By Melanie Webb, trip planner and former professional guide in Utah's National Parks, certified personal trainer, and author.
Whether you’re traveling with children or seeking a challenging thru-hike, the USA’s many National Parks and public lands offer a wide variety of spectacular landscapes and hiking terrain for every person and every ability. This list of the nation’s most popular, most instagrammed hikes has something for everyone. Get ready to add to your bucket list, noting this mantra: take only memories (and share them on Instagram, if that’s your thing), leave only footprints — so we save what matters for future generations.
Scenic Trails to Hike with Kids
As a pro who has guided dozens of multi-generation trips in the National Parks, I’ve found them to be a wellspring of wonder for kids of all ages (including you, parents and grandparents!) and stages of development, instilling love and reverence for nature. Treat the kids to the wonders of the great outdoors, creating memories that live beyond the moment, with this coast-to-coast selection of entry-level places to explore.
Lover’s Lane Loop, Olympic National Park
Best for: Kids 4 and up
Nestled in a spectacular old growth forest in Washington State’s Pacific Northwest (PNW) is Olympic National Park. Visitation was off the charts in 2021, with over 2 million travelers passing through — taking only photographs, naturally!
Lover’s Lane Loop is a delightful 6 mile round trip that begins at a beautiful hot spring, winds its way through a campground and past Sol Duc falls. With a gain of just under 600 vertical feet, the moderate grades are easily managed by active children. Parents will want to provide assistance by spotting kids and demonstrating safe walking techniques while crossing Hidden Creek.
My Expert Guide Tip 🥾 Teach kids the FUNdamentals of Leave No Trace by making a game out of picking up and properly disposing of trash left by others. Bring gloves and extra bags to gather trash and carry it out to waste bins, or reuse empty bags once snacks and sandwiches have been eaten.
Gateway to the Narrows (Riverside Walk), Zion National Park
Best for: Kids of all ages
For families with kids visiting Zion National Park, Gateway to the Narrows is a homerun hike. From its start under the shade of giant cottonwood trees to the end of the gently sloping trail, kids will be immersed in the relaxing sights and sounds of the Virgin River, the force that shaped this ancient canyon.
Kids can wilt quickly in the Mojave Desert heat at Zion, so here’s my secret to creating a magical day with children: beat the crowds and catch the early morning shuttle before temperatures get too hot. Ride it to the last stop, Temple of Sinawava, where the 2.2 mile round trip Riverside Walk (aka Gateway to the Narrows) begins. This is the time and place to let the kids use the bathroom, fill water bottles using the park’s faucets, and have a snack before starting the spectacular scenic walk up the river corridor.
The paved path is a great trail to educate kids on proper hiking and outdoor etiquette. Remember to walk single file on the right side of the trail to let faster hikers pass. Don’t throw rocks, harass the deer or wild turkeys that graze in the floodplain, and stop to listen quietly to the sound of water trickling through the rock seep or the flow of the Virgin River. Depending on the ambition and energy levels of your little hikers, you may hike all the way to the end of the pavement or stop for a swim in the river.
After the hike, take the shuttle back down the canyon to Zion Lodge, where you can eat the lunch you packed in lightweight, leak-free reusable bags and bowls, then buy a fresh ice cream cone and let the kids run barefoot on the grass under the shade of the enormous cottonwood trees. It’s an outing the littles won’t forget!
My Expert Guide Tip 🥾 The night before the hike, soak a few bandanas in cold water. Wring out the excess, roll them up, and place in a freezer-safe, leak-free reusable bag. The morning of the hike, remove from the freezer and pack near the bottom of your backpack. When the kids get hot or need a little cleaning up, place the refreshingly chilled bandana on the back of their neck. All kinds of misery will be curtailed!
Avalanche Lake Trail, Glacier National Park
Best for: Kids over the age of 6
The hike to Avalanche Lake in Glacier National Park is a 4.5 mile, moderately difficult hike. There are several steep sections, with a total elevation gain of 730 feet. Little Rangers will encounter cedar trees dating up to 500 years old and reaching up to 100 feet high, and cross a footbridge over the Lower Avalanche Gorge and creek. The lake sits at the base of Bearhat Mountain, which looms an additional 4,000 feet overhead.
The air is fresher here at 4,000 feet. Notice how your mind feels calmer while looking at the crystal clear blue water. Imagination is sparked by the scenery of the majestic, jagged peaks and U-shaped valleys created by retreating glaciers over the last 7,000 years.
There’s no better place than Glacier National Park to educate kids on the impact of the changing climate. The EPA website reports that between 1966 and 2015 every one of the 37 named glaciers in the park got smaller due to warming temperatures and other changes. What would Glacier National Park be without… glaciers?
