Updated: January 29, 2024

What is your favorite hiking trail? Why? Some trails seem to be more memorable than others. America’s National Parks has some of the most diverse landscapes in the world. There are a variety of activities in our national parks. Some can be experienced on the road just by taking a scenic drive. However, many experienced hikers will tell you cannot truly appreciate a place unless you venture off the beaten path. Taking a day hike, you experience the uninterrupted natural beauty that our parks have to offer. These pathways can be life changing for many. Consider these bucket list hikes when planning your next trip. All these memorable day hikes are centrally located with easy access to the road.

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Shenandoah Storm over the Valley-12 Memorable Day Hikes in America's Beautiful National Parks
Shenandoah Storm over the Valley-Shenandoah National Park-traveltheparks

1. Unforgettable day hike in Cohab Canyon Trail

Where: Capitol Reef National Park

Cohab Canyon is a hidden little hike in the heart of Capitol Reef National Park. It’s not as popular as some other hikes in the park, like Hickman Bridge, but it’s just as spectacular and a little less crowded and offers one of the best views in the park.  

Natural Bridge at Capitol Reef NP in Utah
Natural Bridge at Capitol Reef NP in Utah-Credit: Jeff Hollett

The hike is 3.4-4 miles round trip, depending on where you go once you’re in the canyon at the top of the switchbacks. You can continue straight through the canyon or go up a little higher to the north or south Fruita Overlooks. The north overlook takes you to the top of the cliff that you just started hiking up. You can see all of Fruita, the campground, and even the Hickman Bridge Trail. Plus, up there it feels like a totally different park.

Horse in coral at Gifford Ranch in Capitol Reef NP
Gifford Ranch in Capitol Reef NP

The trailhead is right across from the Gifford Store, which you should also stop at before or after for some ice cream, pie, and cinnamon rolls. This is a moderate hike (thanks to the switchbacks) but once you’re up those, it gets easier. If you go in the spring, you’ll even be able to see lots of wildflowers blooming. 

Colab Canyon Trail
Contributed by Megan Johnson from Red Around the World

2. Memorable landscapes on the Window Trail

Where: Big Bend National Park

Big Bend National Park is truly a hiker’s paradise, especially if you’re visiting in spring when the weather is cool enough and the wildflowers are in bloom. The park is really vast, and it includes three distinct ecosystems the Chihuahuan Desert, the Rio Grande, and the Chisos Mountains, the only mountain range to exist entirely within the boundaries of America’s national park. 

A girl stands at the Window in Big Bend National Park
Contributed by Margherita from The Crowded Planet

The Chisos include lots of hiking opportunities, and one of the best is definitely the Window Trail. The hike is fairly short, only about an hour each way, with minimal elevation gain. It follows a canyon, getting progressively narrower as you proceed on your hike. After about half an hour, you’ll get to a creek bed, which you’ll have to cross several times walking on rocks. Make sure you keep your eyes open for wildlife, as bighorn sheep and even bears have been spotted on this trail!

Finally, you’ll reach The Window, a narrow opening in the rock overlooking the surrounding mountains. Be very, very careful as you approach the ledge, as the rock is really smooth and wet – and there’s a 500 ft drop on the other side. It’s a really fun trail and a great way to spend an afternoon!

View of the Window from the Windows Viewpoint
Windows ViewPoint

3. Why is Bright Angel Trail America’s favorite trail?

Where: Grand Canyon National Park-South Rim

Bright Angel Trail is the most popular trail in Grand Canyon National Park that takes hikers below the rim. Being surrounded by the walls of the canyon is an awe-inspiring experience. The entire trail down and up requires an overnight stay at the bottom of the canyon; however, it is possible to do half of it in a day. It starts near Bright Angel Lodge on the south rim and follows several switchbacks down to the Colorado River. There are also several places to rest. 

Bright Angel Trailhead with me
Bright Angel Trailhead

First up are the 1.5-mile rest stop and the 3-mile rest stop. Both make good turning back points. However, if you have the stamina, it is worth proceeding down to the Indian Garden, about half-way along the trail. This is the last point you safely hike down and back up to the south rim in one day. There are shady trees, a picnic area, and fresh water available. If you are staying below the rim, proceed on further. A side trail takes you to Plateau Point, where there are great views of the Colorado River. The main trail continues on to the Bright Angel Campground and Phantom Ranch. This is one of the truly epic American national park day hikes!

