The national parks in the United States offer an abundance of fantastic hiking opportunities. With so much to choose from, how do you know which is the best hiking in the national parks? This guide will review one easy and more challenging hike option in five popular parks. You’ll get the details you need like trailhead and parking lot, best time of year to visit, and more. Save this for your next trip, so you’ll be ready to hit the trails.
Best easy hike: Sand Dune Arch and Broken Arch Trail
- Trailhead/Parking Lot: Broken Arch
- Distance & Elevation Change: .2 miles to Sand Dune Arch, .83 miles to Broken Arch, minimal elevation change
- Tips: Wear sun protection
This hike allows you to see two unique arches on a relatively flat trail in less than two miles round trip. Visiting Sand Dune Arch is a surprisingly fun hike for how short it is. You will navigate through a mini-slot canyon and be surrounded by towering walls of stone. Enjoy a bit of shade and cooler temperatures while you’re here. You’ll be traveling on sand, so you could even kick off your shoes if you want. Sand Dune Arch is set completely atop the sand in this special spot.
When you exit from the Sand Dune Arch hike, you’ll continue across an open plain to the next series of sandstone rocks. There will be a mild incline before you soon find yourself looking up at the massive structure of Broken Arch, which is not actually broken. From here, return the way you came to keep this hike short. There is also an option to continue forward to turn the hike into a longer loop hike.
Challenge option: Delicate Arch Trail
- Trailhead/Parking Lot: Delicate Arch/Wolfe Ranch
- Distance & Elevation Change: 3 miles, 480’ elevation gain
- Tips: Be aware of slick rock, exposure to sun and cliff edges
Delicate Arch is an icon. The symbol of the park, the state, and even the license plate. There are two viewpoints to take in Delicate Arch from afar. These include a Lower Viewpoint that is a short, flat hike and an Upper Viewpoint that is steep and about .5 miles from the parking lot.
Those planning to see the arch up close will need to hike Delicate Arch Trail. This hike is about three miles long and should not be underestimated because there are other factors that can make it challenging.
As the hike starts out, you will be on a dirt trail, going up and down hill. There is very little shade on this hike. You will mostly be exposed to the sun on this hike and it gets hot here! Be sure to bring plenty of water. The hike then shifts uphill and the footing changes to slick rock. Having good shoes will come in handy here.
Once you get to the top of this hill, there is a transitional section before you begin going uphill again along a ledge. Be aware of your footing and aware of those around you. Once you make it to the top of this section, it’s mission accomplished! Seeing Delicate Arch up close and personal is an incredible experience! The views from up there are amazing in all directions and the Arch itself defies the law of engineering.
Best Time to Visit: Mid to late September for cooler temperatures while all ranger guided hikes are still offered. Fewer crowds than during the summer.
Best easy hike: Fishercap Lake
- Trailhead/Parking Lot: Swiftcurrent Motor Inn (Many Glacier)
- Distance & Elevation Change: .5 miles roundtrip, minimal elevation change
- Tip: Have bear spray accessible
I did this short hike in the Many Glacier region of the park three times during my visit there. The reason? Moose! This is a popular hang out spot for these spectacular animals. It is a mostly flat hike with a bit of an incline at the end and then a decline to get down to the water. It is a stunning and peaceful mountain lake to relax for a while. You can continue on this trail to reach Redrock Falls, which is a 3.6 mile hike. Even if you are only hiking to Fishercap Lake, be sure to have your bear spray accessible and know how/when it should be used.
Challenge option: Highline Trail Loop (option – turn around at Haystack Pass)
- Trailhead/Parking Lot: Highline Trail/Logan’s Pass
- Distance & Elevation Change: 11.8 mile loop with shuttle, 1950’ elevation gain for loop trail or 7.2 mile, 825’ elevation gain for out-and-back
- Tips: Get to the parking lot early, keep bear spray accessible
If you are looking for spectacular alpine views, this is the hike for you! If you have a fear of heights, I’d recommend doing additional research on the first phase of the trail, which starts out as a ledge built into a rock wall looking down on the road below. Overall, I felt like this section was wide enough for my safety but I kept an eye on my footing, took my time, and used extreme caution when passing or being passed.