My Expert Guide Tips 🥾
- To help offset the impact of increasing visits during the busy season, vehicle reservations are required to drive the Going-to-the-Sun Road and the North Fork between May and September.
- Preparing for a National Park adventure is half the fun! Kids can help pack snacks, art kits, and first aid supplies. Use a bag that will clip onto your pack for quick access to supplies.
Tuolumne Meadows, Yosemite National Park
Best for: Kids of all ages
Turn your visit to Yosemite National Park into a fun hands-on nature learning experience in Tuolumne Meadows. Biophilia, a big sounding word with a simple meaning, is the concept that humans have an instinct to connect with nature and other living creatures. Did you know:
- Kids develop greater spatial awareness by spending time outdoors.
- Being in nature can help reduce the severity of symptoms of depression, anxiety, and attention disorders.
- Touching dirt and soil in natural environments (called the biome) is beneficial for the human microbiome (think gut health).
- Sunlight helps regulate sleep patterns.
- Fresh air is actually antimicrobial and supports a healthy immune system.
I was 10 when my dad and his friend planned a daddy-daughter camping trip to Tuolumne Meadows. We looked for insects in the wildflowers, set up a tripod to look for birds and watched the world’s best rock climbers scale the sheer granite face of Half Dome. It was a fun field trip that I’ve never forgotten.
Due to the extreme elevation, road access over Tioga Pass is closed through the winter season. The road to the meadows is most accessible June through October. An ideal time to visit is late Summer to early Fall, when the flowers are in full bloom.
Accessible Trails for Hikers with Limited Mobility
Many trails are constructed without accessibility in mind, but the U.S. National Park Service continues to make strides to ensure that “America’s Greatest Ideas” are accessible to all individuals. The National Park Access Pass is free to U.S. citizens and permanent residents with permanent disabilities. Visitors can download the official NPS App to access up-to-date information on accessible trails, self-guided audio, and alternative text for images.
Yosemite Valley Floor Trail, Yosemite National Park
Yosemite became the third U.S. National Park in 1890, 26 years after President Abraham Lincoln protected Mariposa Grove and Yosemite Valley with the Yosemite Land Grant in 1864. An exploration along the Yosemite Valley Floor Trail provides encounters with many of the park’s top unique geological formations, cultural history, and native wildlife. Ambitious visitors can spend the day doing the entire 11.5 mile loop or cut it short with the 7.2 mile half loop. Depending on which route you choose, the path will take you along the Merced River, past El capitan and through Camp 4.
Two of the 61 tent-only campsites at legendary Camp 4, known to rock climbers around the world, are ADA approved. The two campsites are located near accessible parking, paths and a restroom.
Take Note: Winter weather can result in ice patches on trails, localized flooding near creeks, and road closures.
Old Faithful, Yellowstone National Park
Home to more than 500 geysers and 10,000 hydro thermal water features, Yellowstone was established as the first U.S. National Park in 1872. Old Faithful is known to erupt its fountain-like waters skyward nearly every 90 minutes, making it a reliable stop for photographers and nature lovers from all walks of life. Trillions of heat-loving microorganisms thrive in the extreme heat of the thermal pools, creating vibrant swaths of color explosions in the water.
Amanda Powell, 33, is an outdoor accessibility advocate who runs NationalParkCapable.com, a travel website dedicated to helping people of all abilities explore the parks. Amanda has mild cerebral palsy, a group of disorders that impact the brain during development, affecting body movements and muscle coordination. She uses a wheelchair on accessible trails in order to have the energy to complete one difficult hike on foot. “The wheelchair-friendly boardwalks all around Old Faithful, and wildlife that you can see from the car, make Yellowstone my favorite National Park so far,” says Amanda.
Visitors can access Old Faithful and the Visitor Center year-round using paved wheelchair-friendly paths and boardwalks. The Visitor Center offers various methods to make learning about Old Faithful accessible to people of all abilities, including interactive displays, open caption films, and evening programs.
Badwater Basin Salt Flats, Death Valley National Park
Of the 423 National Parks in the U.S., Death Valley claims the title for the lowest in elevation (282 feet below sea level), hottest (it hit 134 degrees Fahrenheit in 1934) and driest (averaging less than 2 inches each year).
Badwater Basin is an expanse of salt flats created by the retreat of Lake Manly over 10,000 years ago. Polygon-shaped salt crystals form as water seeps up through the flat and then evaporates into thin air. From the parking lot, take the ADA accessible ramp 1 mile one way to the wooden boardwalk, where the salt flats can be explored by foot. Visitors can look west to view Telescope Peak looming 2 miles overhead in the Panamint Range.
