7 Breathtaking Hikes in the U.S.
We all know the feeling. You’re breathing deeply, the air is crisp and you’re deeply fantasizing about that trail mix in your daypack. Hiking makes us feel alive. We’re able to admire our planet and take a break from our hectic day-to-day.
At Backroads we’re lucky to admire the world from a wide range of elevations. I’ve surveyed the Backroads Trip Leader community and reflected on my own hiking memories to pick seven of the most breathtaking hikes in the United States. Each of these trails offers that “pinch me” scenery and an unforgettable challenge. Plan one a year or one a month! But don’t go without seeing these iconic vistas.
1. Angels Landing
Where: Zion National Park, Utah
Distance: 5.2 miles round-trip
Angels landing got its name in 1916 when a group of four hikers were exploring the area and caught sight of a large monolith. One of the hikers exclaimed, “Wow, only an angel could land on that thing!” and the name stuck. This hike is one of the most thrilling and infamous in the country: a nightmare for those afraid of heights and an irresistible challenge for thrill-seekers. The last half-mile is the trickiest, or should I say “angel accessible only.” The path narrows to only several feet wide with two dizzying, 1,000-foot drop-offs on each side. Hikers keep their balance with anchored chains and nervous optimism. So what’s the reward for nearly scaling a mountain in the desert heat? A 360-degree view of Zion National Park and all its splendor. Vibrant red rocks, deep carved canyons and jagged peaks as far as the eye can see. You’ll think you’ve gone to heaven…
2. Harding Icefield Trail
Where: Kenai Fjords National Park, Alaska
Distance: 8.4 miles round-trip
The view from the top of Harding Icefield is often described as a “window into past ice ages.” It’s the kind of place where climbing to the top makes you feel as big as a giant but the scenery makes you feel as small as an ant. The peak offers sweeping views of bright blankets of snow, icy peaks and a stillness that takes your breath away. Then again, maybe you’re breathless from the 3,000-foot elevation gain, but we all know views like this don’t come easy! Be on the lookout for mountain goats, marmots and even grizzlies making the ascent look effortless.
3. The Highline Trail to Grinnell Glacier Overlook
Where: Glacier National Park, Montana
Distance: 11.8 miles round-trip
I don’t know if it’s the unique landscape, fresh mountain air or over-consumption of huckleberry pie… but every square inch of Glacier National Park feels more beautiful than the next. The Highline Trail is a must-see when you visit. What makes it so special? Instead of climbing and waiting for the perfect 360-degree view, you have it for nearly the entire hike! You walk along the continental divide surrounded by crystal-blue lakes, glaciers and rugged mountain tops. If you’re lucky, you may even catch some wildlife admiring the scenery with you.
Pro tip: Take the 0.6-mile add-on path up to Grinnell Glacier Lookout. It’s steep and your legs will be yelling but your eyes will thank you.
4. Panorama Trail
Where: Yosemite National Park
Distance: 8.5 miles one-way
With 761,266 acres of chill-inducing scenery, Yosemite National Park is tough to match. The Panorama Trail offers a smorgasbord of iconic Yosemite views like Half Dome, Liberty Cap and the Valley Falls but is surprisingly less crowded than you might expect. This is the type of hike that replays in your memory and sets the bar for all future hikes.
Pro tips: There is a short trail leading to Panorama Point that is unsigned and most people pass right by. This is the highlight of the trail and worth seeking out. Are your legs sore just thinking about it? Hike the trail in the opposite direction: catch a bus from the valley floor up to Glacier Point, in which case the 8.5-mile hike down to the Valley is almost all downhill.
Don’t let the distance fool you… this hike is about as close as you can get to rock climbing without a harness and carabineers. The Precipice Trail only opens after resident peregrine falcons leave their nests for the season. It’s a steep out-and-back using iron rungs and ladders on exposed cliffs. Leave your hiking poles behind, you’ll need those hands! When you finally reach the top, you’re offered breathtaking views of Acadia, Cadillac Mountain and the Porcupine Islands dotting the horizon.
When we think Hawaii, we often think palm trees, pristine beaches and mai tais. All of the above sound great, but what about some narrow ledges, rugged cliffs and slippery terrain?! The Na Pali Coast is on Kauai’s north shore and hiking on the Kalalau Trail is no walk in the woods, but worth every step. The best way to describe the scenery is raw beauty: extreme weather that reminds you Mother Nature is the one in charge, sunsets that put your computer screensaver to shame and rainbows that are a daily occurrence.
Being a Virginia Tech alumni I had to include this one. The hike is a section of the Appalachian Trail and a highlight without a doubt. It’s a steady four-mile climb with views of the beautiful, green rolling hills of southwest Virginia. The end of the hike offers the perfect “knob” of rock jutting out precariously over the mountainside and a photo-op that would give any mother anxiety.
Pro tip: Do this hike in the fall for stunning foliage colors and follow it up with a meal at Homeplace (an awesome family-style restaurant) to replenish those calories… plus some.
Get that trail mix ready (or better yet, find a Backroads snack table) and let’s go hiking!