Best Hiking Trails in the U.S.
Recommendations from our blogger friends:
Wekiwa Spring State Park – Central Florida -by Erika Henderson
I don’t mind getting my feet wet. That’s important, because some of my favorite trails meander through Florida’s wetlands and cypress forests. While soggy feet may be a given, sunglasses are optional. Sunlight filters through wispy Spanish moss draped over the boughs of bald cypress trees towering overhead.
These lofty trees can grow 130 feet tall with 10-foot trunks. In damp areas, bizarre cypress knees protrude vertically out of the ground, tripping hikers who fail to watch their step. The knees are woody, conical-shaped extensions of the tree’s root system ranging from a few inches high to a few feet.
My favorite hike near home is the 13-mile trail in Wekiwa Springs State Park. The trail enters a stand of cypress trees towering skyward from a shallow swamp bordering an elevated trail. During rainy months, I have found the trail submerged under tannin-stained water. Undeterred, I slogged through because I love the unique, somewhat-foreboding landscape.
Green aquatic plants blanket the marsh around cypress trunks, creating a surreal scene awash in dappled sunlight and shadows. I sense wildlife watching my passage, hear their movements, and occasionally glimpse them through the forest.
While I enjoy hiking Wekiwa Springs State Park in Central Florida, rewarding opportunities to hike among cypress and experience Florida’s wetland environment can be found at the Big Cypress National Preserve or Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary – just be prepared to get your feet wet.
Gregory Ridge Trail/Gregory Bald – Great Smoky Mountain National Park, Tennessee/North Carolina border -by Jeff Doran
Follow Jeff at HikingintheSmokys.com
As stunning as the year-round views are, Gregory Bald is most famous for the spectacular flame azaleas that bloom on the summit. Azalea lovers from all over the world come here to witness the acres of fire red, wine red, orange, salmon, yellow, white, pink, and multi-colored azaleas that reach peak bloom in mid to late June.
According to the Great Smoky Mountains Natural History Association, the various hybrids of azaleas on Gregory Bald are so impressive and unique that the British Museum of Natural History has collected samples of them.
There are multiple trails that lead to Gregory Bald, but the most popular route uses the Gregory Ridge Trailhead from Cades Cove. The trail passes through an old-growth forest with some extremely large trees, including eastern hemlocks. Unfortunately many of these appeared to be dead or dying as a result of the woolly adelgid infestation that’s plaguing hemlocks in the Appalachian Mountains from Maine to Georgia.
At roughly 2.4 miles you’ll enter a stretch of trail where a forest fire swept through a couple of years ago. Coincidentally, a camp fire was still smoldering in a fire ring at the campsite we had just passed. After passing the campsite, the trail becomes a relentless climb of roughly 2,000 feet over the next 3 miles.
At 4.9 miles you’ll reach the junction with the Gregory Bald Trail. After turning right onto the Gregory Bald Trail, the trail begins a sharp climb for the next 100 yards or so. It then flattens out for a while before one last push to the summit.
Gregory Bald is a 10-acre grassy meadow, and is one of two balds maintained by the park. It’s not clear whether the high elevation meadow was created by nature or was cleared by some of the early settlers.
The Gregory Bald is named after Russell Gregory, an early settler in the Cades Cove area. He and other cove residents used the field for grazing cattle during the spring and summer when the fields in the cove were used for growing crops. Like most cove residents, Gregory supported the Union during the Civil War. In 1863 he was ambushed and murdered by Confederate guerillas from North Carolina.
From the summit, hikers will have spectacular views of Cades Cove and Rich Mountain towards the north, Fontana Lake towards the southeast, and Thunderhead Mountain and Clingmans Dome towards the east.
Barnes Creek Trail: An Ageless Moment – Northwest Washington -By Larry Eifert
How many of these forest trails have I been on? I think it’s some genetic throwback to a distant past that compels me to hike just one more of these trails, and then paint the darned thing later. It’s two for one – first the trail experience and then reliving that pleasure in a painting.
Barnes Creek Trail starts at Storm King Ranger Station on Lake Crescent in Olympic National Park. It starts at about 800 feet in elevation and rises to 1,600 feet in three miles for an out-and-back year-round hike. Lake Crescent is about a 30-minute drive west of Port Angeles, and about 100 miles west of Seattle. The trail begins as a flat old-growth walk for the first half-mile, and the hiker’s eyes are immediately treated to some enormous Douglas fir and western red cedar, some that have to be ten to twelve feet in diameter. This isn’t rain forest stuff with moss-draped trees, but a slightly drier Northwest old-growth forest that once covered millions of acres of Puget Sound lowlands.