Shark Valley Tram Road Loop, Everglades National Park
Situated at the western edge of 7,800 square-mile Everglades National Park is Shark Valley Tram Road Loop. The 15-mile paved trail provides access to travelers on foot, bike, wheelchair, or with a relaxing, narrated tram ride. The 70-foot high observation tower is a perfect place to stop for panoramic views of the marsh. Don’t forget your binoculars for a chance to see one of 360 different bird species!
Water levels in the Everglades, called the “River of Grass,” once ebbed and flowed with the seasons, allowing native alligators, fish, and turtle species to spend the winter in the deeper flows and expand their territory after summer rains. While water levels have changed due to pressure from civilization and development, a visit to the park still provides regular encounters with wildlife and beautiful vistas to inspire creativity and wonder.
Dog-friendly, Instagram-worthy Hikes
While the majority of terrain within the U.S. National Parks are off limits to dogs, many of the parks now allow furry friends to accompany visitors on designated trails. State Parks and public lands managed by other government agencies often have fewer restrictions, including areas where dogs can be off leash. Be sure to search before you go so you aren’t caught by surprise at the entrance gate!
Remember: The phrase “pack it in, pack it out” certainly applies to dog poop and treats. Clip a sturdy, reusable bag to your pack or belt loop filled with unused bags for easy clean-up. Be sure to properly dispose of poop in the waste bins. Also pack treats in a resealable, reusable snack bag to prevent spills that could be dangerous to bird and wildlife populations.
Fort Funston Trails, Golden Gate National Recreation Area, San Francisco
Fans of short, sandy hikes will love this 1 mile round trip hike with a 200 foot climb to the top of a bluff overlooking the San Francisco coast. Dogs can run off-leash, their sense of smell running as wild as the coastal breezes. The park was an operational U.S. Army harbor defense post until after the Cold War ended in 1963. Now a protected area within the Golden Gate National Recreation Area, it has a network of mixed-use trails and is one of the most popular hang gliding spots in the country due its strong, reliable winds.
Tip: Like humans, dogs can’t drink salt water, so don’t forget to pack extra water and a collapsible bowl.
Lovers Leap Trail, Custer State Park
Nestled in the Black Hills of South Dakota is Custer State Park, a 71,000 acre gem that provides recreation opportunities year round. Active dogs (and their humans) will want to check out Lovers Leap Trail, a 3 mile, moderate to strenuous hike marked by its frequent crossings of Galena Creek. Once at the high point of 4,780 feet, visitors can contemplate the two Native American lovers said to have jumped to their deaths from this rugged point.
Caution: Be sure to keep dogs out of the abundant poison ivy, as the oils can be transferred to human skin.
Devils Canyon Scenic Area Trail, Ozark-St. Francis National Forest
Not to be confused with similarly named trails in other parts of the U.S., Devils Canyon is a popular 4.6 mile loop hike in the 1.2 million acre Ozark-St. Francis, deep in the natural heart of Arkansas. The unpaved, dog-friendly hike is strenuous and, depending on the amount of new vegetation, may require navigation skill to reach the two waterfalls. Be prepared to visit this lush section of the Ozarks by taking along a leak-free bag for storing wet clothes after you take a refreshing dip in one of the many watering holes. The hike can be accessed year round, but summer is the best time to swim in the pools.
Explore on Instagram: #ozarknationalforest (30k+)
Bear Peak, Boulder
Popular with locals, Bear Peak overlooks the city of Boulder, Colorado from an elevation of 8,461 feet. The steep 0.4 mile rocky scramble can be reached from two different trailheads — either through Shadow Canyon or from the National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR). Once at the top, hikers can enjoy 360 views of the surrounding Boulder area.
Dogs are welcome and may be allowed to be off leash at different points on the trail, depending on Open Space and Mountain Parks (OSMP) guidelines. OSMP is a unique program in the city of Boulder that strikes a balance between responsible dog owners being in nature with their pets while protecting the natural resource and wildlife. To qualify, owners must demonstrate that the animal is trained to meet exacting criteria and that it can remain within eyesight and earshot of its owner.
Explore on Instagram: #bearpeak (11.9k)
Trails to Hit if You’re a Hiking Pro
Few experienced hikers will complete all of these epic journeys, but many have aspired to at some point in their lives. The incredible views and tricky terrain of these extra-long hikes are the stuff of legends, where the deeper into the wild we travel, the closer we come to reclaiming the instinctive humanity within ourselves. We often set off depleted, only to return nourished and supported by the time spent in Mother Nature’s Gym.