Bright Angel Trail Best Hikes National Parks-12 Memorable Day Hikes in America's Beautiful National Parks
Contributed by James Ian from Parks Collecting  

4. Most famous bucket list day hike: Delicate Arch

Where: Arches National Park

When working in the US on a visa, I visited many of America’s National Parks, but Arches is the one I keep on going back to every year. With more than 2000 sandstone arches and its pinkish landscape, Arches National Park is one of the most popular national parks in the United States. And if you find yourself in Arches, know that your trip would be incomplete without a visit to the Delicate Arch, the largest free-standing arch in Arches. No matter how many times you hike to it, it’s worth it. 

Visiting the Delicate Arch needs you to hike, and the best time to do that is early morning or before sunset. The trail to get to Delicate Arch is 3-miles (4.8 km) round-trip and is quite steep. When the sun is shining, there is no shade on the trail. Make sure that you are carrying water and using sun protection

Delicate Arch-Arches National Park
Contribution by Deb Pati from The Visa Project

In the Steps of the Ancients

During the hike, you would pass the Wolfe Ranch cabin and a wall of Ute Indian petroglyphs. While there are not a lot of signs to know whether you are on the right path, you can’t go wrong with so many people hiking. 

The last part of the day hike, right before reaching the arch, is a bit narrow and you need to cross the ledge. But this is also the part with picturesque views all around. This trail is one of the most memorable day hikes in America’s National Parks.

Wolfe Creek Cabin-Delicate Arch Trailhead
Wolfe Creek Cabin-TraveltheParks

5. Best day hike with kids try Muir Woods

Where: Muir Woods National Monument

While technically not a national park, we feel it is notable to mention Muir Woods. Muir Woods is a national monument in Northern California named after the father of conservationism in the United States, John Muir. It is open every day of the year.

The 560 acres of forest that became Muir Woods was saved from logging in the early 20th century. The woods contain coastal redwood trees, some of which are hundreds of years old and the oldest trees are over 1000 years old! The redwoods in here are relative youngsters because Redwoods can live to be over 2000 years old. Coastal redwoods are related to the Giant Sequoias in other parts of California.

Muir Woods-California Redwoods
Contribution by Shobha George from Justgoplaces.com

Kids will Love this Forest

Muir Woods is a great day hiking spot, which is only 45 minutes from San Francisco. After the visitor’s center, the hikers thin out and you are left for long stretches with just you and the giant trees. The trees are so giant that it hits home how small humans really are, both metaphorically and literally. Most of the hiking trails are unpaved and a variety of lengths and difficulties.

Muir Woods is a great place to take kids. There’s even tree trunks with holes that are big enough to fit small children inside. If you visit Muir Woods with kids, you should take a national park ranger-guided tour. The park rangers are not only informative but also great at keeping a child’s attention. There is a boardwalk trail hike which is great for less abled people or if you are pushing a child with a stroller.

ExitGlacier-Kenai Fjords National Park
Exit Glacier-Kenai Fjords National Park-TraveltheParks

6. Most inspiring Day Hike: Harding Icefield Trail

Where: Kenai Fjords National Park

One of the best things to do in Kenai Fjords National Park, Alaska, is a day hike to the Harding Icefield Track. The majority of this American national park is accessible from the water only. However, this trail starts just outside of the small harbor town of Seward. It’s not an easy hike, the majority of it is straight up. First through the bush, later alpine meadows, and eventually on the scree of the glacier. Along the way, you’ll hopefully see moose or black bears which are known to inhabit this area and you’ll have awesome views of the Exit Glacier, streaming down from the icefield above. 

Exit Glacier-Upper Ice Field-Kenai Fjords NP
Exit Glacier-Upper Ice Field-Kenai Fjords NP

Once at the end of the trail, you’re overlooking the massive Harding Icefield, a pack of ice that is shrinking each year, unfortunately. It’s not recommended you access this ice without proper equipment (crampons, ice ax) but you will probably not have time since the hike will take you all day long. If you can only do one memorable day hike in Alaska, make sure it’s the Harding Icefield Track!

bucket list hike Harding Icefield
Contribution by Antonette Spaan We12travel.com 

7. Most Extraordinary Day Hike on Half Dome Trail

Where: Yosemite National Park

Hiking to the top of Half Dome in Yosemite is an absolutely amazing experience and a truly must-do national park hike. This epic hike starts in Yosemite Valley and takes you through the lovely forest and past gorgeous waterfalls before rewarding your efforts with the ultimate view in Yosemite National Park.

To reach the base of Half Dome, you’ll need to make a 14-mile steep trek with 5,000 feet of elevation gain. In order to actually head up to the summit of Half Dome, you then have to hold on tightly to steel cables as you make your way up the steep granite face to the top. If you’re scared of heights, this might not be the hike for you, as the cables section is definitely not for the faint of heart.

