By Michael Lanza The best-known dayhikes in America’s national parks are certainly worth adding to your outdoor-adventure CV. Summits and hiki
By Michael Lanza
The best-known dayhikes in America’s national parks are certainly worth adding to your outdoor-adventure CV. Summits and hiking trails like Angels Landing in Zion, Half Dome in Yosemite, the North Rim Trail overlooking the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone River, Glacier National Park’s Highline Trail, the Grand Canyon’s South Kaibab Trail and many others represent the highlights of the crown jewels of the National Park System. But for that very reason, unless you take those hikes outside the peak seasons or times of day, you can expect to encounter a lot of other people.
But there are other national park dayhikes that remain off the radar of many hikers—so they attract a small fraction of the number of people flocking to the popular trails. This list draws from more than three decades of exploring the parks, including the 10 years I spent as a field editor for Backpacker magazine and even longer running this blog. On these 17 hikes, you’ll find scenery just as majestic as those famous trails, while possibly having these spots to yourself (as I did on several of them).
You might want to bring along a friend or your family—just to make sure you don’t get too lonely.
Share your questions or thoughts about these hikes—or suggest your own—in the comments section at the bottom of this story. I try to respond to all comments.
Taylor Canyon, Zion
Easily accessible but far from the well-beaten paths of Zion Canyon, the five-mile, nearly flat, out-and-back hike up the Taylor Creek Trail explores a canyon with walls rising nearly 2,000 feet above a cool forest watered by a vibrant creek (lead photo at top of story).
You’ll pass two historic cabins dating back decades, and at the end of the maintained trail, reach Double Arch Alcove, a pair of giant arches in the Navajo sandstone beneath 1,700-foot-tall Tucupit Tower and Paria Tower.
See my “Photo Gallery: Hiking the Kolob Canyons of Zion National Park,” and all of my stories about Zion at The Big Outside.
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Tenaya Lake to Clouds Rest, Yosemite
The view across Tenaya Lake of a breathtaking sweep of granite domes and cliffs sets the tone for this 14-mile, round-trip hike up 9,926-foot Clouds Rest. In the same neighborhood as Half Dome, comparatively unknown Clouds Rest offers an even bigger panorama, taking in Yosemite Valley and Half Dome, plus an ocean of mountains spanning most of the park. But it’s not as strenuous as the distance suggests, with just under 1,800 feet of elevation gain and loss. The hike’s highlight comes in the final 300 yards traversing the narrow summit ridge, above dizzying drop of 4,000 feet—that’s a thousand feet taller than the face of El Capitan.
See more photos from Clouds Rest and a video in “Best of Yosemite: Backpacking South of Tuolumne Meadows,” as well as “The 12 Best Dayhikes in Yosemite,” and all of my stories about Yosemite National Park.
Want more? See “The 25 Best National Park Dayhikes”
and “Extreme Hiking: America’s Best Hard Dayhikes.”
Eagle Peak Trail, Mount Rainier
The fact that this trail ascends relentlessly nearly 3,000 vertical feet in 3.6 miles partly explains its obscurity. But the main reason may be that it lies somewhat out of the way, starting in the little village of Longmire, in a park already possessing an embarrassment of riches when it comes to dayhiking options.
Don’t let either of those facts discourage you, because this hike is a gem with a big payoff at the top. It passes through lush, quiet, old-growth Pacific Northwest forest and crosses wildflower meadows, ending at a saddle at 5,700 feet in the rugged Tatoosh Range, with a jaw-dropping, closeup view of Mount Rainier.
See “The Best Hikes in Mount Rainier National Park” and all of my stories about Mount Rainier National Park.
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Static Peak, Grand Teton
While no casual stroll—17.2 miles and 5,000 vertical feet round-trip—Static Peak unquestionably ranks among the finest dayhikes in Grand Teton National Park. But it’s often overlooked by visitors, who focus on the canyons farther north.
From Death Canyon Trailhead, hike past views of Phelps Lake, along a roaring cascade, into majestic Death Canyon, and eventually to a panorama from 10,790-foot Static Peak Divide that encompasses Death Canyon, Jackson Hole, Alaska Basin, and the southern Tetons. Continue up the half-mile, 500-vertical-foot user trail to Static Peak’s 11,303-foot summit for even bigger views spanning a large swath of the Teton Range.
See “10 Great Big Dayhikes in the Tetons,” and all stories about Grand Teton National Park at The Big Outside.
