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Top 10 of the 63 National Parks for Hiking

Some of the best places to hike in the entire United States of America lie within our 63 National Parks.  When we wrote our guidebook, A Park to Yourself: Finding Adventure in America’s National Parks (available on Amazon), we had a hard time choosing only two favorite trails for each park.  So in this Top 10 list we are simply going to list all of the hikes we like in each of the selected National Parks (with roundtrip mileage in parentheses).  We also ranked the best places to hike within the other National Park Service sites (click here to see all our Top 10 Lists).

10. Shenandoah (Virginia)

Old Rag (7.1 miles) Dark Hollow Falls (1.4) Little Stony Man Cliffs (0.9) Jones Run Falls (3.4) Cedar Run-Whiteoak Circuit (8.2) Appalachian National Scenic Trail

9. Pinnacles (California)

Bear Gulch (2.2) High Peaks Trail (5.3) Balconies Cave (2.4) North Chalone Peak (9.0) North Wilderness (9.3)

8. Glacier (Montana)

Avalanche Lake (4.0) Hidden Lake Overlook (3.0) Iceberg Lake (9.6) Grinnell Lake (6.8) Two Medicine Loop (21.0) Continental Divide National Scenic Trail

7. Isle Royale (Michigan)

Stoll (5.0) Suzy’s Cave (7.4) Mt. Franklin (4.0) Greenstone Ridge (42.2) Minong Ridge (9.4)

6. Zion (Utah)

Observation Point (8.0) Angels Landing (5.4) The Narrows (4.0+) Canyon Overlook (1.0) Kolob Arch (14.0)

5. Yosemite (California)

Mariposa Grove (6.9) Upper Yosemite Falls (7.2) Nevada Falls (5.0) Tuolumne Grove (2.5) Wapama Falls (5.0) Pacific Crest National Scenic Trail

4. Big Bend (Texas)

Mariscal Canyon Rim (6.6) Santa Elena Canyon (1.7) Window (4.0) Hot Springs (1.0) Grapevine Hills (2.2)

3. Rocky Mountain (Colorado)

Adams Falls (0.6) Mt. Ida (10.0) Dream Lake (2.2) Sky Pond (9.8) Ouzel Falls (5.4) Spectacle Lakes (11.0) Lost Lake (15.6) Continental Divide National Scenic Trail

2. Great Smoky Mountains (Tennessee-North Carolina)

Ramsey Cascades (8.0) Look Rock (1.8) Laurel Falls (2.6) Clingman’s Dome (0.5) Hen Wallow Falls (4.4) Alum Cave (4.4) Chimney Tops (10.0) Appalachian National Scenic Trail

…and finally the #1 National Park for hiking:

1. Yellowstone (Wyoming-Montana-Idaho)

Upper Geyser Basin (2.0+) Brink of Lower Falls (0.8) Mt. Washburn (6.2) Lone Star Geyser (4.8) Fairy Falls (7.0) Sky Rim (16.0) Continental Divide National Scenic Trail

Honorable Mentions

Acadia (Maine)

Precipice (2.5) Beehive (1.6) Jordan Pond (3.2) Ocean Path (4.4) Beech Mountain (1.1) Schoodic Head (2.5)

Arches (Utah)

Delicate Arch (3.0) Double Arch (0.5) Devils Garden (7.2) Broken Arch (1.3) Tower Arch (3.4)

Lassen Volcanic (California)

Bumpass Hell (3.0) Lassen Peak (5.0) Devils Kitchen (4.2) Cinder Cone (4.0) Pacific Crest National Scenic Trail

Pinnacles National Park

Overview

California has nine National Parks, which is more than any other state, including Alaska.  The newest is Pinnacles National Park, upgraded from a National Monument in 2013.  Rising above the agricultural Salinas Valley, it does have quite a long history, going back even before President Theodore Roosevelt officially recognized its significance in 1908.  The park’s West Entrance is accessible from Highway 101 and the East Entrance is closer to Interstate 5 and the Central Valley.  It is actually faster to hike from one side to another, than to drive two hours around. 

