The U.S. National Parks were set aside to preserve wildlife ecosystems, geologic wonders, water sources and the roadless geography of North America — areas that often cannot be accessed without setting out on foot to explore them. Early National Park champions forged such pathways to form deeper connections to the natural world. Modern adventurers hit those same trails today for the same reasons, with the added desire to break a serious sweat.
Last year we explored all 59 of America’s national parks, stomping through the wilderness in celebration of the centennial anniversary of the U.S. National Park Service. Several months after concluding our odyssey, these short-term treks remain in our memory as some of the most exceptional – and beautiful – hiking challenges of the year.
The Subway, Zion National Park, Utah
There are two routes on the famed Subway hike in the Kolob Canyons area of Zion — one coming from the top down which includes repelling and another coming from the bottom up which requires river and boulder crossings. Both trails are just shy of ten miles, both require that you blaze your own trail and both lead to a truly spectacular feature in our natural world: The Subway — a massive stone formation carved in the shape of metropolitan basement trains. The terrain is rough and rugged, continuous route-finding is an ongoing mental challenge and you need to get in and out by nightfall. All of which are unique tests of true grit that make the act of obtaining a coveted permit (only 80 are given each day) seem like a walk in the park.
South Kaibab to Bright Angel, Grand Canyon National Park, Arizona
Grand Canyon “rim-to-rim” hikes are legend in the land of American trekking. To hiking purists, there is only one true rim-to-rim hike at the Grand Canyon, starting on the north rim and ending on the south crossing 24 miles.
A more accessible version can be found just steps from the visitor center on the South Rim – starting from the South Kaibab trailhead and descending to the base of the canyon before ascending the Bright Angel Trail back up to the top (or reversing that order). This two-day hike is about 17 miles all-in with an elevation gain/loss of 5,500 feet total. There is only one water source (on Bright Angel) and trails are exposed to steep drops and open sun. At the bottom (and to break up your hike), you can either camp at the Bright Angel Campground or stay at the famed Phantom Ranch, both overlooking the Colorado River.
Remember, there is no easy way in or out of the Grand Canyon and it’s vital to be prepared before taking on this monster hike. But once completed, you’ll feel an amazing rush of accomplishment as you look back onto the canyon floor where you can now say you’ve stood.
Guadalupe Peak Trail, Guadalupe Mountains National Park, Texas
This hike is famous with the highpointing* crowd, taking trekkers up to the 8,751-foot summit where they can stand atop the highest peak in the great state of Texas. This 8.4-mile out-and-back trail climbs 3,000 feet in elevation and takes between six and eight hours (closer to eight unless you’re super fast and spend little time at the top). The trail is maintained, with very steep crossings through both high-desert and high-elevation forests. Sudden shifts in weather and habitat are certain. At the top of Guadalupe Peak, you’ll find breathtaking panoramic views of west Texas and New Mexico and a trail registry where you can mark the start (or continuation) of your quest to become a highpointer.
*Highpointers are hikers on a quest to summit the highest peaks in each of the 50 states in America while promoting conservation and preservation in the areas where they reside.
Haleakalā Crater Trail, Haleakalā National Park, Maui, Hawaii
Hawaii is known for pristine beaches and other island paradise-type settings. But for adventurers who might rather traverse an ancient crater than sip a blue drink beside the sea, there’s an ultimate hiking journey along the 11-mile Sliding Sands Trail on the island of Maui. While the hike is relatively popular, you’ll find yourself with nobody around as you make your way into the colorful crater. It’s crosses such a variant of diverse terrain — volcanic rock, wildflowers, Hawaiian jungle — that it feels like it you’ve crossed the entire state by the time you’ve completed the hike. Along the way, check out endangered Hawaiian Nēnē (geese) and the Silverswords plants which can only be seen in this National Park.
Mount Alava Adventure Trail, National Park of American Samoa
This 5.6-mile hiking adventure feels a bit like a crazy obstacle course on some reality TV show. Just a few miles into it, you’ll be a sweaty mess thanks to the intense humidity that wraps your body as you scale rope ladders draped upon the terraced mountain walls. To be exact, there’s 56 ladders and 783 steps. At the top, you will be rewarded with sprawling views onto the bay of Pago Pago before starting the somewhat easier descent to the Vatia Village. It’s a most immersive and impressive way to see this island territory located far below the equator from a birds-eye vantage point.
Four-Mile Trail to Panorama Trail, Yosemite National Park, California
There are countless big-adventure hikes in a park like Yosemite. One of the most challenging (that doesn’t require technical climbing skills) is a hike up the Four Mile Trail from the valley floor to Glacier Point, before skirting the Panorama Trail leading back down to the valley. The Four Mile Trail is a near-straight-up ascent, crossing switchbacks while presenting scenery from unique vantage points that cannot be replicated from anywhere else. The Panorama Trail from Glacier Point is a one-of-a-kind trail, encircling the perimeter of the valley and leading to Vernal Falls and Mist Falls where you’re greeted by a welcomed drench of mountain water before ending the grueling eight-mile hike (12 miles all in). The last mile is fiercely steep but the whole experience is nothing but total hiking bliss.
Chesler Park Loop to the Joint Trail, Canyonlands National Park, Utah
The 10.5-mile trek in the Needles Area is as brutal as it is beautiful, requiring its visitors to work for every inch of every mile while traveling through terrain that’s seemingly never flat. You hike up and down rocky canyons, route-finding the entire way, until you reach the flat-trail Chesler Park area where rock formations rise from a grassland valley in a paradise that seems as if it’s an illustrated fairytale. At the apex of the hike is the Joint Trail, a deep and narrow slot canyon/maze network where you rub shoulders with massive canyon walls. Our recommendation is to break it up by camping in the backcountry at Chesler Park, where you can unwind after a day of strenuous exertion while enjoying canyon views in all directions…and some solitude beneath the stars.