At a half-mile, most people turn right at the trail junction to Marymere Falls on Falls Creek, and a brief side trip there is worth the view. This ribbon falls is best seen in winter, but the 90-foot drop looks great anytime. The Park Service has built a very interesting and fun viewer’s area with hand-hewn cedar railings, seats, and stairs.
Back-tracking to the main trail and continuing straight up the valley, we left all fellow hikers behind. In fact, once we left the junction we didn’t see a single person, so linear are people’s tracks to and from Marymere Falls. The gently climbing trail follows Barnes Creek, sometimes right beside it, sometimes upslope a bit, but the sparkling rush of cascading watery echoes never leaves your ears. Even on the higher benches above the creek, the distant roar of water moving rocks is heard above all else – louder than wind in the high canopy, wrens chattering, or a thrush singing. The trees are enormous from start to finish- Douglas fir, western hemlock, red cedar, and moss-draped big-leaf maple sporting leaves the size of dinner plates.
About a mile and a half out, the trail comes down from a little hump to a bridge worthy of some examination. Only one red cedar tree was used for this span, the top lopped off flat and a handrail added using smaller trees. It has to be over 100 feet long! Olympic has many of these bridges, but I’ve never seen one this long, and it makes you feel good to just walk along that tree that’s now used as transportation. Decades from now, I’ll bet it will still be there, transporting hikers like us across their favorite hike.
While I hike, I’m always looking for my next painting, and Barnes Creek Trail is where the inspiration for this painting occurred. Don’t go up there looking for it, though – these things are never even close to what they actually look like. There I was, waiting for my wife, Nancy, to photograph some spring flowers – knees in the dirt, head in the ferns as usual. We’re an artistic team in many ways, never more so than in a forest like this. Her photography finds its way to galleries and sometimes into my exhibits, and my paintings of similar subjects may find a home in the same park it was painted or conceived. While I stood there soaking in the forest, I just fell in love with the place – the gentle flow of the trail, the glow of light on a few leaves, the agelessness of it all.
More Recommendations from American Forests:
Lost Palms Oasis Trail at Joshua Tree National Park – California
A favorite trail of visitors to Joshua Tree National Park in Southern California is the Lost Palms Oasis Trail. The moderately difficult, approximately 4-mile trail begins at Cottonwood Spring, just six miles inside the park’s southern boundary, and leads to a secluded palm oasis. The trail follows a well-trodden path lined with arrows that guide the way, though the footprints left behind from previous trekkers are also useful.
The first mile of the trail leads up a steadily inclining rocky canyon. The second mile flattens out before giving way to the constant up and down of the third mile. The fourth and final mile of the trail echoes the terrain of the third mile, and ends with a long canyon that leads to a rocky overlook above the oasis.
The trail offers impressive views at every turn. The changing landscape of ridges, plateaus, small canyons, and rocky washes give way to gigantic boulders and grounds covered in cacti, bushes, and wildflowers. Spring is the best time to take in the beauty of the flowers growing in the white, sandy streambeds, and the vivid yellows, purples, and indigos of the flowering bushes. From the final overlook, a short but steep path leads hikers to the oasis, where a shaded ravine and an underground spring provide life to the imported palms.
Due to the hot, dry weather conditions along the Lost Palms Oasis Trail, hikers are urged to bring plenty of water and sunscreen.
Kilauea Iki Trail at Hawai’i Volcanoes National Park – Hawai’i
Hawai’i Volcanoes National Park highlights two of the world’s most active volcanoes and offers dramatic views of volcanic landscape along the park’s hiking trails, including the Kilauea Iki Trail. This trail begins in the rain forest at the rim of the Kilauea Iki crater. Hikers can either continue to the right along a 400-foot descent into the rain forest, or left through the Thurston Lava Tube parking lot which leads down to the crater’s floor.
In 1959, the Kilauea Iki crater was the sight of one of the most violent displays of volcanic activity in Hawai’i when lava erupted 1,900 feet into the air. This 4-mile trail is rated moderate to challenging, and offers a wide variety of scenery. The rain forest is immersed in massive ferns and is covered in dry, rocky lava beds dotted with steam vents and sulfur banks. Here, hikers can get a close-up view of the site of the 1959 eruption.
The climate of the trail varies year-round, so hikers are urged to be prepared for all sorts of temperatures and weather, including hot, damp, and cold. Park officials suggest bringing sweatshirts and wind-breakers or raincoats to layer over your clothes. The trail offers numerous water fountains, though visitors are strongly advised to bring plenty of water.