Despite the challenges, the Half Dome hike in Yosemite absolutely belongs at the top of the list of best national parks hikes.

bucket list hike Half Dome Trail Yosemite National park
Contribution by Allison – She Dreams of Alpine ®

8. Epic Scenery the Dawson/Pitamakan Trail Loop

Where: Glacier National Park

If you’re traveling to Glacier National Park and you love to hike, you can’t miss the Dawson/Pitamakan Trail loop, which is home to some of the most epic scenery in this beloved Montana national park. The hike is 18 miles long, though you can shorten it by planning ahead to take the ferry across Two Medicine Lake at the start of your hike (Dawson Pass first) or end of it (Pitamakan Pass first) if you want to cut down the hike by a few miles. If you start at Two Medicine Campground, the loop will take you across two mountain passes: Dawson Pass and Pitamakan Pass.

As you hike these mountain passes, you’ll see incredible views, including bright teal alpine lakes, sprawling meadows filled with wildflowers, and jagged mountain peaks. The hike will also take you across part of the continental divide. This trail doesn’t get quite as much foot traffic as others in the park, meaning there’s a good chance you’ll have some of those views and Mother Nature all to yourself during your hike. 

Dawson/Pitamakan Trail loop
Contribution by Gina Tarnacki-Travel Montana

9. Bear Lake: most noteworthy it leaves a lasting impact

Where: Rocky Mountain National Park

Rocky Mountain National Park has panoramic summits, rushing rivers, alpine lakes, and montane forests. Bear Lake is an easy, flat, 1-mile loop trail around the lake for all skill levels. There are many great places around the lake to stop and admire the beautiful views of the Colorado Rockies. Often, the clear lake waters create a mirror reflection of the mountains or heavy mist hangs over the lake. This generates perfect photo opportunities. Memories that will last a lifetime.

Bear Lake Corridor Mountain Views
Bear Lake Corridor Mountain Views

If you are looking for more day hikes than Bear Lake is a good starting point for many other trails. You can easily spend the entire day on different trails. For instance, if you’re willing to make a long trek, follow the route to Nymph Lake, Dream Lake, and Emerald Lake. Albert Falls is another epic backpacking path or try the Bierstadt Lake trail where you will lose the crowds. I recommend paying the $2 for the nature trail booklet at the visitor center. Bear Lake is pretty much the quintessential scenic day hike in Rocky Mountain National Park.

Bear Lake, RMNP
Bear Lake, RMNP

10. Short day hike to Waterfalls-Spruce Flat Falls

Where: Great Smokey Mountain National Park

I have always loved the sound of rushing water. This trail in Great Smokey Mountain National Park should be on everyone’s bucket list. The NPS does not even mention this trail, nor do you find it on park maps. Tucked away behind the Townsend Institute on the road to Cades Cove, Spruce Flat Falls is a moderately steep 2-mile round trip day hike. In the spring, the trail has outstanding displays of trilliums, flowering mountain laurels, and jack-in-the-pulpit wildflowers. We had this trail all to ourselves, enjoying the solitude. The drizzle did not dampen our spirits. The rocks and tree roots make the narrow trail slippery, so hiking boots and trekking poles are helpful. 

The payoff is worth the trek. We spent 30 minutes scrambling over the rocks, taking photographs, before descending back down the trail. Perfect day hike if you’re looking for something a little moderate but only have a couple of hours.

Spruce Flats Falls Trail 2019
Spruce Flat Falls-TraveltheParks

11. Remarkable Nine Mile Pond Canoe Trail

Where: Everglades National Park

The Everglades depend on the flow of water for its survival. What better way to appreciate this than canoeing through its waters. Ranger-led tours are the best way to navigate these waters. They offer wilderness tours at 8 a.m. daily Dec.15 to March 3. They include the rental canoe or kayak and your floatation device. The pond is accessible from the main road close to Flamingo or a 45-minute drive from the main entrance. I recommend you reserve 7 days in advance for this free, popular program. Bring water, sunscreen, bug spray, binoculars, snacks in a waterproof dry bag. A camera is a must take advantage of the amazing views.

9-mile pond Canoe Trail view of the lake
9-mile Pond

This shallow water trail is easy to follow using the PVC markers; however, the maze of mangroves and sawgrasses make maneuvering the canoe at times was difficult. It is the dry season and this year the water is higher than normal-the wind keeps the mosquitoes away today. The knowledgeable guide points out an alligator laying on the bank. Most on our tour are thrilled, never having seen one up close. If you want an unforgettable day hike experience where you can view the flora and fauna, then this trek is for you!

