BACKPACKING BASICS

Best Hikes in America: The Top 12 Most Scenic Routes

Best Hikes in America
Sean Nelson
Written by Sean Nelson

There are a vast number of hikes spread across the whole of America. Probably more than we can even begin to imagine or comprehend. There are hikes that span over several miles, and there are hikes that cover enough miles to take more than half of the year to complete.

When deciding which hikes deserve to be called the best hikes in America, there are a lot of things that need to be taken into consideration.

For example, different hikers have different needs. They also have different things that they would consider to be scenic. If you had two hikers in front of you, you might quickly find that they have completely different opinions.

Hiker number one might only consider mountainous regions with steep inclines and descents to be scenic because they offer those viewing spots where you can see for miles. While hiker two might only see a steady gaunt with perfect spots for viewing wildlife to be scenic, because they wish to see nature in its rawest form. The two different ideas are both scenic in their own way.

Hiking Canadian Rockies

So, whether you’re looking for a hike that will challenge your body and mind, while pushing you to the limit, or a peaceful hike suitable for every ability, America will have something to offer you. Some hikes are completely family friendly, while other hikes are better for groups of incredibly skilled hikers. Simply because some hikes require a number of tools for traveling across areas that could be considered dangerous without them.

The Top 12 Most Scenic Routes

The John Muir Trail, California

Length: 211 miles.

Hiking time: 3 – 4 weeks.

Known for: The best mountainous scenes in America.

The John Muir Trail in California is known to look as though it has been ripped straight off of a postcard. With what most consider to be the best mountainous scenery on any trail in all of the US. The whole route rarely dips below 8,000 feet, and peaks at around 14,490 feet. This means that you ideally need some familiarity with higher altitude hikes.

Get ready to see everything from the height of Mount Whitney, to the beauty that Yosemite Valley has to offer. As well as the nature that thrives all around the trail. Most people tackle it heading southbound, and the busiest months for the trail are July through to September.

John Muir Trail

While it is most commonly hiked by experienced hikers, a lot of people have been known to take the hike with their children (10+). There are a lot of resupply points on the route, but you should aim to complete the hike within around 3 weeks, as the resupply points become less frequent the farther southbound you get.

The Thorofare, Yellowstone

Length: 68 miles.

Hiking time: 1 – 2 weeks.

Known for: It’s resident wolf pack.

The Thorofare Trail in Yellowstone National Park is widely known for its natural beauty, it’s almost like stepping into an untouched civilization when you set out hiking there. Most hikers take longer than they expect to when completing this route, giving themselves the time they need to absorb everything around them.

Be that the eerie howls during the night or the fresh bear paw prints in the mud after it rains. You can even see full herds of elk surrounding the picturesque Yellowstone Lake. Most hikers consider this route to be the crown jewel of backpacking adventure hikes.

Yellowstone national park

We would recommend that you take the route that passes past the Thorofare Patrol Cabin, which is still used by park rangers today. Have an adventure in one of the most remote corners of Yellowstone National Park, and don’t plan on having any phone signal while you’re out there. Instead, let yourself become part of the peaceful surroundings that you will be enveloped in.

Kalalau Trail, Hawaii

Length: 11 miles, one way.

Hiking time: A day, but take camping gear.

Known for: The tropical Hawaiian beauty it offers.

The Kalalau Trail is situated on the Na Pali Coast of the Island of Kauai in Hawaii. It’s a hike that is both unusual and special, usually ventured on to find the beautifully hidden Kalalau Beach. This is where hikers camp, and enjoy the scenery that surrounds them in the secluded location.

The best part about the beach? If you trek inland, down the little dirt track at the back of the beach, you’ll find heaps of ripe fruit that you’re welcome to pick.

Kalalau Beach Hawai

The trail itself spans across five beautiful valleys, showing every hiker that ventures on it the tropical paradise that Hawaii can easily provide. You will see forests, sea cliffs, and a seemingly never ending amount of secluded beaches.

This is a hike that is suitable for families. But, be aware that you are advised not to attempt this hike immediately after a storm, or after a lot of rainfall. Along the path there are streams that form something similar to a tropical oasis, but unfortunately they do swell quite dramatically after a lot of rainfall.

Harding Icefield Trail, Kenai Fjords National Park

Length: 8-mile loop.

Hiking time: 1 – 2 days.

Known for: Spectacular Ice Age views.

If you’re looking to hike in a location where black bears are spotted almost daily, and you can see an area that spans more than 300 square miles, then you don’t need to look any further than the Harding Icefield Trail. Nestled deep in Alaska the short trail is known to be a winter wonderland, but that’s not all it is.