Learn more in our guidebook to the National Parks, A Park to Yourself: Finding Adventure in America’s National Parks (available on Amazon).

Highlights

Scenic views, talus caves, rock climbing, endangered California condors

Must-Do Activity

In addition to its striking granite spires, the park is known for talus caves, which are tunnels formed by boulders falling and catching between narrow canyon walls.  Flashlights are necessary to navigate through them, although small gaps in the chaotic ceiling often allow shafts of light through in picturesque fashion.  You might spot a bat flying through the caves, which are seasonally closed for their protection.

Best Trail

Mild temperatures make this a park for hiking in all seasons.  Just be sure to hold onto the chains while navigating the Steep and Narrow section of the steep High Peaks Trail.

Instagram-worthy Photo

While you may not see a bat in the talus caves of Pinnacles National Park, it is likely you will spot the nine-foot wingspan of a California condor slicing the blue sky outside the caves.  This is perhaps the most successful of all release sites for this species teetering on the brink of extinction.

Peak Season

Summer

Hours

https://www.nps.gov/pinn/planyourvisit/hours.htm

Fees

$30 per vehicle or America the Beautiful pass

Road Conditions

All roads are paved, but there is not a road connecting the East and West Entrances, which are about a two-hour drive apart.

Camping

The West Entrance gate is locked every night as it is day use only, but there is a campground that takes reservations at the East Entrance.  No backcountry camping is allowed.

Related Sites

Yosemite National Park (California)

Channel Islands National Park (California)

Sequoia National Park (California)

This design we created to celebrate Joshua Tree National Park is available on a variety of products at Cafe Press and Amazon.

Explore More – Accessible by a nine-mile roundtrip hike with more than 2,000 feet of elevation gain, how tall is North Chalone Peak?

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Muir Woods National Monument

Overview

Named for passionate preservationist and Bay Area resident John Muir, this old-growth forest of coast redwood trees is a world away from the bustle of the city.  Originally established in 1908, the National Monument is administered by the National Park Service (NPS) as part of Golden Gate National Recreation Area.  It is located just south of Point Reyes National Seashore and here you can also access the coastline at nearby Muir Beach.

Highlights

Coast redwood trees, Redwood Creek Trail, Canopy View Trail, Muir Beach

Must-Do Activity

North of the Golden Gate Bridge, the San Francisco sprawl gives way to a rugged and idyllic landscape.  The twisty drive over the coastal mountains to 554-acre Muir Woods National Monument is part of the adventure.  There is a café and gift shop, plus the NPS operates a small bookstore, but not a museum at the site.  This small park receives an average of one-million visitors per year, so expect the trails to be crowded on weekends and sunny days.

Best Trail

There are only six miles of trails in the National Monument, but they connect with the extensive system in surrounding Mount Tamalpais State Park.  It is often foggy and always shady beneath these massive trees, so it is best to dress in layers.

Instagram-worthy Photo

The coast redwoods growing here are more than 250 feet tall, so hike up the aptly named Canopy View Trail to get a birds-eye view.

Peak Season

Summer

Hours

https://www.nps.gov/muwo/planyourvisit/hours.htm

Fees

$15 per person or America the Beautiful pass

Road Conditions

The winding access road is steep and narrow, so RVs over 35 feet in length are prohibited.

Camping

There are walk-in tent campsites at Mount Tamalpais State Park and backcountry campsites (permit required) at Point Reyes National Seashore.

Related Sites

John Muir National Historic Site (California)

Redwood National and State Parks (California)

Golden Gate National Recreation Area (California)

Explore More – Coast redwood is the tallest species in the world, requiring coastal fog to stay hydrated; how far inland do the trees naturally occur?

