The USA’s National Parks are a hiker’s Holy Grail. We’ve all dreamt of scaling Yosemite’s craggy peaks or gazing into the depths of the Grand Canyon—it’s once-in-a-lifetime stuff. But we get that it’s hard to fit life-affirming expeditions into the wilderness into our holiday plans a la Reese Witherspoon in Wild. That’s why we thought we’d share our favourite day hikes. So even if you’ve only got a few hours you can get a daily dose of their unspoilt beauty.
We’ve included some of the big hitters and a few more under-the-radar options for seasoned park lovers looking for something new. But whether you’ve been once, twice or 100 times, we’ll never tire of these persevered natural stunners.
Best for: Iconic peaks and plunges
It doesn’t get more iconic than this. Smack in the heart of the Sierra Nevada mountain range, Yosemite was the first ever US National Park and remains the worlds most renowned. While it’s best known for its rock climbing, it’s also possible to see some of its best bits armed with just a sturdy pair of walking boots—you can reach the legendary Half Dome in a day. With mountain vistas like these, it’s easy to see why it tops everyone’s bucket lists. Whatever you do, just don’t forget your camera.
Arches National Park, Utah
Best for: Jaw-dropping red rock vistas/Wannabe cowboys, families
Want to see some iconic wild landscapes but have the family in-tow? Enter American’s famed Wild West. Most of the world’s sandstone arches are collected here, lassoing the sky in red stone arcs against a colossal backdrop of crags and pinnacles that stretch out for a whopping 76,528 acres. Day hikes here are an easy level and take you right up to the arches themselves making it perfect for families. We recommend the Devils Garden Trail to Landscape Arch which takes you past the longest sandstone arch in the world, the Landscape Arch, and many other insta-worthy scenes.
Wrangell-St. Elias National Park, Alaska
Best for: Ice caves, blue pools, glacial landscapes
Think wilderness and Alaska usually springs to our minds first, it being home to the largest national park, Wrangell-St.Elias. A realm of waterfalls and glaciers, its striking beauty is incontestable. You may think that it’s not possible to get the full glacial experience in a day, but grab your crampons and head to the Root Glacier Trail in summer and you can still reach the centre and marvel at icy majesty on a guided hike.
Olympic National Park, Washington
Best for: Misty rainforests, lush greenery & twilight fans
Nature puts on a dramatic display in this US park with miles of moody coastlines, glacier-capped mountains and dark, old-growth forests. There are 1 million acres to explore but the must-see if you’ve only a day to spare is the Hoh Rainforest, the finest temperate rainforest in the US. A 6.2 mile trail follows the Hoh River through the core of the rainforest and is open all year round. Expect to get a little damp though—there’s plenty of rain. But the brilliant green hues and flora you’ll see passing between the towering trees in this dense and ancient mossy terrain is nothing short of enchanting.
Grand Teton National Park, Wyoming
Best for: Alpine beauty, lakes and canyons
Want to avoid the crowds at Yellowstone? Here’s a tip: the Grand Teton park is only a few miles south and is just as lovely for a taste of rugged alpine adventure. Many of the peaks and clear alpine lakes can be reached in a day and having fewer visitors then its popular neighbour means you’re more likely to have the trails to yourself.
Zion National Park, Utah
Best for: Wild rivers and striped canyons
It’s tough to pick just one great day hike in Utah from the many parks and incredible one-of-a-kind terrains, but Zion boasts some of the best wild walks. As well as some superb canyoning, there are a number of day hikes that the whole family can enjoy (even your gung-ho granny), the favourite is The Narrows, the park’s legendary slot canyon. Here you can channel you’re inner pioneer sloshing your way through the Virgin River to Orderville Canyon and back between towering rock walls striped in shades of sunset red and ochre to burnt orange.
