50 Day Hikes to See the Best of America's Natural Wonders
For nature lovers and fitness enthusiasts, you can’t get much better than a good day of hiking. And finding a great day hike — one that’s not too long and not too short, with a payoff that makes the effort absolutely worth your while — can be as rewarding as winning the lottery. Luckily, no matter where you live in America the Beautiful, there’s bound to be a decent spot for trekking somewhat nearby, whether it’s a few miles on paved trail or a rugged climb up a mountain.
Here, our picks for the best day hike in each of these great 50 states. Some are famous and always packed with people (for good reason), while others are more off the beaten path — which is often part of their appeal. How many have you crossed off your list?
Related:The Real Reason You Love Walking Your Dog
Walls of Jericho Trail, Hytop
You’ll cross several steams on this strenuous 6-mile out-and-back, which leads down into a deep gorge (complete with a striking waterfall and swimming hole) on the Tennessee border. The Nature Conservancy recommends spending a few hours relaxing in the gorge, as the walk back to the trailhead is mostly uphill.
Exit Glacier and Harding Ice Field Trail, Seward
This easy 7.5-mile out-and-back is located in Kenai Fjords National Park. The Alaska Star compares this hike to “entering a time machine,” thanks to the “jaw-dropping vista of what much of Alaska looked like 10,000 years ago.” It’s accessible from March until October, but snow can remain on the trail until mid-July.
Bright Angel Trail to Plateau Point, Grand Canyon
Most day hikers won’t want to (and shouldn’t) attempt trekking all the way to the bottom of the Grand Canyon and back in one day. But making your way to Plateau Point, 3,000 feet down into the gorge, is not a bad compromise: The out-and-back trip is an exhausting but manageable 10.7 miles, and offers a stunning view of the canyon floor and the Colorado River—quite different than anything you can see from the top.
Seven Hollows Trail, Morrilton
ArkansasOutside.com readers voted this 6.1-mile loop in Petit Jean State Park their favorite day hike in the state. It’s an easy-to-moderate hike, and includes caves, rock formations, and a natural stone arch. Have lunch at The Grotto, a unique spot just off the main trail with a bubbling creek and a small waterfall.
Vernal and Nevada Falls Loop, Yosemite National Park
Yosemite is hard to beat for spectacular natural beauty. And while Half Dome is the park’s most acclaimed day hike, it does require an advance permit—and scaling a steep rock face with the help of cables. If you’re looking for something more spontaneous (or slightly less intimidating), check out Vernal and Nevada Falls—two of the park’s best waterfalls—via the Mist Trail and John Muir Trail. The full loop is 6.5 miles, and is good for all skill levels, although the steep steps can be slick when wet and hard on the knees. Lonely Planet says if you can only do a single day hike from Yosemite Valley—and it’s springtime, when the waterfalls are at their peak—make this the one.
Deer Mountain Trail, Estes Park
This 5.9-mile out-and-back in Rocky Mountain National Park includes some steep stairs and lots of switchbacks, and it may be icy or snow-covered well into the spring. But the views are amazing the entire way up, and the summit—at just over 10,000 feet—is well worth the sweat and sore muscles. True to its name, the trail is a popular spot for deer (as well as elk), so keep your eyes peeled.
Indian Council Caves Trail, Barkhamsted
The Hartford Courant calls this 4.9-mile out-and-back “a magical romp” through deep groves of mountain laurel and across babbling brooks. You’ll get a beautiful view of the forest, and can scramble down to a collection of natural caves—deep recesses and outcroppings in giant boulders—that can be fun to explore before heading back to your car.
Twin Valley Trail, Newark
This 3.9-mile loop is part of the Delaware State Parks Trail Challenge; the more of these hikes you complete in a year, the more awards you can win. Twin Valley Trail, in White Clay Creek State Park, is a great place to start: It’s easy enough for the whole family and is full of interesting sites—like wooden bridges, an old stone wall, the Arc Corner Monument marking the border between Delaware and Pennsylvania, and even a rusty old car abandoned in the woods.
Little-Big Econ State Forest Trail, Geneva
The 9.6-mile loop through this forest offers views of the Econlockhatchee River, lush groves of palm trees, plenty of wildlife sightings, and sandy beaches for relaxing mid-hike swims. (Watch out for alligators!) For a shorter but still worthwhile trip (5.7 miles round trip), the Florida Trail Association recommends turning around at the pedestrian bridge.