The USA’s Most-Photographed Trail: The Appalachian Trail (AT)
What better way to experience the natural beauty of 14 states than on foot? Coming in at nearly 2,200 miles, the Appalachian National Scenic Trail is the longest hiking-only trail in the world.
Hikers attempt to complete this American classic thru-hike either by starting at Katahdin, Maine (pronounced (/kəˈtɑːdɪn/ kə-TAH-din) and traveling south, or beginning the trek at the southern trailhead at Springer Mountain in Georgia and going north. When completed as a whole, the trek can take most thru-hikers between five and seven months to complete.
The trail is speckled with important historical sites and cultural history. Earl Shaffer was a Veteran of the U.S. Army and the first person to walk the entire AT in 1948. He was known to say “carry as little as possible, but choose that little with care.” Packing food and gear using equipment that can be reused and recycled will reduce your footprint and the amount of waste you’ll need to pack out.
Important: Knowing where the refueling / resupply stations are, and planning how many miles you need to hike each day to reach them without running out of food, is critical to your success.
Explore on Instagram: #appalachiantrail (991k+)
Pacific Crest National Scenic Trail (PCT)
Spanning approximately 2,650 miles through the interior of the westernmost states of California, Oregon, and Washington, the PCT starts at the border of Mexico and continues to the Canadian border.
What makes the PCT appealing to nature-loving thru-hikers everywhere is the variation in climate, terrain, and ecology. The hike begins in the arid California desert at 2,915 ft elevation and travels north through Anza-Borrego Desert State Park and its famed wildflower landscapes until it reaches its highest point at Forester Pass in the majestic and snowy Sierra Nevada (13,153 ft).
The Oregon section is the shortest and easiest, passing through volcanoes, lakes, and vast wilderness areas including Three Sisters and Crater Lake National Park. Once past iconic Mount Hood, hikers are greeted by the variety of wildlife, songbirds and insects in the lower elevations of subalpine fir trees.
Once in Washington, hikers make their way through the Columbia River Gorge, up and over rugged canyons in the wet, glacier-laden North Cascade range until reaching their final destination in a cloud forest at 4,240 ft at the border with British Columbia.
Age is no barrier for Vicky Mattson, a section hiker who completed the Pacific Crest Trail over three summers with her husband and son — while in her 50’s. Vicky, who has also completed the AT and portions of the Continental Divide Trail (CDT), created a system to reduce the weight of her pack from 40 pounds to 15. While training, she weighed every article of gear, food, and clothing, pinning notes to each item. Over time she eliminated the excess. “The more you hike the more you learn,” she says.
Explore on Instagram: #pacificcresttrail (303k+)
Zion Narrows, Zion National Park
Catching a glimpse of the towering cliffs of the Zion Narrows in Zion National Park is on the agenda for nearly every visitor to the park. Every day of the busy summer, thousands of people complete the Riverside Walk just to take a selfie. But for seriously fit hikers, the 16-mile Zion Narrows river thru-hike is one for the bucket list. Embark on this hike, with its tumbling boulders and swimming holes formed by three powerful elements — water, rock, and time — and you’ll soon find yourself immersed in the sound of water echoing through sandstone walls dating back over 240 million years.
Most experienced backpackers will tell you that packing for a one-nighter requires as much attention to detail as a multi-day hike. Apply the right amount of logistical prowess to either the long one-day or single-overnight non-technical canyoneering route and you’ll be telling tall tales of this breathtaking slot canyon for decades to come.
My Expert Guide Tips 🥾
- While I enjoy hiking this spectacular canyon during the heat of summer, staying safe hiking the slot canyons of Zion requires a great deal of flexibility due to seasonal rains. I prefer late September into early November, after the highest risk of flash flooding has passed.
- The 2,000 foot vertical canyon walls limit the number of day-use only and designated campsite permits along the North Fork of the Virgin River. Your party must obtain a wilderness permit prior to embarking on the thru-hike by making a calendar reservation.
- Hire a local guide service in Springdale to shuttle your party through the East side of Zion to the trailhead in Chamberlain’s Ranch. Plan to complete the hike in time to catch the last Zion Shuttle of the day (time varies by the season).
- Important: Don’t forget the car keys! Keep them safe from accidental swims by storing them in a leak-free bag in your top backpack pocket.
Angel’s Landing, Zion National Park
The very name of this popular hike in Zion National Park conjures a feeling of adventure for some hikers — and causes heart palpitations for others. Active, fit travelers from around the world come to Zion for this strenuous 5.4 mile round trip hike. I tried to recall how many times I’ve hiked Angel’s Landing over my lifetime — 20 or 30, perhaps? My heart warms with memories of hiking with family and friends, private clients, and a few precious times alone. Completing 1,488 elevation gain with spectacular views extending the length of the canyon is a satisfaction unlike anything we experience in everyday life.