Colorado National Monument

Overview

The name Colorado translates from Spanish as “red colored” and Colorado National Monument is exactly that.  From the numerous overlooks along Rim Rock Drive, the farm-dotted Colorado River Valley stretches out to the Book Cliffs and the evergreen forests of Grand Mesa.  But your attention will be drawn to the red rock formations in the foreground, like Independence Monument topped by an improbably placed American flag.  Do not miss a visit to neighboring McInnis Canyons National Conservation Area (held by the Bureau of Land Management), which has been proposed to be combined with Colorado National Monument to form a new National Park.

Highlights

Museum, film, Rim Rock Drive, Serpents Trail, Independence Monument View, Liberty Cap Trail

Must-Do Activity

Enjoy the stellar scenery and hiking while watching the cliffs for raptors, especially during the golden hours when the red rocks really shine.  While Interstate 70 offers easy access to the National Monument on the way to Arches National Park, we recommend heading south along twisty Highway 141, passing through stunning Dolores Canyon.

Best Trail

There are many great (and steep) canyon hikes in this area, including the former roadbed of Serpents Trail, once known as the “Crookedest Road in the World” until closed to vehicles following a highway reroute in 1950.

Instagram-worthy Photo

Sunrise and sunset are the best times for photography at the numerous overlooks along 23-mile Rim Rock Drive.

Peak Season

Summer

Hours

https://www.nps.gov/colm/planyourvisit/hours.htm

Fees

$25 per vehicle or America the Beautiful pass

Road Conditions

All roads paved

Camping

From Saddlehorn Campground you can see the lights of Grand Junction, Colorado and Interstate 70, but up here you feel like all of that is a million miles away.  Free backcountry camping permits are also available.

Related Sites

Mesa Verde National Park (Colorado)

Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park (Colorado)

Canyonlands National Park (Utah)

Explore More – John Otto petitioned hard for the creation of Colorado National Monument in 1911 and served as its caretaker for 26 years at what ridiculously low salary?

Assateague Island National Seashore

Overview

Assateague Island National Seashore was authorized in 1963, twenty years after neighboring Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge was established to protect migratory birds, like the greater snow goose.  In combination with Assateague State Park they protect a 37-mile stretch of undeveloped shoreline that crosses the border of Maryland and Virginia (and is very close to Delaware).  The National Park Service (NPS) manages the National Seashore and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service manages the National Wildlife Refuge, but there is also an NPS visitor center at the refuge.

Highlights

Museum, film, Assateague Lighthouse, wildlife, kayaking, swimming, beachcombing

Must-Do Activity

Assateague Island’s most renowned residents are its wild ponies, purported to have swum ashore from a wrecked Spanish galleon.  Every year since the 1700s, the Chincoteague Volunteer Fire Company has herded the ponies that live on Assateague Island for an auction to raise funds for firefighting.  This annual event was chronicled in the classic children’s book Misty of Chincoteague by Marguerite Henry (which made our Top 10 NPS Novels list).  The ponies can often spotted by hikers on the Woodland Trail, a three-mile loop hike.  Nearby there is also a free NASA visitor center at Wallops Flight Facility where they launch rockets.

Best Trail

We mentioned the Woodland Trail above, but this park is all about walking the beach, especially the 10 miles of wild beach only accessible by foot within Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge.

Instagram-worthy Photo

The first Assateague Lighthouse was built in 1833, while the structure seen today was completed in 1867.

Peak Season

Summer

Hours

https://www.nps.gov/asis/planyourvisit/hours.htm

Fees

$25 per vehicle or America the Beautiful pass

Road Conditions

The access roads are paved, but with a permit you can drive 13 miles of beach on the Maryland side and five miles on the Virginia side.  It takes about 1.2 hours to drive the highways between the north and south bridges to Assateague Island.

Camping

On the Maryland side, the NPS operates two campgrounds with cold showers, but the one in Assateague State Park offers hot showers.  Two oceanside backpacking camps and four bayside kayak-in camps are also available by permit.

Related Sites

Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad National Historical Park (Maryland)

First State National Historical Park (Delaware)

Cape Hatteras National Seashore (North Carolina)

Explore More – Not just a safe haven for wild ponies, where in the National Seashore do seahorses anchor to underwater grasses?