Leonard E. Foote Hike Inn Trail, Dawsonville
Atlanta Magazine ranks this 9.7-mile loop among the best in Georgia, thanks to Amicalola Falls—one of the state’s “seven natural wonders”—as well as the huge trees and beautiful wildflowers along the trail. A rustic inn greets weary hikers at the halfway point; if you’re not staying the night, have a snack there before continuing back to your car.
Hanakapi’ai Trail, Hanalei
Kauai’s Kalalau Trail made National Geographic’s World’s Best Hikes list. You can’t do the whole thing in a day, but you can do the first section—a 6.9-mile out-and-back to Hanakapi’ai Beach and Hanakapi’ai Falls. It’s a popular spot for honeymooners, or anyone looking to unwind and enjoy beautiful beaches, magnificent waterfalls, and gorgeous sunsets, not to mention a fairly challenging workout.
Iron Creek to Sawtooth Lake, Stanley
Sawtooth Lake is one of the most popular (and most Instagram-worthy) destinations in Idaho’s Sawtooth Mountains—for good reason. The 8.9 mile out-and-back includes a moderate climb past a picturesque ridge, with lots of gorgeous scenery along the way. Michael Lanza of The Big Outside recommends heading out early in the morning, and scrambling up nearby Alpine peak to get the best perspective of the lake from above.
Starved Rock Trail, Oglesby
At only an hour and a half from Chicago, Starved Rock State Park gets packed—and so does most of this 4.4-mile easy loop that take you past many of the park’s most popular canyons and overlooks. Still, the impressive rock formations and waterfalls are worth seeing, as there’s nothing quite like them anywhere else in the state.
Clifty Falls State Park Loop Trail, Madison
This combination of moderate-to-rugged trail takes you 5.7 miles past several breathtaking waterfalls and past an old 600-foot railroad tunnel. (You can walk through it, with a flashlight, from May through October. The rest of the year it’s closed to protect hibernating bats.) You may even spot some marine fossils in the park’s shale and limestone rocks. To see the falls at their strongest, visit December through June.
Backbone State Park Loop, Dundee
Iowa’s first state park has 21 miles of hiking and multi-use trails, including a 6.5-mile loop (combining the East Lake and West Lake trails) around Backbone Lake. You’ll pass old, twisted cedar trees and climb rocky stairs to one of the highest points in northeastern Iowa, known as the Devil’s Backbone.
Prairie Fire-Palmer Creek Loop, Strong City
“See the view that greeted Lewis and Clark,” says Backpacker magazine about this 10-mile loop—combining the Scenic Overlook, Prairie Fire, and Davis trails—through Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve. (And what a view it is!) This hike is truly unique: The tallgrass prairie ecosystem once covered 170 million acres of North America, but today less than 4% of that remains.
Berea Forest Trail, Berea
This 6.8-mile loop (also known as the Pinnacles) includes a moderate-to-strenuous climb to two main peaks—West Pinnacle and East Pinnacle, but the many gorgeous views along the trail are worth the effort. For shorter hikes, it’s easy to split this one up and do different segments on two separate days.
Gorge Run Trail, Franklinton
This 6.2-mile loop is known as a hidden gem, located less than two hours from New Orleans in Bogue Chitto State Park. It’s a great place to beat the heat, too: Most of the trail is quiet and shaded, with some small hills and plenty of wildlife. You can also use the park’s boardwalks to explore Fricke’s Cave, a large gorge-like area filled with delicate sandstone spires.
Cadillac Mountain South Ridge Trail, Bar Harbor
The tallest mountain on the eastern seaboard and one of the first places in the United States to see sunlight every morning, Cadillac Mountain in Acadia National Park is hard to get to—but worth the trip. The 7.7-mile out-and-back (with a small loop near the summit) starts in the forest and opens up to a gradual granite ascent. When you get to the top, try not to feel too superior to everyone else who drove there.
Billy Goat Trail, Potomac
Only 30 minutes from Washington, D.C., this trail is very highly trafficked—but the dramatic views of the Potomac River and Mather Gorge are worth the crowds, says Washingtonian magazine. Completing all three sections (A, B, and C) makes for a strenuous 7.3-mile loop that involves plenty of scrambling over large rocks.
Harrington Trail, Wachusett Mountain, Princeton.
