One of the things I love most about living in the US is the parks system providing hiking trails in every state. Whether you are in the desert in Arizona or trekking through the forest in Maine, there have been trails cut and mapped out so you can enjoy these areas more easily.
If you have ever done much hiking off trail, you know that it can be quite frustrating. Not only do you have constantly worry about navigation, but you also have all kinds of terrain and vegetation to navigate.
As a survival specialist, I run across this a great deal. On my first long distance survival challenge, I hiked over 30 miles off trail. I tried to look at satellite images of the area beforehand, but the images were old and the area had changed.
There was one section of land that was only a few hundred yards across, but it was dense with thorn bushes and juniper trees. You couldn’t see more than two feet in front of you because of the dense vegetation. It took me over an hour to weave my way through all of that junk and get to the other side. Quality trails allow you to bypass these types of obstacles.
In this article, we will cover what makes a top-quality hiking trail. In addition, I will review some of the best hiking trails in the US so you can check them out for yourself.
What Makes a Good Trail?
In most states in the US there are hundreds of hiking trails maintained by the Department of Conservation. However, most of them will not make our list. There are several factors that must be considered when ranking the best hiking trails in the US.
For most hikers, one of the biggest reasons for hiking in the wilderness is the scenery. Whether you are taking pictures or just soaking it all in, everyone wants a view. Your hike does not necessarily need to be scenic every single mile, but there should be lots of points to stop and enjoy the view. The views that people tend to enjoy the most are overlook points, mountains or rock formations, bodies of water, colorful foliage and wildflowers.
Most hikers want to go on hikes that will challenge them, but that will be doable based on their physical ability. If you go on a hike that is too rough and have to stop half-way through, that is always a pain. In addition, if you go on a hike and find yourself bored with the terrain, then that is not ideal either.
To find the right match you must review the trails in advance and decide where to hike. The Department of Conservation typically does a good job of documenting these types of things on their website. You can also review satellite images and topographical maps of the area.
It is a huge task for the Department of Conservation to maintain all of the trails in their state. This involves clearing fallen trees, repairing boardwalks and bridges, cleaning trash and bathrooms, and leveling areas that get too rough. If the trails are not properly maintained, they can be tough to traverse or even impossible to use. Good trails are kept up so that hikers can safely complete the hike.
Markings and Maps
One of the biggest risks with wilderness hiking is the potential for getting lost. Having a trail helps, but most trails will have many intersections with other trails. Without good markings, it can be easy to take a wrong turn and get lost. In addition, it is helpful if the Department of Conservation provides trail maps so you can mark your progress and track your location.
Here is my list of some of the best trails in the US. Please remember that this list is based on an average person’s physical ability. In addition, these are listed in no particular order.
Appalachian Trail – Why not start with the mother of all trails. The Appalachian Trail runs from Maine all the way down to Georgia. It has always been a dream of mine to hike the entire thing, but I just can’t seem to be able to take three months off of work. An especially scenic portion of the trail runs through the Shenandoah National Park in VA. You will find an abundance of wildlife in this park along with some amazing views. The 101 mile stretch of trail within the Park has lots of dense forests and waterfalls as well.
Burroughs Mountain Hike – Mount Rainier towers above the state of Washington at 14,410 feet above sea level. The Mount Rainier National Park offers 260 miles of trails including those that travel to the peak of the mountain. My wife and I visited this park about 10 years ago and enjoyed the tamer hikes through the meadows and forests below the peak.
Charlies Bunion Hike – Once a year, my family and I get to visit the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. This hike through the mountains of TN and NC is loaded with wildlife and foggy overlooks. They have a “Hike the Smokies” challenge that rewards hikers for traversing more than 100 miles of the trails.
Canyon to Rim Loop – On the same trip to visit Mt. Rainier, we also drove through Oregon and hit up Smith Rock Sate Park. There are great river views with lots of waterfowl seen early in the morning.
Mount Ida Trail – On a Boy Scout trip as a teenager, we hiked and camped in the Rocky Mountain National Park in Colorado. The park has over 300 miles of trails with lots of birds, lizards, black bears, and fields full of wildflowers. The views of the mountains and lakes are breathtaking.
South Rim Trail – On another childhood trip, some family friends took us to hike the Grand Canyon in Arizona. We stuck to the easier sections of trail and took lots of pictures at the easy vista points. It is just simply one of those trails that you must see for yourself. It is especially gorgeous as the lighting of the early morning or late evening plays with the rock formations.
Petroglyph Wall Trail – In the Red Rock Canyon National Conservation Area you will find a variety of different trails of varying difficulty. You will see 800 year old rock drawings along with lots of wildlife.
Upper Emerald Pool Trail – On a wilderness survival challenge in the high desert of Utah, I was fortunate enough to visit Zion National Park. The colors from their pink, red, and white sandstone cliffs and arches are amazing. There are even waterfalls along this trail, so plan to take lots of pictures.
Half Dome Day Hike – In Yosemite National Park in CA, you will find a challenging trail that increases elevation by 4,800 feet in just 14 miles. However, for those prepared it is absolutely worth the effort.
Hiking is a wonderful way to get some exercise and fresh air while taking in the scenery. Our country has so many different views and landscapes to offer us if we just get out there and start hiking. If you are heading out of town to check out a hiking trail, do your research in advance. Check out the difficulty, condition, and pay attention to features like water crossing that could flood. Also, don’t think that you need to travel out of state to find beautiful trails. Every year I am surprised by new trails that I find out about in my home state.