Hip hip hooray, hiking season is finally upon us. With summer the prime time to explore, people know the big bucket-list worthy hikes in the U.S. (looking at you Pacific Coast Trail and the Appalachian Trail), but there still plenty of incredible day hikes if you just want to get outside, stretch your legs and be home before dinner.
Here’s a round-up of the must-do day hikes in America from the prettiest to the hardest, short jaunts with epic payoffs and strenuous pursuits sure to challenge even the most seasoned trekkers. If you’re itching to get out there, waterfalls, bridges, and adventure are calling.
Devil’s Bridge Hike – Sedona, Arizona
4-Miles, 3-4 Hours
Recommended by Victoria of Follow Me Away
The hike to Devil’s Bride in Sedona, Arizona is one of the best hikes in the United States because of the relative ease with a big payoff. The hike is a moderate 4-mile round trip, in and out hike. It ONLY gets its ‘moderate’ rating for the last 0.25 of a mile when you climb out of the valley and up the canyon wall to the bridge. Otherwise, Devil’s Bridge Hike is relatively flat with minimal uphills and downhills through the desert.
The big payoff is the view at the end where you see a bride carved into the side of the mountain with sweeping valley views. The best time to do this hike is at sunset, but make sure you are back well before dark as there are coyotes out!
Delicate Arch – Moab, Utah
3.2-Miles, 3 Hours
Recommended by Jurga from Full Suitcase
Delicate Arch trail is without a doubt the best and the most popular hike in Arches National Park, Utah. The main feature of the park and one of the most famous natural arches in the world – Delicate Arch – is the reward waiting for you at the end of the trail (you may even recognize it from the Utah license plate!). You have to stand under it in order to truly appreciate how special it is.
While it isn’t long, it is quite strenuous. What makes it really challenging is a complete lack of shadow and unbearably hot temperatures in summer. If you can visit in spring or in autumn, but if you visit in summer, do the hike early in the morning or at sunset.
Half Dome – Yosemite, California
16 Miles, 8-10 Hours
Recommended by Jill of Jack and Jill Travels
A prominent granite formation in Yosemite National Park, California, Half Dome soars almost a mile high above the valley floor. The hike is considered difficult because of its length, elevation gain, and the infamous cable section. The cable section refers to the last stretch of the hike that involves pulling yourself up the steep and slick granite flank of Half Dome itself. The National Park Service has installed cables and wooden slats to assist, but upper body strength is still needed to pull yourself up. Going down can be even more intimidating, but it is easier if you face backward.
The Half Dome hike has gotten very popular to the point that a permit is now required for the cable section. An annual lottery is held in March, but there are also daily lotteries for those already in the park. In total there are 300 permits given out a day. Despite the difficulty of obtaining permits, the view over Yosemite Valley from the top of Half Dome is hard to beat. Of course, there’s also a sense of major accomplishment to be on top of the icon of Yosemite National Park. It’s a California classic.
Insider tips: Hike up Mist Trail (past Nevada and Vernal falls) and hike down John Muir Trail to form a loop. This will save your knees. I rarely hike with poles, but I recommend taking a pair on this trek. It’s also extremely dangerous to be on the granite part of the hike during a thunderstorm so make sure you actively monitor the weather.
North Table Mountain – Oroville, California
1-7 Miles, Allocate at least a few hours to explore
Recommended by Jess from Longest Bus Rides
North Table Mountain is located in northern California a few hours’ north of San Francisco and Sacramento. The preserve has numerous waterfalls and an amazing display of wildflowers from March through May.
The hike is easy and can be anywhere from one to seven miles depending on how many waterfalls you’d like to visit. Getting to the base of some waterfalls is steep, but is not necessary for great views. The scenic overlooks of each of the waterfalls are beautiful and the perfect place for a picnic lunch. Bring plenty of sunscreen, as shade is very limited. Dogs are allowed on-leash.
Cadillac Mountain – Hancock County, Maine
7.5 Miles, 5-8 Hours
Recommended by Kate of Our Escape Clause
The summit of Cadillac Mountain in Acadia National Park boasts sweeping views of the stunning coastline, harbor islands, and–if you’re lucky enough to be visiting in the fall — some epic New England foliage. During the fall and winter, Cadillac Mountain is actually the very first spot in the USA to see the sunrise. Suffice it to say: any visit to Acadia National Park should include Cadillac Mountain.
Though there are several trails available to climb Cadillac Mountain, one of the most popular is the South Ridge Trail. At 7.5-miles long and what I would consider moderately difficult (if you’re in reasonable physical shape, you’ll be fine), it curves around Cadillac Mountain, ascending gradually. As most of the trail is open, you’ll be able to watch the views around you get better and better as you climb!
Smith Rock State Park – Terrebonne, Oregon
3.7 Miles, 1.5 Hours
Recommended by Michelle of Roam Redmond Oregon
Smith Rock State Park, located near the small town Terrebonne in Central Oregon, is like visiting an epic, natural cathedral. The birthplace of climbing, it is still popular with rock climbers and home to other activities like horseback riding.
