Whatever your experience or location, in America there are so many hikes that you’ll always be faced with a tough choice as to which one you want to tackle. From swamps in the south to canyons in the west, via the spectacular southern monoliths, giving a definitive list of the best hikes in the country is, quite possibly, an impossible task. Here’s a few that, given the chance, you definitely should not miss.
1. Letchworth State Park, New York
The park is known as ‘The Grand Canyon on the East’, and for good reason, as the Genesee River snakes and tumbles its way down the gorge it has cut through the beautiful surrounding forest. An excellent day hike for all experience levels will take you about 11 km through the canyon past the lower, middle and upper falls, with plenty of places to stop along the way to take in the views, picnic and learn about the history of the Genesee valley area. If you don’t want to stop at hiking, other activities are readily available, including white water rafting, and snow tubing in the winter. The park has many campgrounds for overnight visitors.
2. Border Route Trail, Minnesota
The clue’s in the name as the trail hugs the border between Minnesota and Ontario, following the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness (BWCAW). The trail is 65 miles long in all, so unless you’re planning on an impromptu ironman triathlon, taking on the whole thing in a day is probably out of the question. The Border Route can be accessed by connecting trails though, making a day hike possible along the rugged ridges and cliffs that it follows, which give way to stunning views over the surrounding wilderness. Be sure to plan ahead and grab the Border Route Trail guide and map before you head off.
3. Badlands National Park, South Dakota
The park landscape is a mix of steep sided eroded hills and canyons – where it gets its name – and expansive grass lands, so the trails and hikes here are really as difficult as you want them to be, and there are plenty to take on in a day. The Castle Trail is a great day hike at 16 km round trip, and passes along some of the badlands formations along the way. If you’re not looking for anything too strenuous the Door and Fossil Exhibit boardwalk trails give you great views, as well as information about the history and wildlife of the park without too much physical work. The Ben Reifel Visitor Center has all the information you need before heading out.
4. Cascade Pass and Sahale Arm, Washington
The landscape this stunning trail meanders through is somewhat of an anomaly. When you stop and take in the surrounding scenes you’ll be met with nothing but beautiful, quintessentially rugged mountainous splendour, which doesn’t match the perch you inhabit. The striking greenery of the trail is made possible through a number of factors and makes for some of the most breathtaking terrain you’re likely to see. Highlights include the sudden view of Doubtful Lake, with Sahale glacier and mountain climbing high into the background, as well as world class camping at the glacier terminus. And a good chance of spying a bear. The hike is a 12 mile round trip and isn’t a casual affair, so be sure to plan ahead, and take all the correct supplies and permits.
5. Enchanted Valley, Washington
A round trip hike through the famous valley is over 20 miles in total, and is definitely one to take on when time isn’t an issue. Great day hikes are a possibility though, such as the Graves Creek to Pony Bridge track, which follows a section of the East Fork of the Quinault River through a deep channel to the Bridge. The walk takes you through imposingly high trees, through a canyon and onto views off the bridge of the river and falls way below. In winter stay sharp as huge elk herds mass in the area.
6. Lassen Volcanic National Park, California
This Northern Californian park is dominated by Lassen Peak, one of the world’s largest plug dome volcanoes, and attracts close to half a million visitors annually. There is a range of contrasting scenery, from towering lava peaks to colourful wildflower valleys, joined by rich coniferous woodland. There are a number of great day hikes to take on throughout the park, at varying levels of difficulty, and some of the best are in the Warner Valley Area, which is alive with geothermal activity. The Devil’s Kitchen and Terminal Geyser trails are a manageable distance and take hikers through a maze of bubbling mud-holes and steaming vents.
7. Palo Duro Canyon, Texas
Around 25 miles southwest of Amarillo lies the second largest canyon in the US, Palo Duro, carved into the landscape by the Prairie Dog Town Fork of the Red River. One of the best and most travelled trails in the park is the Lighthouse trail which leads to the eponymous rock formation, just over 5 miles round trip. You can couple this with a wander along some of the shorter, easy trails scattered through the canyon; the Paeso Del Rio and Pioneer Nature Trail give you staggering views of the surrounding landscape, as well as a peak into the past, passing by cowboy hideouts dating back to the 19th century. Due to the climate be sure to plan ahead and take a lot of water.
8. Congaree, South Carolina
Most of the trails at Congaree lie beneath some of the oldest woodland in the US, which includes some incredible pines. Trails start and spread out from a centralized boardwalk loop separated into two sections – the low boardwalk sits just above the swampy forest floor, while the elevated portion creeps higher through the massive ancient trees. A variety of trails spiral off into the park, the longest being the King Snake Trail (11 miles one direction) which dives deepest into the surrounding wilderness, increasing your chances of catching a glimpse of the abundant local wildlife. Lookout for deer, wild pigs and turkeys, and a bobcat if you’re lucky. Check trail conditions ahead of time as a lot of the park is submerged outside of summer months.
9. Angels Landing, Zion Canyon, Utah
Along with a map and food and water, a head for heights is a definite prerequisite for this famous hike. The trail is about 5 miles round trip and the first section to the foot of the mountain is an easy amble alongside the Virgin River, before the track steepens and starts to hairpin its way up the steep slope. Before you take on the final ascent, rest at Scout Lookout and take in the amazing views down Zion Canyon. The last half mile is an intense hike along a narrow ridge, with drops of around 1000m on either side. Anchored chains are in place for grip at points along the way. The views from the summit are like nothing else you’ll ever witness, as the sheer red cliffs give way to the meandering river over a kilometre below.
10. The Franconia Ridge, New Hampshire
This popular 9 mile loop traverses the three peaks of Mount Lincoln, Mount Lafayette and Little Haystack, and is manageable in a day. The loop consists of a number of trails, including the Falling Water, Greenleaf and Fraconia Ridge trails, and as the names suggest the scenery on show is gorgeous. The peaks of the mountains and connecting ridge are pretty exposed making for stunning, uninterrupted views, as well as changeable conditions and cold winds outside summertime, so be sure to pack for all eventualities. For possibly the best experience take a winter hike, with all the right planning and gear of course.