We’ll boldly claim that the six hiking trails spotlighted below are not only some of the finest in the United States but in the world. Calling these the very best in the country is a stretch, only because there are so many other outstanding options (the Presidential Traverse! the Wonderland Trail! just about any path in Grand Canyon National Park!). But what we will say is that the following hold their own with any of America’s finest footpaths and certainly suggest the caliber of scenery the country boasts.
So, without further ado and in no particular order, let’s dive in—armed, of course, with our trekking poles!
Hiking Trails at Angels Landing In Utah
The 2.5-mile climb to Angels Landing in southern Utah’s Zion National Park ranks among the most celebrated hiking trails on Earth, but it’s definitely not for the faint of heart. Ascending from the Grotto along the West Rim Trail, the hike takes you through the cooling breezes of Refrigerator Canyon, up the switch-backing Walter’s Wiggles, and past the fine vantage of Scouts Lookout—the classic turnaround point for those more acrophobic hikers—before tackling the chain-assisted ascent of the Hogsback with some freaky drop-offs. The view from the 1,488-foot promontory of Angels Landing itself overlooking the North Fork Virgin River’s spectacular Zion Canyon and such nearby monoliths as the Great White Throne is very much worth it, though.
Hike John Muir Trail In California
If you’re a fan of mountain scenery, you’d better put a pilgrimage along the John Muir Trail on your bucket list. This 200-plus-mile route down the High Sierra’s spine between Yosemite and Sequoia-Kings Canyon national parks shows off a stunning panoply of granitic and volcanic peaks and oodles of picturesque tarns while staying mostly above 8,000 feet. The majority of the John Muir Trail—named for the Scottish-American explorer, naturalist, and writer who extolled the Sierra Nevada’s wonders, his “Range of Light,” to the world—overlaps with the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT). At 13,117-foot Forester Pass—one of a series of top-of-the-world alpine passes the route crosses—you’ll be standing at the high point of the 2,653-mile-long PCT.
The southern end of the John Muir Trail is the highest point in the Lower 48, to boot: 14,505-foot Mount Whitney, part of the so-called “Muir Crest,” forming one of two clusters of 14,000-footers in the Sierra.
Hike the Kalalau Trail in Hawaii
One of the most spectacular seacoasts on the planet is yours to goggle over on the 11-mile Kalalau Trail—but make sure you watch your step! This famous (and infamous) route into the roadless Na Pali Coast of northwestern Kauai, which runs between Ne’e Beach and the Kalalau Valley, shows off towering, sharp-etched sea cliffs, deep-cut ravines, and streaming waterfalls, plus that yawning Pacific horizon. The Kalalau can be treacherous in wet weather with its muddy tread and stream crossings—hiking poles are very much recommended!
Hike Teton Crest Trail Wyoming
Few would argue against the claim that the Teton Range of northwestern Wyoming, part of the Middle Rocky Mountains and the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem, is one of the most beautiful collections of peaks on the continent. The 40-mile Teton Crest Trail puts you on intimate terms with this glorious mountain view as you hike mostly above the timberline, between Phillips Pass and String Lake, a traverse taking you through the Jedediah Smith Wilderness and Grand Teton National Park.
Highlights of the strenuous-but-stunning hiking trail are numerous. Some highlights include the dream world of Alaska Basin, the U-shaped gorge of Death Canyon, numerous lakes such as Sunset and Solitude, and the bowl-you-over panorama from Hurricane Pass, the viewshed of which includes 13,770-foot Grand Teton and other toothy giants of the Cathedral Group as well as the mighty Cascade Canyon.
Grandfather Mountain: Hike Daniel Boone Scout & Grandfather Trails in North Carolina
Rising nearly to 6,000 feet, Grandfather Mountain is the Blue Ridge Escarpment’s loftiest point and one of the most impressive and rugged peaks in the entire Southern Appalachians. Between the private Grandfather Mountain attraction and Grandfather Mountain State Park’s wilder acreage, hikers have plenty of mileage to explore.
It doesn’t get any better than walking Grandfather’s backbone via the Daniel Boone Scout Trail (about 3.5 miles) and Grandfather Trail (about 2.4 miles), which hit up several of this great massif’s subpeaks (Calloway, Attic Window, and McRae peaks), show off its cliffs and outcrops, and treat you to some far-reaching vistas out toward the great Southern Appalachian ranges as well as the Piedmont lowlands.
Hike The Knife Edge Trail in Maine
Mount Katahdin isn’t the tallest mountain in the Northeast—that honor goes to Mount Washington in New Hampshire’s Presidential Range, host to numerous peaks loftier than Maine’s highest peak—but it’s certainly one of the most majestic. Glacier-scalloped Katahdin, which reaches 5,269 feet on Baxter Peak, serves as the fittingly grand northern endpoint of the Appalachian Trail. Its most famous footpath is the Knife Edge Trail—another of the routes on this list demands some steely nerves.
Though only a little past a mile in length—mind you, you need to hike up access trails to reach it, requiring most of a day’s hiking all said—the well-named Knife Edge takes an hour or more to traverse as it rock-hugs its way between Pamola Peak and Baxter Peak along a freakily narrow, rocky arete (a knife ridge carved by the headwalls of opposing glaciers). Given the scrambling and surefootedness involved—this is not a route to tackle in windy conditions—the Knife Edge is widely regarded as one of the gnarliest stretches of “trail” in New England, but the gaping views of Katahdin’s flanks, and the vast sightlines from Baxter, add up to a heck of a reward.
Hiking Poles From Crescent Moon
Tackling any of the above excellent trails, you’re going to want a trusty pair of sturdy hiking poles along for the ride: there to take some strain off your back and legs, steady your footing on tricky substrates and steep switchbacks, and assist in stream and river crossings.