An easy starter hike is the unpaved, out-and-back River Trail (2.2 miles each way). The hike can become a 3.7-mile loop when connected with the more steep and strenuous Misery Ridge Trail. This adds a 1-mile uphill work out. The path flattens at the peak with fantastic views of the park and continues past the iconic “Monkey Face” formation. If you’re visiting during spring, early summer, or fall, try to arrive just after sunrise to beat the crowds and enjoy the cooler temperatures.
Limekiln Falls – Big Sur, California
2 Miles, 1.5 Hours
Recommended by Lee and Stacey of One Trip at a Time
Limekiln Falls is on the Pacific Coast Highway and part of Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park. This easy hike is just two miles long and, with only around 500 feet of elevation gain, should take around 90 minutes including time to stop at the waterfalls and limekilns.
From the small parking lot, you walk through the campsite and across Hare Canyon Creek to get to the trailhead. You will cross this and Limekiln Creek many times on your hike, using bridges, branches or carefully placed rocks, but nothing precarious. If you turn right at the first fork, you’ll encounter one of the waterfalls. On the left fork, you’ll come to a second fork – turn right again to head to the other waterfall or turn left to see the limekilns for which the trail is named. Giant metal cylinders sitting atop brick ovens, fires used to heat the rock to almost 1,000 °C to extract the lime. They now look quite out of place in the forest and are truly a sight to behold.
Olympic National Park – Port Angeles, Washington
9.4-Miles, 5 Hours
Recommended by Taryn of Happiest Outdoors
One of the best hikes in Washington’s Olympic National Park is the 9.4-mile Ozette Loop trail. It’s a fairly flat hike with some rainforest boardwalk sections, but the real standout is the 3-mile jaunt along the beach between Sand Point and Cape Alava.
There’s no trail here – you just follow the coastline through sandy coves and over rocks passing sea stacks and Native American petroglyphs. This moderate trail takes around 5-hours to complete, but you can also stay overnight at one of the wilderness camps along the way. Make sure you bring a tide table and plan to hike at low tide for the easiest walking (and the most sea life). Keep your eyes peeled for wildlife like eagles, seals or whales!
Dream Lake – Estes Park, Colorado
2 Miles, 2-4 Hours
Recommended by Kris of Nomad by Trade
The Dream Lake trail is one of the most popular hikes in Rocky Mountain National Park and an easy day trip from Denver. The two-mile out and back trail is rated as moderately difficult, with an uphill climb most of the way, but most hikers in good physical condition should be able to complete it.
Beginning from Bear Lake trailhead, you’ll winds your way from scenic viewpoint to scenic viewpoint, passing Nymph Lake before finally arriving at beautiful Dream Lake. With crystal clear water that serves as a mirror for the rocky peaks behind it, it’ll take your breath away. If you have more time and energy, you can keep going to Emerald Lake. The trail is accessible year-round but may be covered in thick snow and require snowshoes in winter and even into spring so be sure to check the conditions before venturing out.
Montana de Oro State Park – San Luis Obispo, California
3.5 Miles, 4 Hours
Recommended by Dhara from It’s Not About the Miles
The Bluff Trail is a stunning trail hugging the Pacific Ocean. The full loop is about 3.5 miles, but you can also add several smaller side loops, including one to the beach at Corallina Cove, that will extend the day. You can choose to retrace your steps along the water, or do the full loop that will take you through the coastal brush a little inland. There is barely any elevation gain and the trail is classified as easy. It’s suitable for almost all ages and all levels of mobility, including wheelchairs.
It’s a popular spot for photographers and nature enthusiasts alike. It does get busy on the weekends, so arrive early if you want some privacy. You may see otters and whales (in season), rabbits scurrying through the brush, snakes slithering across the trail, eagles soaring overhead, and seabirds hovering about. At the beach, hunt for starfish and hermit crabs on the rocks and in the tidal pools. In the spring, wildflowers in hues of yellow and orange bath the hillsides, giving the area its name: Mountain of Gold.
The Narrows – Springdale, Utah
16 miles, 12-14 hours
Recommended by Alex of Ultimate Country Guides
There are many trails to wander in Zion National Park, but there is only one that narrows down to the best. The Narrows, an absolutely unmissable U.S. adventure. If you start from the bottom up, you don’t need a permit and can hike as far as you can before turning around. The top-down route is the full 16-mile venture, which takes 12-14 hours to be completed in one or two days. This does require a permit, which can be reserved up to three months in advance. They also save a few for a last-minute lottery and walk-ups at the visitor’s center.
For most of the route, you’re wading through knee-deep water in Zion’s incredible slot canyons. You can rent canyoneering gear, hiking poles, and waterproof shoes from one of the local outfitters in town. Depending on the time of year it can get cold and the rocks slippery so dress in layers and be prepared. Bring plenty of water and a headlamp if you plan to stay past dark. If you can, take the first shuttle in the morning so you beat the crowds and avoid the harsh midday sun.
Sky Bridge Trail – Stanton, Kentucky
1 Mile, 1 Hour
Recommended by Karen of WanderlustingK
Red River Gorge is a stunning area in eastern Kentucky just about an hour from Lexington. Beloved by hikers and climbers alike, it’s one of most popular areas for rock climbing as the rock face is very easy to grip. This park is nestled within a national forest and full of beautiful attractions, including the iconic Natural Bridge monument that you can actually walk across. There are hikes for every level in the area, but the Sky Bridge Trail is one of the most famous for it’s scenic overlook.
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