Make no mistake: while Angel’s Landing may be one of the most photographed trails in the USA, the final approach — aka The Spine — is dangerous. Hikers attempting to reach the top are greeted by a large sign with a stick figure of a human falling off a cliff. The sign isn’t merely a warning, but also a documentation of the 14 people who have fallen to their deaths since 1987.
To the Park’s credit, they haven’t closed the hike to adventurers seeking an encounter with one of the wildest locations in the entire park system. Instead, in April 2022 the park implemented a $6 dollar online lottery, making the final approach — a steep section marked by steel chains bolted to the sandstone wall to provide a handhold — admissible only to hikers with permits for the exact date and time slot. Visit Recreation.gov to apply.
My Expert Guide Tips 🥾
- Where to begin: catch the shuttle at the Zion Visitor Center to Shuttle Stop 6, the Grotto. Cross the Virgin River using the foot bridge across the street and follow the red, paved trail all the way to the top.
- Get an early start. I recommend catching the earliest shuttle possible (start times vary by the season) and beginning the hike by the light of a headlamp. You’ll beat the crowds and catch the sunset at Scout Landing, a great place for people in your group with a fear of heights to wait while others complete the ascent to the top.
- This unique desert environment is hot and dry! Drink at least 1 gallon of water per person per day, ideally 4-5 gulps every 20 minutes throughout the day.
- Make a day of it. You worked hard for this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity! Pack a litter-free lunch and enjoy the views!
Red River Gorge Loop, Red River Gorge Geological Area
Nestled deep in the Daniel Boone National Forest, Red River Gorge has many federally-designated distinctions, and for good reason. A search of Red River Gorge online reveals gorge(ous) pictures of blue waterfalls, rugged road tunnels, sandstone arches and lush vegetation. Thousands of people visit the forested escarpment each year, embarking on every kind of outdoor recreation activity imaginable.
Ambitious hikers seeking an analytically challenging thru-hike can create a 12.5 mile loop by combining 4 trails: Rough, Koomer Ridge, Buck, and Pinch-em Right. The trail begins at Rough Trail and requires a dizzying amount of backtracking and mergers in order to return to its starting point 6 hours later. Hikers are encouraged to pack (and know how to use) a GPS unit and map to navigate the forested footpaths and rocky ridgelines.
Explore on Instagram: #redrivergorge (219k+)
Continental Divide National Scenic Trail
The Continental Divide National Scenic Trail (CDT) spans the 3,028 mile inland length of the U.S. between Chihuahua, Mexico and Alberta, Canada. Hikers must be prepared to tackle extreme conditions while hiking the CDT — everything from trying to stay hydrated in the dry and hot summer months to surviving sudden spring snowstorms at the higher elevations in northern New Mexico and Colorado. Few adventures in life will compare to successfully completing the 5 month thru-hike.
52 year-old Matthew Mckee Weldy, a Veteran, is hiking the CDT at the time of this writing. Matthew hikes primarily to help manage his mental health and is raising money for the Wounded Warriors Project. He chose to hike the CDT primarily because the remote nature of the trail would require more self-sufficiency than the AT or PCT. The Virginia resident did most of his training on the infamous Roller Coaster section of the AT, where he could prepare his body for the cardiovascular challenge he would face at the higher elevations on the CDT. “My favorite part of the CDT to date has been the Gila River section in the Gila National Forest. It has also been the most challenging in that 120 plus river crossings are required to complete it,” says Matthew.
My Expert Guide Tip 🥾 Never take a brand new pair of hiking shoes, boots, or sandals on a long backpacking trip without testing them closer to home first.
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As a life-long explorer of the National Parks in my life and career, I’ve been delighted to learn that more people are exploring these spectacular lands. Then I see names scratched into canyon walls and single-use plastic water bottles on the trails, and read about the seasonally high levels of e. coli in the Virgin River Narrows of Zion National Park and think to myself, “what difference can my responsible actions make?”
My heart takes courage when I discover like-minded individuals and brands who work to protect the planet, adopt eco-friendly products that stand the test of time, and donate to nonprofits focused on preserving the planet. Together, we can make a difference. We can “pack it in and pack it out,” store our food and first aid supplies in reusable containers, and help educate new hikers on the principles of Leave No Trace. Let’s encourage people to take only photos and leave only footprints, ensuring the beauty of nature that we enjoy today becomes a refuge for future generations to come!