Plan your next great backpacking trip in Grand Teton, Yosemite, or other parks using my expert e-guides.
Big Spring, Squaw, and Lost Canyons and the Peekaboo Trail, Canyonlands
While nearby Chesler Park commands the attention of most hikers in the Needles District of Canyonlands, the less-traveled trails into Big Spring, Squaw and Lost canyons and the Peekaboo Trail deliver similarly mind-blowing views of 300-foot-tall candlesticks and cliffs.
The 7.5-mile loop from Squaw Flat campground up Big Spring Canyon and down Squaw Canyon, with only about 600 feet of uphill and downhill, follows a circuitous route up steep slickrock over a sandstone pass overlooking the canyons and miles of redrock towers. For a longer outing, add five to six miles to explore Lost Canyon and the Peekaboo Trail.
See my story “No Straight Lines: Backpacking and Hiking in Canyonlands and Arches National Parks,” and all of my stories about Canyonlands.
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Dawson and Pitamakan Passes, Glacier
At nearly 7,600 feet, Dawson and Pitamakan passes—and the several miles of high, alpine trail connecting them in the southeast corner of Glacier National Park—deliver sweeping panoramas of remote, icy peaks and strikingly blue alpine lakes from high above valleys carved into classic U shapes by ancient glaciers.
Connect them on a strenuous, 13-mile loop with 2,500 feet of up and down by catching an early boat shuttle across Two Medicine Lake and hitting Dawson first, ahead of the crowds that hike just to Dawson Pass (a 9.4-mile, out-and-back walk). The early start will increase your chances of seeing wildlife like mountain goats and bighorn sheep, and you’ll leave most of the other hikers behind on the alpine traverse between the passes and the descent from Pitamakan. To shorten it, walk partway out the almost flat trail leading north from Dawson Pass and then double back (though you’ll encounter a stream of dayhikers).
See “The 10 Best Dayhikes in Glacier National Park,” “The 7 Best Long Hikes in Glacier National Park,” “Wildness All Around You: Backpacking the CDT Through Glacier,” and all of my stories about Glacier National Park at The Big Outside.
Get my expert e-guides to the best backpacking trip in Glacier
and backpacking the Continental Divide Trail through Glacier.
Hermit Trail, Grand Canyon
While most dayhikers flock to the Bright Angel and South Kaibab trails—and both are wonderful (the latter ranks among the best national parks dayhkes)—you can find rare South Rim solitude on a beautiful dayhike even in the peak spring and fall seasons.
Take the park shuttle to the end of the Hermit Road and descend the Hermit Trail into the canyon of Hermit Creek, slicing through the canyon’s vivid Supai and Redwall layers. It’s rocky and steep in spots—that’s why you’ll see few people. Turn around and retrace your steps when you like. Breezy Point is 5.5 miles and about 2,200 feet downhill and the Tonto Trail junction is seven miles and over 3,400 feet. Remember that going up is harder.
See photos in my story “One Extraordinary Day: A 25-Mile Dayhike in the Grand Canyon,” which describes a five-star Grand Canyon ultra-hike from Hermits Rest to Bright Angel Trailhead, with easy transportation logistics (as opposed to hiking the canyon rim to rim).
Do your Grand Canyon hike right with these expert e-guides:
“The Best First Backpacking Trip in the Grand Canyon”
“The Best Backpacking Trip in the Grand Canyon”
“The Complete Guide to Hiking the Grand Canyon Rim to Rim.”
Blacktail Deer Creek Trail, Yellowstone
The Blacktail Deer Creek Trail doesn’t climb a mountain or pass any thermal feature. But from its nondescript trailhead east of Mammoth, it meanders across gently rolling grasslands and meadows that look like an American Serengeti, where there’s a good chance of running into herds of elk and bison—or wolves or bears.
Reaching the cliff-flanked Black Canyon of the Yellowstone River at 3.7 miles and over 1,000 feet downhill, you can continue in either direction along the river; a quarter-mile downstream lies Crevice Lake, whose waters reflect the forest, hills, and cerulean sky.
See “The 10 Best Hikes in Yellowstone,” “The Ultimate Family Tour of Yellowstone,” and all of my stories about Yellowstone at The Big Outside.
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See “America’s Top 10 Best Backpacking Trips” and my Trips page.