Just 60 miles from Boston, this easy 3.6-mile loop takes you to the summit of Wachusett Mountain—a skiing hill in the winter—where you can see the city skyline, the Berkshire Mountains, and even parts of New Hampshire on a clear day. And if you need another reason to try this trail, it was recently named one of Boston Magazine’s 55 best New England hikes.
Chapel Trail Mosquito Falls Loop, Munising
This 9.7-mile loop at Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore (on Michigan’s less populated Upper Peninsula) meanders along high sandstone cliffs and offers spectacular views of Chapel Falls and Chapel Beach—some of the state’s most scenic spots. Don’t miss the close-up view of Chapel Rock, a large, standalone rock formation with a single large tree growing on top.
Deer Park & Ozawindib Trail Loop, Bagley
Backpacker named this trail combo in Itasca State Park one of America’s Best Day Hikes. It’s a great place to see loons, swans, otters, and other wildlife, as you pass by 18 lakes and through maple-basswood forest. For a panoramic view, climb the 100-foot-tall fire tower.
Bear Creek & Outcroppings Trail Loop, Dennis
Catch a view of the Appalachian foothills from the summit of this trail, a 3.5-mile easy loop in Tishomingo State Park. You’ll start by crossing a unique swinging bridge, and it’s not unusual to spot turtles sunning themselves along the trail or rock climbers scaling the huge nearby rock formations.
Cathedral Canyon, Fredericktown
This 8-mile out-and-back, also known as Lower Rock Creek Trail, was named the best “gorge hike” in the Midwest by Backpacker. (“You’ll feel like you’re descending into Middle Earth,” the editors wrote.) The trail is largely unmarked and undeveloped, with tall cliffs, waterfalls, and hidden grottos to reward you along the way.
Grinnell Glacier Trail, East Glacier Park
It’s a moderate-to-strenuous 9.8 miles on this out-and-back trail in Glacier National Park, but you’ll be rewarded with amazing views of snowy peaks and the valley below—and a chance to see one of the United States’ only remaining glaciers up close. Keep an eye out for bighorn sheep, mountain goats, moose, and bears.
Hudson-Meng Bison Kill, Crawford
This little-known 3-mile out-and-back trail in Oglala National Grassland was named one of America’s best trails for a memorable spring hike by USA Today. "You end up descending from the grasslands into this geologic maze,” author Karen Berger told the paper. “You’re hiking through sandstone cliffs and there are fossils all around you.” The trail connects Hudson-Meng Museum & Archaeology Research Center and Toadstool Park, and is open from Memorial Day to Labor Day.
Gold Strike Hot Spring Trail, Boulder City
The only thing better than a hike with amazing views is a hike with amazing views…and hot springs! You’ll have to scramble over rocks to get to them (sometimes with the help of ropes), but that will just make your soak feel even better. This hike is in Lake Mead National Recreation Area, just outside of Las Vegas.
Mount Washington, Gorham
Climbing Mount Washington—the highest point in the northeast—is a bucket-list item for many East Coasters. And it’s one you can do in a day, via this challenging 7.1-mile loop that follows Tuckerman Ravine Trail in one direction and Lion’s Head Trail in the other. (Which you do first is your choice.) You don’t need technical climbing equipment, but you will have to scramble a bit at times. Wear layers: Some of the fastest wind speeds ever recorded were logged on the weather station at the summit.
Mt. Tammany, Columbia
A stunning view of Pennsylvania and the Delaware Water Gap await you at the summit of Mt. Tammany, named by Gear Patrol as of the best hikes in the northeast. A 3.3-mile loop combines the Red Dot and Blue Dot trails, for a rocky and steep climb that’s short but strenuous. For a longer hike, continue along Kittatinny Ridge to Sunfish Pond.
La Luz Trail, Sandia Park
Normally, 8.7 miles one way would be too much ground to cover in a one-day trip—unless you had a ride waiting for you at the end. That’s the case here: After this rewarding 3,800-foot climb, you can take the Sandia Tram back down to your car in the spring through fall. Matador Network called this one of New Mexico’s most spectacular hikes, touting the multiple ecosystems—and the great view of Albuquerque—the trail provides.
Gorge Trail, Watkins Glen
Waterfall lovers, this is the hike for you: In just 2.5 miles, this loop in the Finger Lakes’ Watkins Glen State Park passes a whopping 19 of them—even a few you can walk behind. It’s no wonder USA Today named Watkins Glen the third best state park in the country. (No. 1, Letchworth State Park, is also nearby.) Trails are open May through October.