Best hiking trails in the US to finding your way
Even if you’re an avid hiker, you might take trails for granted. It’s just the mundane surface you walk on, right? The point of the hike is more transcendent — the view of a far peak, an eagle flying by, an unusual plant growing in the wild. But wait — those lowly trails are what makes it possible to see nature’s beauty without having to bushwhack your way through. And the perfect time to appreciate trails is June 4, the American Hiking Society’s National Trails Day.
Best U.S. cities for hiking
What’s the best city for hiking? Well, that depends on what you like. Desert lovers will thrill to the giant saguaro cacti looming over them in Saguaro National Park. It’s on the edge of Tucson, Arizona, where you can watch for vermilion flycatchers and maybe even a mountain lion. Those who prefer cooler weather might like hiking around the Mendenhall Glacier outside Juneau, Alaska, where you might see black bear cubs playing in the trees.
Related: These elevated wooden cabins can only be accessed via hiking trail
Fortunately, many Americans have access to trails in or near their homes. According to a 2022 study by the lawncare company LawnStarter, the top 10 best U.S. cities for hiking are: Portland, Tucson, Phoenix, Colorado Springs, Oakland, Salt Lake City, Los Angeles, Boise, Las Vegas and San Diego.
Some of those seem surprising — Oakland and L.A. are so urban, and who goes to the neon jungle of Vegas to hike? The research methodology considered the number of hiking routes and camping sites, consumer ratings of quality of hikes, the climate (points off for extreme heat or cold) and air quality index. They also looked at the really bad stuff like natural hazards, crime and death rates.
If you want hard hiking, four cities tied for the biggest number of moderately difficult or hard hiking trails: Hialeah, Florida with Pomona, Oxford and Santa Ana, California. Prefer easier walks? Aurora, Colorado, Salem, Oregon and Vancouver, Washington were some of the cities with the lowest share of harder hikes.
Bucket list trails
Hiking beat out backpacking, kayaking and rafting for top activity among adventure travelers, according to a 2017 report by the Adventure Travel Trade Association. This means lots of folks plan their travels around bucket list hiking trails. A 2021 Travel + Leisure article names its favorite hikes, from the Appalachian Trail in Virginia’s Shenandoah National Park to the Halema’uma’u Trail in Hawaii’s Volcanoes National Park. In fact, national parks are a common denominator of many top trails. Those lands are set aside and protected for a reason.
You should absolutely pursue your bucket list trails. But they can take some planning. Trails can be crowded in the most beautiful and well-known parks, especially in peak season. Camp sites, hotels and vacation rentals also fill up. And, of course, you have to think of all your family members. Will the trail be too dangerous for small children? And what about Fido? Many national parks confine pets to campgrounds and parking lots. So do your research and find accommodations ahead of time. Yosemite in July is no time to wing it.
Also, sometimes you can find extremely beautiful trails on national forest or national monument land. These may look very similar to nearby parks, but have fewer people and are likelier to allow dogs. For example, your dog might not enjoy Bryce Canyon National Park in Utah, as she’ll be confined to paved surfaces like roads, campgrounds and parking lots. But drive less than an hour northeast to Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument and leashed dogs can romp on all the best trails.
Hiking and learning
Some hikers want education along with their exercise, and so value interpretive trails. This can be an especially fun way to interest kids who might prefer dinosaurs over dirt and trees. Learn your fossil facts at the Clarno Unit of John Day Fossil Beds National Monument in Oregon. Signs along the trail point out fossilized plants in the cliff walls and talk about crazy creatures who once lived here, such as crocodilians and tiny four-toed horses. Dinosaur fans will enjoy the family-friendly Dinosaur Hill loop near Grand Junction, Colorado, complete with bones and excavation sites.
Be a trail volunteer
If you really want to show your love for trails, National Trails Day is the perfect day to give back. And this year is super special, as it marks the 13th annual National Trails Day.
“There’s something magical about being outdoors,” explained Kate Van Waes, executive director of American Hiking Society. “Fresh air, birds singing, moving along a trail or even just around the block — there’s nothing quite like it. But today, those trails and green spaces are in dire need of help — and not everyone has access to or feels welcome in these places that can calm and inspire.”
So if you are willing and able to get out there on the trails and lend a hand, you can find an event near you at the American Hiking Society site. Or participate by sharing how you are leaving the outdoors better than you found them by tagging #NationalTrailsDay and @AmericanHiking in your photo and video posts on Instagram. Share your best trail shots by June 6 and you might even win some gear.