North Dome, Yosemite
From the broad, treeless summit of North Dome—at 7,542 feet, some 3,000 feet above the Valley—you gaze at the sheer face of Half Dome looming enormous just across the deep chasm of Yosemite Valley and a panorama spanning from Clouds Rest to El Capitan and beyond. But unlike numerous other trails around the Valley, you’ll usually share North Dome with just a few other hardy dayhikers and backpackers.
Hike south from the Porcupine Creek Trailhead at 8,100 feet on Tioga Road, a short distance east of Porcupine Flat, about 10.4 miles out-and-back, with about 3,200 feet of both uphill and downhill. Add 0.6-mile out-and-back and 400 feet up and down to see Yosemite’s only natural arch, Indian Rock at 8,522 feet.
Coming from Yosemite Valley, it’s a stout round-trip hike of nearly 16 miles with about 5,000 feet of both up and down from the Upper Yosemite Falls Trailhead—but you’ll add spectacular Upper Yosemite Falls and Yosemite Point plus other overlooks from the Valley’s North Rim.
See more photos in my story “Yosemite’s Best-Kept Secret Backpacking Trip.”
I’ve helped many readers plan their Yosemite trip.
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Chimney Rock Canyon, Capitol Reef
By Capitol Reef standards, the 3.5-mile, approximately 600-vertical-foot Chimney Rock Loop is “popular”—meaning you may see a few other hikers. But few dayhikers and backpackers explore lower Chimney Rock Canyon’s tall, sheer, red cliffs and truck-size boulders littering the bottom of the dry canyon.
For stunning views of the Waterpocket Fold cliffs—especially near sunset—hike the Chimney Rock Loop, which begins three miles west of the park visitor center on UT 24, and then out and back down Chimney Rock Canyon to Spring Canyon, a total distance of about 6.5 miles and almost 1,000 feet uphill and downhill for the entire hike.
See my story “Plunging Into Solitude: Dayhiking, Slot Canyoneering, and Backpacking in Capitol Reef National Park,” all of my stories about Capitol Reef National Park on my All National Park Trips page.
Explore the best of the Southwest. See “The 12 Best Hikes in Utah’s National Parks”
“The 10 Best Backpacking Trips in the Southwest.”
Telescope Peak, Death Valley
From 11,049-foot Telescope Peak in Death Valley, the highest summit in the largest national park outside Alaska, more than 11,000 vertical feet of relief separate your shoes from the valleys to either side.
The panorama encompasses a vast reach of barren, sharply angled, rocky ridges. The 14-mile, round-trip hike, with nearly 3,000 vertical feet of gain and loss, wanders a circuitous route with almost non-stop views, culminating in a beautiful summit ridge walk.
Go from April to May or September into November to avoid the deadly heat of summer.
See my story “11,000 Feet Over Death Valley: Hiking Telescope Peak,” and all of my stories about Death Valley National Park at The Big Outside.
Got an all-time favorite campsite?
See “Tent Flap With a View: 25 Favorite Backcountry Campsites”
Heather Pass-Maple Pass Loop, North Cascades
In the vertiginous North Cascades, usually only climbers enjoy the views of this park’s sea of jagged, snowy peaks, that you get on this 7.2-mile loop from the Rainy Pass Trailhead on WA 20 with 2,000 feet of uphill and downhill.
Starting in a forest of towering fir, hemlock, and spruce trees, you climb to views of cliff-ringed Lake Ann, dramatic Black Peak from Heather Pass, and at Maple Pass, much of the North Cascades.
Go in August or early September, after most of the snow has melted out, and when the huckleberries are ripe and columbine and other wildflowers bloom.
See my story “Exploring the ‘American Alps:’ The North Cascades,” and all of my stories about the North Cascades region at The Big Outside.
Make your hikes better. See “The 5 Best Rain Jackets For Hiking and Backpacking”
and “The 10 Best Hiking Daypacks.”
Wonderland of Rocks, Joshua Tree
You won’t get far into the Wonderland of Rocks before feeling like you’re out in the middle of nowhere. Frequently not much more than a sandy wash, the Boy Scout Trail winds for nearly eight miles with little up and down, from the Park Boulevard to Indian Cove Road, through a mind-bogglingly beautiful and disorienting maze of massive granite formations rising from the desert floor. Even most climbers stick to the rocks closer to park roads. Hike in from the south trailhead and turn around, or shuttle a vehicle to make the full traverse. Peak season is fall through spring.
