From leisurely strolls to strenuous treks, national parks across the USA provide plenty of reasons to break out those hiking boots and start exploring. These outdoor natural playgrounds offer everything for fun day hikes or rugged adventures, including wildlife sightings, dramatic scenery and lots of bucolic calorie-burning experiences.
FINGER LAKES NATIONAL FOREST
The only national forest in New York State, the Finger Lakes National Forest is situated on 16,000 rural acres between Seneca and Cayuga lakes. A family-friendly favorite among the park’s 30 miles of hiking trails is the 3.8 mile Burnt Hill loop that traverses cow pastures, wooded landscapes, sloping hills and picturesque views along the way. It’s a lovely way to spend a morning or afternoon in the warmer months.
CAPE COD NATIONAL SEASHORE
Winding along the craggy shoreline and across dense wooded areas, the Great Island Trail is over four miles of sandy beaches and marshes. Hikers wander past oyster farms, through a patch of forest, and along breathtaking seascapes overlooking the crashing waves of the Atlantic Ocean. Considered the toughest trail in the park, this hilly hike can be steep at times but offers splendid beach vistas from several lookout points along the way.
DIAMOND HEAD SUMMIT TRAIL
It may look easy, as this popular 2-mile hike to the top of this ancient volcano is often crowded with tourists and most of the pathways are paved. However, it’s extremely steep and strenuous. Be sure to go at sunrise or early in the morning, as the temperature really heats up in mid-day and there is not much shade or anywhere to rest along the way. Once you reach the top, you will see military bunkers and a lighthouse built years ago by the US government. You will also be treated to glorious island views and a fantastic vantage point above Waikiki. Be sure to bring water, a hat and sunblock.
YOSEMITE NATIONAL PARK
The park’s numerous trails with spectacular scenery can keep hikers busy for months, and the 2.2 mile Mariposa Grove hike is one of the most scenic, situated in the most southern area of Yosemite. Captivating natural sights along this easy-to-moderate trail include the Grizzly Giant, a famous 2,700 year-old huge sequoia tree, considered the oldest in the world, and the California Tunnel Tree, a massive sequoia that was cut in the 1800s for stagecoaches to roll right through.
GRAND CANYON NATIONAL PARK
Steep and scenic, the popular Bright Angel trail is a maintained, well-traveled path with stunning views descending to the Colorado river from the canyon’s south rim. Also used by the mules that carry riders to the canyon floor, this trail’s hikers will often find themselves sharing the narrow pathway with those riding the animals. This 12-mile round-trip trek usually has drinking water along the way, but its switchbacks are very steep and the journey normally takes twice as long on the return ascent.
GREAT SMOKY MOUNTAINS NATIONAL PARK
A decidedly challenging hike, the Alum Cave Trail to the park’s Mount LeConte offers fascinating geological elements and panoramic views along this 11 mile pastoral round trip trail. The trail opens each year in late Spring. For experienced hikers, this trek ascends past formations such as Arch Rock, Inspiration Point and Eye of the Needle. On the upper trail, cable handrails are used to cross rock ledges. Upon reaching the summit, views from Myrtle Point (near the LeConte lodge) offer a spellbinding look at the eastern Smokies.
YELLOWSTONE NATIONAL PARK
As the first national park established in the USA, Yellowstone encompasses 2.2 million lush acres of enchanting vistas, stunning waterfalls and plenty of wildlife. With the largest concentration of geysers in the world, the park offers a multitude of jaw-dropping sights, such as Old Faithful and Mammoth Hot Springs, A popular day hike is the Lake Overlook trail, a two-mile moderate loop that begins at the West Thumb Geyser area. It’s a gradual incline along Yellowstone Lake, the largest high-elevation lake in North America (over 7,000 feet) with sweeping views of the Red mountains, Mount Sheridan and the Grand Tetons.
CRATER LAKE NATIONAL PARK
Known far and wide as a geographic marvel surrounding the deepest lake in the US, this national park features an active volcano, along with magnificent lakeside views. The park’s Wizard Island Summit trail is a one-mile round trip rocky climb encircling the 90-foot deep crater summit. With the switchbacks becoming increasingly steeper towards the summit, most hikers agree that the picturesque cobalt blue lake vistas at the top are worth the climb. This trail is unique because hikers take a boat to the start of the trail, located at the Wizard Island dock so be sure to plan in advance.
ACADIA NATIONAL PARK
Established as the first Eastern National Park, Acadia has over 120 miles of hiking trails through a variety of terrain, including dramatic cliffs, scenic lakes, tranquil lush forests and lovely sandy beaches. The Jordan Pond nature trail is a leisurely, fun, well-maintained one-mile loop encircling the pond, leading walkers past wooded areas and over a few boulders. Afterwards, hikers like to relax and enjoy fresh popovers and a cold glass of lemonade on the lawn of the Jordan Pond restaurant, overlooking the majestic Bubble Mountains. This experience is a fantastic post-hike treat, so don’t miss it!
NEW RIVER GORGE NATIONAL RIVER
Pleasant and meandering, this 5.6-mile hike follows an abandoned railroad along the picturesque Glade Creek trail. Hikers walk through wooded areas, past scenic small waterfalls and several swimming holes (an ideal rest stop on hot summer days). This area features brilliant flowers in spring and plenty of wildlife, too. In addition, the lower part of Glade Creek is also a designated “catch and release” trout stream that’s popular with area fly fishers.