After this section, you will be free to take in more of the amazing views as the scenery will open up to mountains, a waterfall, through the forest for a bit, and more. Maintain a diligent awareness for wildlife such as mountain lions and bears during the entire hike.
If completing the full loop, you will have your fair share of elevation gain, especially if you take the additional spur trail for a view of Grinnell Glacier. If you are turning around at Haystack Pass, your biggest incline will be that final hill to the top of the pass. Whichever version you choose, this will be a trail you always remember!
Best Time to Visit: July and August are the best month for the roads to be fully open and the least amount of snow on the trails but do expect crowds. In 2021, Glacier NP will be utilizing a permit system for the famous Going to the Sun Road – the main road through park in a continued effort to manage crowds during the pandemic.
Grand Canyon – North Rim
Best easy hike: Cape Royal Trail
- Trailhead/Parking Lot: Cape Royal for both
- Distance & Elevation Change: 0.8 miles roundtrip, minimal elevation change
- Tips: Waiting until the later in day makes for less crowds but there are harsh afternoon shadows in this area for photos. Plan accordingly based on your preferences.
The scenic drives at the North Rim are phenomenal. Take the time to explore and end at Cape Royal. When you get out to stretch, you’ll be rewarded! This trail is paved and flat with many scenic views of the canyon, colorado river, and Angel’s Window – a unique arch formation.
Challenge option: North Kaibab Trail
- Trailhead/Parking Lot: North Kaibab for both
- Distance & Elevation Change: Vary depending on your turn-around point.
- Tips: Pack plenty of water and do not hike in the heat of the day. Consult with rangers for any questions.
This is the only trail that takes you below the Rim on the north side. If you will be hiking this trail, pack plenty of water and keep in mind that the hardest part of your hike will be the return portion on your way back. The park has many resources to help visitors prepare for hiking into the canyon.
For a day hike, there are two reasonable turnaround options:
- Coconino Overlook: 1.4 miles round trip, 790’ elevation loss then gain
- Supai Tunnel: 4 miles round trip, 1400’ elevation loss then gain
I chose Coconino Overlook as my turnaround point when I did this hike. The views from there were stunning. One of the best things about this hike is you travel through different ecosystems along the way and that is something I always enjoy.
Best Time to Visit: October! Timing your visit as the Aspens turn golden will add another layer of enchantment to an already gorgeous place! There will also be less of a crowd but it can be cold at this high elevation park. Pack your layers!
Best easy hike: Silver Falls Trail (from Stevens Canyon Road)
- Trailhead/Parking Lot: Grove of the Patriarchs parking lot/Trailhead for the falls is across the road
- Distance & Elevation Change: 1 mile, 300’
- Tips: There are other options to visit Silver Falls but this one allows you to meander by the river and enjoy a second hiking option at Grove of the Patriarchs without moving the car.
Cross the street from the Grove of the Patriarchs parking lot to find the trail on the other side. You wander through woods feeling like you are in a storybook with the way the light filters through the trees and the moss covered rocks. After a little while, you will meet up with the Ohanapecosh River that feeds Silver Falls. The water color is striking. From this vantage point, you are looking down on it. Soon after, you’ll reach the falls. Hiking in national parks doesn’t get much more scenic than this woodland gem!
Challenge option: Mount Fremont Lookout Trail
- Trailhead/Parking Lot: Sunrise
- Distance & Elevation Change: 5.6 miles, 900’
- Tips: Check snow conditions before heading out
Mount Rainier is watching over you up close on this hike. Your ascent starts shortly after you leave the trailhead but so do glimpses of some of the views to come. Along this hike, you will walk in the woods for a while, enjoy views of an alpine lake, experience Mount Rainier first hand, and climb a fire lookout to enjoy views in every direction. When you are in the final stretch to the fire lookout, you will be going away from Mount Rainier. One a clear day, you’ll have views of the Cascade Range for miles. Keep an eye out for mountain goats on the hillside below.
