bryce Canyon.”
Olympic National Park
Visitors of Olympic National Park in Washington will have the chance to experience the lush forests of the Pacific Northwest. “There's a beautiful beginner trail called Hall Of Mosses,” says Kait VanHoff, a hike ambassador for FP Movement, of the 1.1 mile loop. “It's more of a walk but such a unique trail. Full of mossy trees and unlike anything I've ever seen.” For advanced hikers, she suggests Mount Storm King, a 4.1 mile hike. “It's not necessarily a long hike, but it is a challenging one,” she says. “The views at the top are totally worth it and there are ropes at the top to help you get up which is a fun and unique challenge.”
Badlands National Park
South Dakota’s Badlands National Park is beloved for not only its sweeping daytime views of canyons and crags but also its nighttime stargazing. The park has a number of short trails that offer panoramic views. Try the Notch Trail (1.5 miles), which is a moderate hike where you’ll climb a log ladder leading you to dramatic views.
Yosemite National Park
This California park is beloved for its epic views including steep canyon walls and cascading waterfalls. For the most advanced (and daring) hikers, climb past Vernal and Nevada falls to the top of Half Dome (15 miles) for sweeping views of the valley below. The Mist trail, a four-mile out-and-back to the top of Vernal falls is an easier option, as is Mirror Lake (4.4 miles), a loop trail where you’ll spot a myriad of wildlife.
Yellowstone National Park
“I never get bored guiding and hiking in Yellowstone. It’s one of the most dynamic places in the world,” says Anderson. “It has snow-capped mountains, amazing waterfalls, unbelievable geothermal features, and some of the best wildlife watching in the world.” For an easy stroll, take the trail to Grand Prismatic Hot Spring, a 1.5 mile out-and-back route that takes you to one of the park’s many famous hot springs. For something more strenuous, take the North Rim trail to Yellowstone Falls, Crystal Falls, and Inspiration Point, a 6.4-mile hike with sweeping views.
Glacier National Park
“This park is my favorite place on earth because of the feelings I get when visiting: peace and freedom,” says Ketterer. “Every part of it is beautiful and majestic. There are trails that will take you through dense forests and will end at turquoise, glacial lakes, beautiful colored rocks at Lake McDonald, and an incredibly scenic road that allows you to see a lot of the park.” Throughout the park are a number of moderate-to-difficult trails including Avalanche Lake (5.9 miles) and the Grinnell Glacier Trail (11.2 miles), that offer rewarding views of the Montana wilderness. VanHoff says of the Grinnell Glacier Trail, “this one offers incredible views the whole way with lakes, waterfalls and wildlife. It's absolutely stunning and a must do if you go to Glacier.”
Acadia National Park
Situated on Mount Desert Island in Maine, Acadia is a seaside national park with a range of both flat and mountain-top hikes. The 4.2 mile North Cadillac Ridge trail takes you to the top of Cadillac Mountain, the highest peak on the East Coast. Walk along the ocean on the Great Head Trail (1.7 miles) or head into the woods on the Beech Mountain Trail (1.2 miles).
Zion National Park
For a beginner-friendly park, VanHoff suggests Zion for its multitude of easy dirt and paved trails that still have beautiful views. “Zion is laid out a little differently than most parks because there's a bus that goes up the center of it and then depending on what hike you want to do, you can hop off at any time to get to your trailhead,” she explains. The Zion Canyon Overlook trail, one mile out and back, is a favorite “you get the best bang for your buck with the views!” She also suggests The Narrows, a popular hike that lets you walk until you’re ready to turn around. She says, “it can be as easy or challenging as you like and you get to wade through water which is nice on those hot summer days.”
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