Harding Icefield

It spans across the greenest of forests, and peaceful meadows before rising above the treeline. Eventually you find yourself at a lookout with the perfect view of Harding Icefield. The icefield itself is enormous, as it spans more than 300 square miles and it has the ability to show you 40 glaciers in every direction, and you get to see the whole thing.

Due to this, it’s an excellent spot for hikers who partake and enjoy taking photographs as its one of the most spectacular terrains on the planet.

Angel’s Landing, Zion National Park

Length: 4.8 miles.

Hiking time: 1 day.

Known for: Beautiful panoramic views.

After talking about somewhere cold, it’s only right that you add a place that’s suitable for shorts. Deep in Zion National Park in Utah, Angel’s Landing could prove to be the hike you need. It isn’t suitable for inexperienced hikers as it does have 21 steep switchbacks and a narrow path towards the top of Angel’s Landing – although there have been chains added to the route to grip to, for added safety.

Angel's Landing

A lot of hikers don’t view the 1488-foot rock formation as something that could cause altitude issues, but remember that you’re already high up in Zion National Park before you even start the hike up Angel’s Landing.

Due to this you should treat it like any high altitude hike, taking extra water with you to avoid dehydration. But, if you can look past the heat, narrow paths, and switchbacks then you really will be rewarded. At the top of Angel’s Landing you’ll be able to see beautiful panoramic views of the area surrounding you.

The Mount Sterling Loop, Great Smoky

Length: 28-mile loop.

Hiking time: 4 – 6 days.

Known for: A diverse range of microclimates, giving it scientific importance.

When encountering the 5842-foot Mount Sterling on the Mount Sterling Loop most hikers are stunned by the beautiful views that surround them. But, there are some hikers that want to get even higher, climbing the 60-foot fire tower that was built hundreds of years ago on the summit. That isn’t advised for the faint hearted, of course.

But, what is it that makes the Mount Sterling Loop special? It covers a mountain range that really is ancient, right along the borders of both Tennessee and North Carolina.

Along the route there are numerous hidden valleys, mountaintops that can be reached and viewpoints with full panoramic views of the area. It also meets the Appalachian Trail, the longest trail in the world.

Mt Sterling

If you’re wanting the best views of the Smoky Mountains, make sure you climb that fire tower. However, don’t forget the scientific importance of the national park. The area is home to a diverse range of microclimates, and when you think the weather is settled in one area, it might be completely different in another. This gives you the opportunity to hike in numerous different climates, all in one hike.

The Highline Trail, Glacier National Park

Length: 7.6 miles.

Hiking time: 1 – 2 days.

Known for: Stunning views of Lake McDonald.

If you’re looking for a hike that’s suitable for hikers of all abilities and still a beautiful hike, then The Highline Trail in Montana might be just the thing you’re after. The trail itself is suitable because it is mostly flat, without too many tough patches. Yet it offers beautiful views of rugged peaks, and glacial meadows throughout the entire trail.

Lake McDonald

This trail is certainly one of the best hikes in US, and is usually open on July. Although the exact time can vary depending on the years’ weather and the upcoming weather forecast. Remember that while this is grizzly territory, you’re much more likely to encounter a mountain goat somewhere on the trail.

When you’re high up on the trail you will have a view of the photo-worthy Lake McDonald that is almost unmatched from thousands of feet above the surface of the water.

Appalachian Trail, Maine to Georgia

Length: 2190 miles.

Hiking time: 6 – 8 months.

Known for: Being the longest continuous trail in America.

If you’re an experienced hiker looking for a challenge, then you don’t need to look any further than the Appalachian Trail. As the longest continuous trail in America it will push you to your physical and your mental limits. Spanning across 14 states, and with 3 million visitors a year, it is one of the most famous hikes in the world.

Roan Highlands

When it comes to the scenery, no matter what you like, chances are you will definitely have the chance to see it somewhere on the trail. It is rare to encounter wildlife on the trail, so don’t plan on seeing too many animals, simply because they will hear you long before you hear them.

Only 1 in 4 hikers that set out to complete the full route succeed, and it will always stand as one of the most challenging hikes in the world. So, why not take on that challenge head on?

The West Maroon Creek Trail, Colorado

Length: 10 miles.

Hiking time: 1 – 3 days.

Known for: Waist high wildflowers.

Now, this is a hike that can be either challenging, or easy, depending on what you turn it into. For example, you could either hike up to the trailhead, or you could take the easy to access lift. There is also a nearby hotel, so if you don’t feel like camping, you don’t have to.

There will be a little bit of altitude on this hike, as the Maroon Pass at its peak is 12,480 feet high. However, the altitude is more than worth it for the spectacular views you can get of the glacial valleys below.

Crater Lake Maroon Pass Trail

Some of the most well-known photographs of wildflowers are taken on the West Maroon Creek Trail in July, when the wildflowers meet waist height on most people. This makes for some of the most beautiful views, although if you have allergies you should take some antihistamines with you. The last thing you want is to be sneezing for 10 miles.