Highline Trail- Glacier National Park – Montana
With more than 740 miles of trails, Glacier National Park offers visitors some of the most breath-taking scenery on the planet. And the Highline Trail is no exception.
The trail begins at the Logan Pass trailhead and continues on a northern route for about 7.6 miles along the partially exposed ledges of cliffs towards Granite Park Chalet. The trail then opens to hillsides above the road near the Garden Wall. This section of the trail provides hikers with amazing views and an ideal spot to observe wildlife, including bighorn sheep, mountain goats, and, occasionally, grizzly bears.
Compared to other trails at the park, the Highline Trail is relatively easy, with only gradual inclines and lots of flat spaces. Hikers are warned to be prepared for windy, sometimes rainy, conditions along this trail. Be sure to bring along a good rain jacket and a warm fleece when hiking this trail. The Highline Trail is pretty rocky, so using hiking boots with strong ankle support is recommended. And, as always, bring along plenty of water- about 2 quarts per person.
Maroon Creek Trail- White River National Forest – Colorado
The Maroon Bells are two peaks, Maroon Peak and North Maroon Peak, in the Elk Mountains located just outside of Aspen, Colorado. These peaks are located in the Maroon Bells-Snowmass Wilderness of White River National Forest, and are said to be the most photographed peaks in the state. Both peaks are fourteeners, meaning they are each more than 14,000 feet high.
Several hiking trails along the Bells provide hikers with beautiful scenic treks. The Maroon Creek Trail begins from the west side of the Maroon Lake parking area by crossing a bridge just before reaching Maroon Lake. From there, follow the three and a half mile trail towards the East Maroon Portal, where a bus meets hikers to bring them back to the parking area.
Maroon Creek Trail is an easy to moderate trek that runs along Maroon Creek and mostly through the pine and aspen forests- ideal for hot days. In between the forests are open meadows that are covered in wildflowers, especially during wildflower season (early to mid- July), including Columbine flowers, the State Flower of Colorado. Also, be on the lookout for animals, including deer, which call the forest home.
Once the trail emerges from the lush forests the terrain becomes very rocky, and somewhat unstable. Hikers are urged to watch their footing to avoid injury. The trail continues much like how it began, then ends in a small parking area. Follow Maroon Creek Road up to the East Maroon Wilderness Portal to flag down the bus that will return to the trailhead.
James E. Edmonds Trail- Black Rock Mountain State Park – Georgia
Black Rock Mountain State Park, Georgia’s highest elevated state park, has some of the best scenic views within the state’s Blue Ridge Mountains. Here, roadside overlooks provide visitors with 80-mile vistas, and four hiking trails that offer close-up views of a wide variety of wildflowers, streams, and lush forests. The 7.2-mile James E. Edmonds Backcountry Trail offers day hikes and backpack camping for experienced hikers.
The trail winds along the lower slopes of Black Rock Mountain, and eventually runs alongside Taylor Creek. After crossing the creek, the trail turns into a switchback up the hill then follows the top ridge. After following the ridge for a while, the trail levels out along an old road that leads to one of the best views from Lookoff Mountain. From here, hikers can look out over the Little Tennessee River Valley and set up camp, if so desired. This path continues down off of Lookoff Mountain and leads back across Taylor Creek. The final, steep climb back to the parking lot is the most difficult part of the hike.
The Long Trail- Green Mountain National Forest – Vermont
The Long Trail is the first long-distance hiking trail to be established in the United States. It follows the main ridge of the Green Mountains from the Vermont-Massachusetts state line all the way north to the Canadian border as it crosses the highest peaks throughout Vermont. The Long Trail was built between 1910 and 1930 by the Green Mountain Club, and served as the inspiration for the Appalachian Trail.
The Long Trail offers hikers 273 miles of footpath and 175 miles of side trails, making it suitable for day hiking, over-night excursions, and extended backpacking. The trail is marked by two-by-six-inch white blazes. Along the trail, intersections are marked by signs, double blazes indicate important turns, and side trails are blazed in blue and marked with signs.
The Long Trail is known as Vermont’s “footpath in the wilderness.” The rugged peaks of this trail pass along unspoiled ponds, streams, bogs, and hardwood forests, as the trail winds its way through Vermont’s backcountry up to Canada. This trail is rated moderate to difficult, as its terrain is quite varied- some places are rather steep, others are muddy, but most areas are rugged.