Kayak Everglades
Kayak Everglades

12. Island Paradise Hiking the Waiakoa Loop Trail

NOTE: Latest update from the State Forestry department is the trail will probably stay closed indefinitely. Because of hazardous conditions and impassable roads and trails caused by this December 2021 heavy rains and strong winds.

Hawaii remains one of our most memorable vacations. To truly experience the island of Maui, you have to hike it! This trail is in the Kula National Forest on the backside of Haleakala National Park. Dogs kept on a leash may accompany you on this trip.

Take the Haleakala (377) Highway, turning left at Waipoli Road. At the 5-mile mark park at the hunter check-in station on the side of the road. Once at the gate, there is a map of the trail-take a picture to avoid getting lost. At the gate, the unmaintained is road heavily rutted, therefore, so they recommend 4WD.

waiakoa loop trail Sign
Waiakoa Loop Trail Sign Photo: Forest & Kim Starr

Walk on the Wildside

The trailhead left another ¾ of a mile on the gravel road. The trail is a moderate 3.5-mile multi-use path favored by mountain bikes and equestrian riders. I recommend walking the loop in a clockwise direction to avoid continuous elevation gain. The trail passes through an old-growth forest. The first thing you notice is the smell of eucalyptus trees. Being in the clouds is surreal at 7000 feet. On the trail we saw lots of birds in the forest, and the occasional feral pig or goat. There are no views of the Maui coastline unless you venture further upcountry. This is where the terrain becomes more volcanic and rockier.

This trail does not actually venture into the national park, however, this trail connects to the Upper Waiakoa Trail. Follow the Upper Waiakoa to the intersection of the Mamane Trail. Take the left on the trail to Skyline Drive Trail. This trail is a strenuous 11.6-miles to the summit of the dormant volcano.

TIPS: Remember the challenges of hiking higher altitudes. Always have plenty of water and be prepared for changing weather.

Waiakoa Loop Trail - Eucalyptus
Waiakoa Loop Trail – Eucalyptus Credit: Pixabay

13. Conquering Cadillac: A Day Hike to Maine’s Highest Peak

An outdoor enthusiast’s paradise, Acadia National Park is a rugged gem on Maine’s coast. Cadillac Mountain is undoubtedly the crown jewel of the park for hikers. It’s the highest point on the North Atlantic seaboard at 1,530 feet, with miles of breathtaking views. Buckled up your boots, and set off to conquer Cadillac Mountain by hiking the North Ridge Trail on a crisp autumn day.

You can hike the North Ridge Trail out-and-back for 4.4 miles, a moderate climb. Over the course of the ascent, the trees gradually give way to granite ledges, revealing views of the sparkling azure Frenchman Bay spread out before you, dotted with sailboats like tiny white dots. In the distance, you can see the jagged peaks of the Schoodic Peninsula pierced the sky.

You’ll remember hiking Cadillac Mountain long after you’ve descended. A breathtaking journey into the heart of Acadia National Park. It’s a challenge and an adventure.

View of the sunrise at Cadillac Mountain
Credit: Pixabay

A few helpful words before delving into trails

With a little luck, you can carve out a memorable experience in any of America’s National Parks. Here are a few tips to follow.

  • Always consider your location and weather. If you are day hiking in bear country, always have bear spray ready. Think about the gain in elevation and ALWAYS bring lots of water.
  • Plan your day hikes to start early morning. Best to avoid the crowds, and the temperatures are cooler.
  • I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention always tell someone where you are going. Bring a map: DON’T depend solely on your phone.
  • When you arrive at the park, talk to the rangers at the visitor’s center. They can provide current trail information and weather conditions.
  • Remember Hiking Etiquette-Leave No Trace (pack out what you take in). Be respectful of America’s National Parks. Take only memories and leave only footprints.
  • You can enjoy an amazing hike and RV camping getaway at the same time. You can access great trails from most national park campgrounds.
12 Memorable Day Hikes in America's Beautiful National Parks

Final Thoughts on Memorable Day Hikes in America’s Beautiful National Parks

Remember, we are merely guests on this wild and wondrous planet. Tread lightly, leave no trace, and be an ambassador for the natural world. Advocate for the protection of wild places, educate others on responsible hiking practices, and inspire future generations to cherish the trails that await them.

While it’s impossible to cover all the unforgettable trails in the US parks, each hiker’s experience is unique. On any road trip, you are sure to make memories that you will cherish for a lifetime. Great hiking trails are not just about the destinations but the entire journey—feeling the earth beneath your boots, inhaling the scent of the forest, listening to the rustling leaves, and experiencing the raw beauty of nature.

If you enjoy getting outside and hiking the trails, leave us a comment below. Do you have a favorite hike?