by Jeff Aguilar
Photographs copyright Jeff Aguilar
America’s greatest day hikes are those hikes that not only encompass incredible scenery, but are an experience unlike any other. To qualify as a day hike each trail destination had to exceed five miles round trip and encompass a minimum of four hours of time for the average hiker. The below list is only the top ten from my experience. I will also build a list for shorter destination, family-friendly trails (something I’ve become all too familiar with as a dad).
- Mount Washburn, Yellowstone National Park, WY
Yellowstone has thousands of miles of hiking trails across a huge expanse of wilderness. So in a park with endless natural features, what makes the Mount Washburn trail the number one day hike? Well, it provides an amazing birds-eye view across so much of the park. You’ll not only enjoy the nearby wildflowers and wildlife (which are often grizzlies, but are more likely to be bighorn sheep and marmots), but see the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone, and even more distant sights like Lake Yellowstone and geyser basins.
The hike is a steep three mile ascent in both directions from Dunraven Pass. A second option is the steeper, less scenic 2 mile ascent from Chittenden Road.
- Harding Ice Field Trail, Kenai Fjords National Park, AK
This is one of those hikes I’d love to return and complete later in the season. I was able to ascend the trail to about a mile short of the full icefield before deep snow in late May made continuing on too difficult.
What I did see along the way was glacial scenery that became steadily more impressive the higher I ascended. From the trailhead (where a black bear and hoary marmots congregated) to Exit Glacier, to ever more impressive views back over the valley floor, this was a gorgeous hike and one of the most accessible in Alaska. I have seen pictures of the icefield that awaits my return, and that promising expanse of unbroken ice surely makes this one of the 10 best day hikes in the country.
- Kalaulau Trail, Kauai, HA
Kauai is, in my opinion, the most beautiful of the four main islands of Hawaii. Waimea Canyon, Hanalei, and Lamahai Beach are amazing places. But the Na Pali coast is the very best and most remote stretch of the island and the location of the Kalaulau Trail.
I have to admit that I did not make it far down the trail from Kee Beach, but this is another trail that I will surely return to complete. I did, however kayak the entire coast from Kee Beach to Polihali Beach (approximately 12 miles) and saw the hidden beaches and waterfalls that line the path of the Kalaulau Trail.
- Mount Whitney Summit Trail, CA
This is one of two hikes I’ve listed that are arguably multi-day hikes, but I was able to reach the summit and back in one long, tiring day. Mount Whitney is the highest mountain in the lower-48 states and the summit trail is non-technical. It is a tough hike at 22 miles round trip, but one that gets progressively more rewarding. Once you arrive at the ridge line and enter Sequoia National Park for the final thousand foot ascent, you’ll see the gorgeous Sierra Nevada range at its sublime best.
- Cascade Canyon, Grand Teton National Park, WY
The Tetons are arguably the most beautiful mountains in the US, and the Cascade Canyon trail is a path to their interior. I’ve hiked parts of this trail twice over the last several years and it is always awe inspiring. Both times we saw moose and marmots. On a return trip, in the right season (late summer) I might be able to complete the full loop to Lake Solitude, over Paintbrush Divide, and back down the Paintbrush Canyon trail (a journey of 18 miles). When I do I am sure this trail will move further up the list. The pictures I’ve seen certainly make it seem inevitable.
- Bright Angel Trail, Grand Canyon, AZ
This is the second trail that might be considered a multi-day hike. Make no mistake, to travel the entire distance from one rim to the other would be a multi-day hike, but most hikers at least travel as far as Indian Gardens, and even Phantom Ranch at the river is achievable.
Most visitors never do more than stare down from the rim, and while the views are majestic, particularly at sunrise and sunset, they really don’t do this place justice. It’s like seeing only the cover of a great novel and never turning the page. Entering the canyon is to travel through layers of time and through varied ecosystems. I would also note that colorful bands of rock similar to places like Zion or Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument is hidden within the Grand Canyon too, and only visible from below.
- The Narrows, Zion National Park, UT
This really isn’t so much a trail as it is a long walk up a river. But you won’t often experience anything like this hike where you can stand almost arm’s length from either side of the canyon and stare up at canyon walls a thousand feet high. It’s slippery, often cold, and sometimes dangerous if conditions aren’t right, but it’s one of two hikes in Zion National Park that make the list.
- Angel’s Landing, Zion National Park, UT
Zion National Park earns back-to-back honors in this list, but I think most visitors to the park that have hiked these trails would agree the honor is rightly deserved. Angel’s Landing hits all the right notes though it is the shortest by distance on the list, just making the cut. But for awe-inspiring views and a unique experience crossing a precipice above the canyon floor it is an undeniably memorable hike.
This is probably the most dangerous hike on the list and the one that should not be undertaken by anyone with a fear of heights or by children. Every year there are fatalities from those who mis-stepped. Take your time, watch your feet, and hold on to the chains.
- Grinnell Glacier Trail, Glacier National Park, MT
I last did this trail as a teenager and unfortunately I have yet to return though Glacier is on the short list of future destinations. Not having a photograph of Glacier National Park and Grinnell Glacier is a crime, really. The most beautiful national park in the USA?
What I remember is that this trail is stunning and this trail was the very best I did in Glacier. I’ll be back in the next couple years to update this list to add the requisite photograph.
- Half Dome Trail, Yosemite National Park, CA
I’ve hiked a lot of trails, but in the nearly two decades since I first hiked to the top of Half Dome in Yosemite nothing has ever quite matched this unique and memorable hike. With Vernal and Nevada Falls along the way, the final ascent of the cables is really the final act of an amazing journey through the best of Yosemite’s scenery. When you finally arrive at the summit to gaze down on Yosemite Valley your effort is justly rewarded.