See a menu of all of my stories about Joshua Tree National Park on my All National Park Trips page.
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Skyscraper Mountain, Mount Rainier
At about 7,000 feet, the summit of Skyscraper Mountain rises just a few hundred feet higher than the nearby ridge crossed by the Wonderland Trail. But thanks to its unique, solitary position near the north face of Mount Rainier, it punches above its weight in terms of the view from its summit, with Mount Rainier dominating a 360-degree panorama taking in scores of peaks. The eight-mile, out-and-back hike from Sunrise, scenic most of the way, gains only about 1,300 feet; and while busy for the first couple of miles, attracts fewer hikers than mountain goats beyond Berkeley Park.
From the north side of the Sunrise parking lot, follow the unmarked road-trail that begins between the visitor center and bathrooms, connecting to the Sourdough Ridge Trail heading west. At a five-way trail junction near Frozen Lake, 1.5 miles from the trailhead, continue west straight onto the Wonderland Trail and follow it to the crest of a ridge at 3.6 miles. From there, you can see the unmaintained use trail up Skyscraper Mountain, a 20-minute walk that involves a little scrambling at the top.
See more photos in my story “American Gem: Backpacking Mount Rainier’s Wonderland Trail.”
See which section of the Wonderland Trail made “My 30 Most Scenic Days of Hiking Ever.”
The Maze District, Canyonlands
Road access keeps the crowds away (high-clearance, 4WD vehicle required), but if you can get there, the combination of beauty, adventure, and solitude arguably outranks every other hike on this list: We saw one other hiker on this rugged, challenging, and hard-to-follow 13-mile loop, which involves about 1,500 feet of elevation gain and loss but is more strenuous even than those metrics imply.
Reached via remote dirt roads on the park’s west side, Maze Overlook sets the tone with a heart-stopping panorama that explains this district’s name. The slow, steep, 0.8-mile, 600-foot drop from there into the Maze zigzags over ledges and involves challenging scrambling and exposure, but it’s well-marked with cairns (as is the entire hike). In the South Fork of Horse Canyon, swing north, east, and eventually south down the canyon with the Harvest Scene pictographs and follow the often-circuitous Chimney Route south and southeast, weaving and climbing ledges and following cairns while gaining about 900 feet to Chimney Rock.
There, follow the trail known as the Pete’s Mesa Route, which heads north, passing just to the east side of Chimney Rock (don’t take the trail heading east); follow its cairns north-northwest, eventually dropping into an unnamed side canyon that deposits you back in the South Fork of Horse Canyon and retrace your route to Maze Overlook.
See my feature story “Farther Than It Looks—Backpacking the Canyonlands Maze,” which includes photos and a description of this dayhike, and all stories about Canyonlands National Park at The Big Outside.
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The Dunes, Great Sand Dunes
Walk toe-to-heel along the inch-wide crest of giant sand dunes, with crazily steep drop-offs on each side. Then pause and listen to the eerie “singing” when sand avalanches down those faces.
Hiking any distance in the 30-square-mile sea of dunes rising several hundred feet tall in Colorado’s Great Sand Dunes National Park, in the shadow of the 13,000-foot-high Sangre de Cristo Mountains, is enchanting. But there are no trails, so you must navigate by sight or map, or retrace your footprints back to the start (as long as wind hasn’t covered them over).
See my story “Exploring America’s Big Sandbox: Colorado’s Great Sand Dunes.”
Gear up right for your runs and hikes. See the best hiking and trail-running shoes
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Loop Around the City of Rocks National Reserve
While not an actual national park, this National Park Service reserve has long been popular with rock climbers for the hundreds of granite monoliths liberally salting the high desert of south-central Idaho. But it remains largely unknown to hikers, so most City of Rocks trails remain quite lonely.
For a diverse experience ranging from high views overlooking this “silent city” of pinnacles to aspen-lined creek bottoms, hike the loop of roughly nine miles (with shorter options) from Elephant Rock on the Tea Kettle Trail, North Fork Circle Creek Trail, Stripe Rock Loop, and Box Top Trail, including about a quarter-mile of dirt road from the Box Top Trailhead to Elephant Rock. The entire loop involves maybe 500 feet of up and down. “The City” has become one of my family’s favorite getaway spots for camping, climbing, and hiking.
For information, visit nps.gov/ciro.
See a menu of stories at my All National Park Trips page at The Big Outside.