Red River Gorge, Kentucky

Length: Dependent upon the needs of the hiker, the Red River Gorge is a 500-mile-long system of trails.

Hiking time: 1 – 3 days (average, there are longer trails available that are less commonly used).

Known for: Stunning geological features.

Have you ever wanted to hike through geological features that make you feel like you’ve stepped into a wild version of Jurassic Park? If you have, the Red River Gorge in Kentucky should capture your imagination. It has a trail system that is commonly used by rock climbers, and it has quickly become one of the world’s top rock climbing destinations.

Red River George Kentucky

But, it’s perfect for hikers too. You can hike among stone arches, explore well-hidden cave networks, and see the faces of giant, sandstone cliffs on almost all of the trails throughout the Red River Gorge.

It is recommended that you do take some equipment for steep ascents and descents with you, especially if you plan on exploring the cave networks along the trails. But, if you would rather stay higher up on land, prepare yourself for fully panoramic views of the gorge, although a little climbing may be needed.

Mooney Falls, Grand Canyon National Park

Length: 6 miles.

Hiking time: 1 day.

Known for: Iron ladders, or a plunge pool, depending on how you look at it.

This is a hike that inexperienced climbers can partake in, although it is advised that people with phobias of heights avoid the trek at Mooney Falls. It exists in one of the most remote corners of the Grand Canyon, and from the start you will be able to see how it coincides with heights.

The hike itself descents through not just one, but two separate travertine tunnels. This is before it meets a set of sturdy, but scary iron ladders, and chains that are anchored onto the rock face of a cliff. Throughout most of the route you will be able to see falls of more than 200 feet. As scary as that may sound, you will be rewarded for your efforts.

Grand Canyon National Park

At the end of the route you will see one of the most beautiful plunge pools in the world, and suddenly you’ll forget all about the heights that you had to experience to get there. Just imagine an enormous amount of red rock, and then add an oasis of crystal clear, bluest of blue water against it. That’s what you’ll get to see if you face the intrepid heights of Mooney Falls.

The Wonderland Trail, Washington

Length: 92-mile loop.

Hiking time: Up to a fortnight.

Known for: An active, and yet slumbering volcano.

Mount Rainier, Washington’s own active volcano. Sounds scary? It shouldn’t be, the volcano has been slumbering for as long as anyone can remember. It’s also beautiful, with a 14,410-foot-high summit. A volcano surrounded by a green sea of evergreens and an array of routes up to the summit.

If you want to hike to the summit then choose a route based on your ability, some are good for plodding along while others require some climbing. The actual Wonderland Trail circles the volcano rather than climbing to the summit. It offers you a world of nothing but peace, an untouched corner of Washington.

Wonderland trail

The flourishing herds of elk that call the area around Mount Rainier their home add to that untouched feel, as they stand among the wild flowers. You won’t have to worry about places to stay on the Wonderland Trail either as there are 20 designated campsites. It is advised that you know what to do in a black bear situation if you embark on this hike, although encounters with them are rare.

Which hike is for me?

Only you have the ability, and knowledge to decide which hike is perfect for you. As you can see, there are a lot of beautiful hikes all across America. You should look at your level of skill as a hiker, an experienced hiker could take on any hike, whereas a less experienced hiker might prefer a hike that only lasts several days.

All that we know for definite is that all of these hikes are perfect, and you alone can decide which one is perfect for you.

Paklenica hiking

So, which of these hikes interests you the most? Or, have you already embarked on one of the hikes featured in our list? If you have, let us know how you enjoyed your experience on the trail in the comments below!

ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Sean Nelson
Sean Nelson

Sean was backpacking since he was 7. He was born close to the RMNP and his father was a ranger, so life surrounded by mountains and wildlife is a norm for Colorado. He likes to explore, but prefers to stay in USA. In his opinion, there are too many trails and options in US to go abroad.

  • Trish Oostdyk

    I just finished the John Muir Trail a couple of weeks ago, and couldn’t agree more with its placement on this list. The trail is very well marked and is absolutely stunning. I’m looking forward to hiking this trail again very soon!

  • Sean Nelson

    Which one is next on your list Trish? 🙂
    If most people will see the serenity and beauty of nature, I bet there won’t be any couch potatoes anymore. Nothing beats sleeping under a thousand stars – see, I’ve turned poetic just thinking about it.

  • Kevin Pavlik

    I took a couple weeks a couple years ago and hiked The Wonderland Trail in Washington. It was such a good time! The trail was good and well-marked and the rangers were so helpful.

  • Sean Nelson

    I’ve been there and it was such a scenic route! The view was lovely all around and we had so much fun, too.
    Thanks for sharing your experience and enjoy the site!

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