Best for: Volcanoes and otherworldly experiences
Hawaii’s Haleakala Park is a dramatic expanse of volcanoes, waterfalls and thick bamboo forests rimmed by deep blue ocean—so it’s already a destination in its own right. But there’s one trail that takes you to another world entirely. Journeying to the crater of Halemau’u feels a lot like journeying to centre of the earth; its black cinder cones, barren except for streaks of red earth, like the surface another planet entirely. Within a day, you can feel as if you’ve travelled to another galaxy and back and it’s open all year round.
Mammoth Cave National Park, Kentucky
Best for: Getting physical, underground cathedrals
A day hike could take you anywhere in the USA’s national parks, their terrains vary so much—but this one takes you under the earth itself. With a Wild Cave Tour in Kentucky’s Mammoth Cave park and you’re not so much entering a cave as an underground city. You’ll need to get your hands (and sometimes knees) a little dirty, climbing and squeezing through gaps as you navigate the monumental limestone formations. The reward: mammoth Cathedral domes that not many other lay eyes on.
Everglades National Park, Florida
Best for: Coastal views, wildlife and subtropical wilderness
Find unspoilt subtropical wilderness just minutes from sipping a cocktail in South Beach at the Everglades National Park. Miles of mangrove forest, sawgrass marshes and the gulf coast estuary provide the perfect habitat for an abundance of wildlife. The 1.5 million acre parkland can leave you exploring for weeks, but for a quick day hike follow the Aningha trail’s boardwalk that will lead you through swampland lively with bird, amphibian and reptilian life – do resist the temptation to disturb the slumbering alligators though.
Petrified Forest National Park, Arizona
Best for: Natural stone towers and geological wonders
Explore the geological wonders of the Petrified Forest National Park, home to one of the world’s largest concentrations of petrified wood, fossilised over millions of years. Erosion of the surrounding mud, rock and ash have exposed the logs littering the park with crystallised tree trunks and branches. Roads throughout the park take you to 100’s of different footpaths of varying distances such as the Giant Log Trail, a short 0.4 mile loop, where you will find the largest and most colourful logs including ‘Old Faithful’ whose base measures over ten feet wide.
Acadia National Park, Maine
Best for: Autumn foliage and rocky coastlines
Dotted with majestic peaks and surrounded by the rugged coast of Mount Desert Island, a day hike in Acacia National Park will bring you from sea to sky with gorgeous panoramas along the way. The main attraction, Cadillac Mountain, is the highest point along the North Atlantic seaboard and holds the distinction of being the first place in the United States to view the sunrise. Although the summit can be easily reached by car, we recommend the Gorge Path trail a strenuous hike between peaks with a 1,300-foot ascent where you will experience the full diversity of scenery that the park has to offer. Plan your hike in mid-October and you’ll be rewarded with an explosion of colour as the trees shed their leaves.
Grand Canyon National Park, Arizona
Best For: Pure grandeur and breath-taking vistas
277 miles long, 18 miles wide and one mile deep – numbers alone can’t quite prepare you for the vastness of the Grand Canyon. Carved over millions of years by the Colorado River, the staggering cliffs and fantastic gorges of this national park make it the second most visited in the United States. A day hike will take you away from the crowds that congregate around the south rim viewpoints and the Bright Angel Trail is one of only two fully maintained hiking route – taking you from mountain rim to river and back. Bring plenty of water and pace yourself as it is a steep ascent and summer temperatures routinely top 40 degrees Celsius, but the picturesque winding trails and towering pink and white marbled granite cliffs more than make up for the effort.
American Samoa National Park, American Samoa
Best for: South Pacific sunsets, rare wildlife and an exotic escape
If you’re looking for something really different and off-the-beaten-track then how about an expedition to the South Pacific? American Samoa may be a little harder to reach than most National Parks, but that just means you’ll probably have its pristine rainforest and coastlines all to yourself. The park boasts huge swaths of untouched tropical beauty to explore, but our favourite trail is the hike up to Amalau Valley, a gorgeous hidden valley where rare birds and flying foxes can be spotted. Make sure you don’t miss the sunsets—American Samoa is the last place the sun touches on earth, so the perfect way to end your National Park adventure.