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Top National Parks for Hikers

Each National Park I visit follows the same routine. I arrive and select the best hikes available and spend the trip enjoying these trails and doing my best to capture the mesmerizing scenery with my camera. While every park has trails that should be experienced, certain parks have stood out to me more for as a hiker’s dream destination. I primary criteria that I judge by is not just the appeal of a specific hike within the park but the overall quantity of high quality hikes that are available within that park. It’s important to know that while every park is special, the appeal of some parks is based around other activities besides the trail. For example, Biscayne National Park in Florida is a paddlers and divers playground while Hot Springs in Arkansas is great for those who want to soak in historic bath houses and spas. But this week, we are only taking into account those parks made for hikers.

Glacier National Park

Out of all parks that I have visited, Glacier National Park has stood out to me as the best destination for hikers. To begin, the Highline trail along the continental divide in the park is often ranked among the top hiking trails within the US. Between the garden wall and the Grinnell glacier overlook, the Highline trail offers an a variety of incredible views from scenic vitas of glacial valleys to fields of wildflowers. In addition, this is an excellent trail to see wildlife with Big Horn Sheet and Mountain Goats frequently calling this trail home. Not only does Glacier National Park offer this incredible hike to visitors but there are hundreds of miles of trails for exploration as well. For those who want to get closer to Grinnell Glacier itself, they have that option from a trailhead that is located in the park’s Many Glacier region. A great alternative to the Highline Trail is Piegan Pass. This trail offers very similar views as Highline that include fields of wildflowers and valley overlooks and is located on the other side of the Continental Divide. This hike though, is less popular than the Highline so offers a less crowded hiking experience. Another region of note within the park is the Two Medicine Lake area, that offers majestic views of the lakes its named after with mountains rising high on the other side of the lakes. For aerial views, there are several hikes that descend up into those mountains that offers views of both the lakes below and the sprawling plains outside of the park’s boundaries.

Olympic National Park

Olympic National Park is one of my favorite hiking destinations due to variety of experiences it offers that range from hikes along the rocky coastline at Rialto Beach, to wandering through dense forests of the Hoh River Trail, to the heights of the Olympic Mountains at Hurricane Hill. Hurricane Hill is one of the most popular parks in Olympic National Park and is in the Thunder Ridge section of the park, which is near the top of the Olympic Mountain chain. This is a quintessential mountain alpine hike and traversing over snow is required depending on what time of year you go. While the trail opens in early spring, the trail itself is still covered in several feet of snow at this time of year. Although this creates an incredible visual spectacle as hikers navigate snow fields and pine forests while gazing across mountain valleys towards snow covered peaks in the distance, this does pose a hazard and the trail should be hiked with caution during this time of year. The snow melts throughout summer and is typically clear by mid or late summer. Due to the high altitude, the snow rarely all melts and there are snow patches along the trail nearly all year. During summer, this is a very popular trail due to the views and relative ease of the trail. As a result, expect to be joined by many other hikers on this trail during summer. The entire trail takes place along a mountain ridge that stretches into the Olympic Mountain Valley, with panoramic views of the surrounding snow-capped mountains prevalent throughout the entire hike. The end of the hike features a lookout point where both Vancouver and Seattle can be seen in the distance. This is an out and back hike, so the return is along the same path.

From the heights of the mountains to sea level, Olympic National Park contains several beaches along its western side that allows visitors to take in the rugged Northwest coastline that is complete with sea stacks and a variety of tidal wildlife that can be found during low tide. One of the more popular beach options within the park is Rialto beach which was made famous as the filming location of the Twilight movie series. Olympic also houses the highest latitude rain forest in the world, the Hoh Rain Forest. Located in the Hoh River Valley, there are two excellent hiking options that can be tried here. The first is the short 1.5-mile Hall of Mosses trail which is an excellent family hike that allows hikers to be transported to what feels like an enchanted forest filled with vivid green moss. You can almost smell the magic in the air. For hikers who want a longer trek, they hike as far down the Hoh River as they desire before turning back around. The entire trail is filled with the same rain forest as well as an abundance of wildlife, such as herds of Elk. For a multi-day adventure, hikers can turn the Hoh Rain Forest into a 3-day trek where they reach the end of the mountain valley and descend up into the mountains before reaching Blue Glacier at the end of this trail. This is one of the park’s largest remaining glaciers and this hike gives visitors an up-close experience. Gravel beds along the Hoh River are where most hikers choose to camp for the night.

