10 Hiking Trails Worth the Trek

Return to nature and prepare to be awed by the sights, sounds, and hikes at these best parks from sea to shining sea

By: David L'Heureux 

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These Trails Are Worth the Trek

There aren't many countries that offer more diverse geographic options for hiking than the United States. California has the High Sierras, Colorado and Wyoming have the Rockies, Tennessee and North Carolina have the Great Smoky Mountains, and New York has the Adirondacks, to name a few. These towering ranges are distinct in terrain and character, but you don't have to be John Muir or Sir Edmund Hillary to hike the trails at each. All of these destinations offer something for the epic adventurer to the casual day hiker and everyone in between. (Plus, exercising outdoors can help you get fit and lose weight faster; learn more here.) We asked Andrew Matranga, map editor at Backpacker magazine, to help us find the best of the best. Whether you're looking for a short day hike or an all-day epic adventure, here are options from five of the top hiking destinations in the United States.

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Yosemite National Park, Sierra Nevada Range, California

Yosemite conjures up images of towering waterfalls, like El Capitan, and thousand-year-old redwood trees. You'll see both on either of these signature High Sierra hikes, says Matranga. The 9-mile point-to-point Panorama Trail hike is mostly downhill and offers views of Yosemite's most breathtaking sights like Half Dome, Nevada Falls, and Liberty Cap. Park at the trail's end and take a one-way shuttle to the top of the trail. If you want some vertical gain, go all in on the Half Dome trail. This 15.5-mile out-and-back takes you past many of the same sights as the Panorama Trail, but tops out on Half Dome. (Permits are required to hike the cables to the top; see below for information).

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Long hike: Half Dome; 15.5 miles; difficulty 8/10; vertical gain 5,000 feet

Short hike: Panorama Trail; 9 miles; difficulty 6/10

More info: Yosemite National Park, (209) 372-020; nps.gov/yose

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Great Smoky Mountains, Tennessee and North Carolina

The subdued and unimposing Smoky Mountains skirt the border between Tennessee and North Carolina. This understated range is occasionally left out of conversations about the great American mountain ranges. But those who've seen the Smokies know the subtle grandeur of the forested ridges and foggy valleys for which they are named. For a shorter day hike, try Clingman's Dome to Silers Bald. This 9.8-mile out-and-back follows the Appalachian Trail and passes the highest point in Tennessee, near the start of the hike at the Clingman's Dome observation tower. Ready for a little bigger challenge? Hike to the iconic Chimney Tops via Newfound Gap. This deceptive 10.5-miler provides a gradual ascent until the final 4 miles, where you'll climb more than 1,500 feet of vertical gain.

Long hike: Chimney Tops via Newfound Gap; 10.5 miles; difficulty 8/10

Short hike: Clingman's Dome to Silers Bald via Appalachian Trail; 9.8 miles; difficulty 5/10

More info: Great Smoky Mountains National Park, (865) 436-1200; nps.gov/grsm

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Adirondacks, New York State

For hikers seeking the splendor of high peaks on the East Coast, look no further than the Adirondacks in Upstate New York. This 2.3-million acre forest preserve is home to peaks like Mount Marcy (the highest in the Adirondacks) and Whiteface Mountain, as well as world-famous Saranac Lake and Lake Placid. The modest distance of Mount Van Hoevenberg belies the visual bounty that this 4.3-mile, round-trip hike boasts. Take in the panoramic vistas of Mount Marcy on the way up, then peer down on Lake Placid from the summit. Big Slide Mountain serves up a 10.3-mile loop for more ambitious hikers with a trio of opening miles that skyrockets more than 2,500 vertical feet. It's all downhill from there, literally, as the trail turns west along the ridge to Yard Mountain and down a long, gradual traverse back to the Garden Trailhead.

Long hike: Big Slide Mountain; 10.3 miles; difficulty 7/10

Short hike: Mount Van Hoevenberg; 4.3 miles; difficulty 5/10

More info: VisitAdirondacks.com or contact the Adirondack Mountain Club Member Services Center, (518) 668-4447; info@adk.org

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Cascades, Washington State

This high-mountain playground in Washington State is a geologist's and thrill seeker's dream come true. Peaks in this range are part of the Pacific Ring of Fire, a chain of mountains and active volcanoes that surround the Pacific Ocean. One in the series, Mount St. Helens, had a massive eruption in 1980 and another smaller one in 2006. Roughly an hour east of Seattle on Interstate 90 is the short and classic Lodge and Beaver Lake hike. Checking in at 3.8 miles long, this gradual out-and-back winds through meadows filled with wildflowers on its way up to the shores of Beaver and Lodge Lakes. If you've set your sights on the interior part of the Cascades, try the slightly more challenging Naches Peak Loop. The trail sits in the shadow of Mount Rainier and offers stellar views of the state's highest peak for much of the way. The loop also follows portions of the legendary Pacific Coast Trail, which runs from the Canadian border down through Washington, Oregon, and California all the way down to the Mexican border.

Long hike: Naches Peak Loop; 4.1 miles; difficulty 5/10

Short hike: Lodge and Beaver Lake Trail; 3.8 miles; difficulty 3/10

More info: Mount Rainier National Park, (360) 569-2211; nps.gov/mora

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Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado

It's the granddaddy of them all as far as notoriety goes, and the Rockies live up to the hype, thanks to an extensive and jaw-dropping trail system. You can drive over the Continental Divide on one of the highest paved roads in the United States at more than 12,000 feet. But Matranga highly recommends getting out and enjoying the grandeur of these alpine granite peaks. Families and short day hikers should tackle the famous Cub Lake Loop. This 6-mile jaunt boasts scenic waterfalls, high mountain lakes, and wildlife like elk, marmot, and bears. The trail ascends a modest 650 feet from start to finish. For a true test of fitness in the rarefied Rocky Mountain air, head out for a day hike up Longs Peak. You'll need to start early to make the summit of this 14,259-foot behemoth. The 15-mile round-trip can take up to 12 hours, but those who've made it to the top say the payoff is worth every boot strike. Take plenty of food and watch out for afternoon showers as you descend the 4,600 vertical feet back down to the trailhead.

Long hike: Longs Peak; 15 miles; difficulty 10/10

Short hike: Cub Lake Loop; 6 miles; difficulty 5/10

More info: Rocky Mountain National Park, (970) 586-1206; nps.gov/romo

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