Best Time to Visit: Late July through August. Wildflowers bloom later in the summer and there is less chance of snow on the trails, however some trails will have snowy sections year round.
Best easy hike: Sentinel Dome
- Trailhead/Parking Lot: Sentinel Dome/Taft Point trailhead
- Distance & Elevation Change: 2.2 miles, ~450’
- Tips: Avoid hiking the dome if thunderstorms or rain are possible due to lightning risk and the slippery granite surface when wet.
The rewards of this hike are much greater than you’d expect for the short distance and elevation gain. Start the hike to your right and make your way through high elevation rocky woodland. You will eventually see the scenery open up in front of you as you cross an inactive road. Bear left to reach the base of the dome. To finish the hike, climb to the top of the dome, which will mean walk up the granite rock at a moderate incline. Once at the top, you will be able to see all the famous figures of Yosemite Valley around you.
Challenge option: Mist Trail
- Trailhead/Parking Lot: Happy Isles/Shuttle Stop #16
- Distance & Elevation Change: 2.4 miles trip to top of Vernal Fall, 1000’ elevation gain/5.4 miles round trip to top of Nevada Fall, 2000’ elevation gain
- Tips: Wear sturdy shoes for walking slick wet rock
Calling all waterfall fans, this is your dream hike. On this hike, you can feel the power of two incredible waterfalls as well as enjoy the view from the top. You’ll start out hiking to the base of Vernal Falls. Enjoy the view from the footbridge here. Be sure to refill your water and take advantage of the last bathroom for a while. Then you start going up.
Granite stairs lead you into the mist of Vernal Fall. The elegant waterfall cascades in a wide sheet over the rock. Keep climbing the stairs to continue above Vernal Fall and enjoy a different perspective. Many people choose to turn around here and in doing so have already had quite a workout. If you choose to continue, make your way to Nevada Falls, this adds another three miles and 1000’ of elevation gain.
You’ll have a break from the stairs for a little while but they’ll return as you make your way to the top of Nevada Falls. Let the roar of this waterfall cheer you on. At the top, there is a bathroom. There is also a bridge across the top of the water that feeds the falls. It is a great place to rest before heading back down. You can return via the Mist Trail or take the John Muir Trail for a slightly longer option that is a little easier on the knees since it consists of switchbacks rather than stairs.
Best Time to Visit: Late May to early June. At this time the waterfalls will be at their best cascading with snowmelt. This will also place you slightly ahead of peak summer crowds. Usually by this time, Glacier Point Road is open from its seasonal closure but this varies each yet. Check the park’s website for details.
Hiking in National Parks Highlights
Be aware of false trails/shortcuts that others have created. These begin to get worn down and may start to look like a path. Stick to the main trail to avoid further damaging the vegetation in that area.
Useful Links for hiking in National Parks
For details on staying safe outdoors during the pandemic – check out this blog post:
If you are planning to visit Yosemite in 2021, check out their page for details the park reservation system and COVID-related guidance:
Expeditions with Evelyn Exclusives
Yosemite National Park will be using a reservation system for visitors in 2021 from May 21 to September 30 to manage visitor capacity during the pandemic. All visitors must have a visitor reservation pass, a permit for a specific hike (like Half Dome) or wilderness reservation, OR have a lodging reservation in the park. One cool spot that I have stayed at several times is Yosemite West by Scenic Wonders. They rent condos and cabins, within park boundaries! This is an option to keep in mind if you are trying to visit Yosemite this year.
What are your thoughts on hiking in National Parks?
Tell me your most loved trails for hiking in National Parks in the comments down below! I can’t want to hear your thoughts. Let me know if you have any questions.