Grand Canyon National Park

Grand Canyon may not offer as many hikes or as much variety as other parks in this article, but the hikes that they do offer make the Grand Canyon an easy addition to this list. Two hikes that offer similar experiences is the descent down into the canyon via the Bright Angel and South Kaibab trails; the more popular of the two being the Bright Angel. This trail descends into the canyon and hikers are greeted with incredible scenery and herds of Big Horn Sheep running up and down the steep canyon walls. Since this trail is among the most popular in the park, there are no shortage of people on the initial portion of the trail. The further along the trail you travel, the less people you encounter. There are several rest stops on this trail that have bathrooms and water fill up stations, luxuries that are not included on too many other trails within the park. Given the high temperatures and no humidity, hydration is crucial on this trail. The entire trail is well marked and is dotted with desert plants and flowers throughout most of the trail. The deeper into the trail you go, the higher the walls descend above you. Once hikers reach the base of the first plateau and continue towards the plateaus edge, the main canyon walls begin fading in the distance behind while the landscape becomes wider open. What stands out the most at this level of the trail is simply how large this plateau is. Viewed from the top of the canyon’s edge, it is hard to grasp its full scale but there is no denying it once you are standing in the middle and seeing the terrain stretch beyond visibility in all directions. This part of the trail is a relatively easy hike since it is miles of flat ground. Roughly a mile before the Skeleton point, the Bright Angel Trail takes you through a section known as Indian Gardens. This is a lush, vegetated oasis of vibrant color that stands out in stark contrast to the bright red color of the surrounding rocks and offers the only shade to be found on this entire trail. Another mile of hiking brings hikers to Skeleton Point, the edge of this plateau that looks down at the Colorado River 100s of feet below. The Bright Angel trail is an out and back trail so the return to the trailhead is along the same route you had just came.

Rather than turning around and going back to the south Rim, you can continue along the Bright Angel all the way to the Northshore of the park. Although completing the Rim to Rim trail in this way is possible to do in one day, transportation will need to be arranged ahead of time to bring you back to the South Rim since Rim to Rim and back is not advisable to do within a single day. A more relaxed hiking options that exists within the Grand Canyon is the Rim Trail that runs along the South Rim of the Canyon, allowing a level and well paved path for those who simply want to wander and take in the different vantage points along this trail. There is even a shuttle that runs along the length of this trail for added convenience.

Yosemite National Park:

Yosemite is another hike that offers a variety of experiences and environments to hike in. One of the standout hikes in Yosemite is the Panorama trail that connects Glacier Point in the high country with Yosemite Valley. The hike can be started at Glacier Point, a popular lookout spot that can be accessed with the park’s bus system. This outlook provides an incredible starting point for the day’s hike with a great view of Yosemite Valley and the Half Dome on the other side of the valley. Hikers can get on the Panorama Trail from this lookout point and follow it as it circumvents the mountains above Yosemite Valley, providing panoramic views the entire way. Several notable features that can be views along this trail are Half Dome and El Capitan; as well as several waterfalls including the well-known Yosemite falls, Bride Veil, Vernal, and Nevada Falls. Wildlife and flowers are also common along this trail. From this point, hikers can go to the Mist Trail leading from the top of Vernal and Nevada Falls back down to the lower valley, getting an up close and personal experience with some of the park’s waterfalls. Yosemite also offers options for adventure hikers such as the descent up the park’s iconic Half-dome. This descent takes those brave enough to climb up a series of 2 x 4’s and chains that are attached to the granite cliff to the top of the park’s second highest point; over 2000 feet above the valley floor. Although this hike can be done in a day, it is more advisable to try to break this into a 2 day trek and camp at the nearby Little Yosemite campground. Yet another option for hikers is to take a stroll with the Mariposa Grove. This is a grove of Sequoia trees within the park’s boundaries that allows visitors to hike among some of the largest trees in the world. There are even more secluded alpine meadow hikes that are available within the park’s Tuolumne Meadow region in the high country.

I hope these park selections provided my readers with ideas and inspiration for their own future travel adventures. There are many more travel ideas I look forward to sharing with you. But those are stories for another day…


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