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The American Hiking Trails You Must Do Before You Die
Where it is: Yosemite National Park, CA
Distance: 8.5 miles
Have your GoPro ready—you're definitely going to want to capture the Insta-worthy views on this hike. Justin Wood, manager of operations and product development for REI Adventures, says this trail starts at Glacier Point in Yosemite, then follows the rim of the valley to offer views of "everything that makes Yosemite the iconic park that it is." You'll hit three major waterfalls along the way—Nevada, Vernal, and Illilouette, where you can lie on a granite slab and peer over the edge if you're feeling daring—before descending into the Mist Trail. There you'll probably walk straight through a few rainbows thanks to the mist from the falls, so be prepared to wonder if this is actually Oz.
Wood says it's best to tackle this climb in spring or early summer, so you catch the falls when they're really flowing. The best way to get there is to "hop a bus from Yosemite Lodge to Glacier Point ($25 for adults), which takes about an hour, then take the rest of the day (four to seven hours, depending on your pace) to really enjoy," he says.
Half Dome Trail
Where it is: Yosemite National Park, CA
Distance: 14 miles
More advanced hikers should stay in Yosemite to come face-to-face with this trail that takes them 4,800 feet up to the summit before heading back down to the valley floor. "It's the park's most iconic feature, and it offers some incredible views of the most iconic waterfalls," says Wood. The last section is what makes this path a doozy. A 400-foot section of cables installed by the park service is there to help you make it through the narrow climb. Those are only set up from late May to early October, Wood says, so plan your visit for then, as you won't be able to reach the summit otherwise without technical climbing gear. This hike also requires a permit, and the park has 300 available per day, which you can try to nab in a pre-season lottery every year at Recreation.gov starting in March, or you can enter the daily lotteries. Don't let the extra prep work deter you: "This is the grand-daddy of Yosemite hikes," he says. "It's one of the most exhilarating challenges for you to walk away from saying, 'Yeah, I did that.'"
Where it is: Grand Canyon, AZ
Distance: 10 miles
After hiking Havasupai Falls, people will look at your photos of the bright turquoise pools and 200-foot waterfalls and think they're photoshopped. But those #nofilter snaps and posts won't even come close to capturing the beauty you'll find on this trail. You hike through reservation land to a campground where you can stay overnight near the falls. "This hike also takes you through Supai Village, one of the oldest continuous tribes in North America, where people still live in a remote village deep in the Grand Canyon," says Wood. For that reason alone—and the falls, duh—he suggests spending two nights at the campground. "There's a great side canyon you can explore, a series of tunnels inside the canyon to wind yourself down, and natural swimming pools and waterfalls for you to get into," he says. Plan in advance: Gregory Miller, president of the American Hiking Society, says you'll need at least six months' notice, and spring or fall is the best time to go. If you don't want to lug all your gear around, he says you can also hire horse packers to trek your stuff to the campground so all you'll need to carry is a day-pack.
Where it is: Zion National Park, UT
Distance: 4.5 miles
This trail is a popular one, so make sure you get to the park early if you want to avoid the crowds. Miller says you'll start with a series of switchbacks known as Walter's Wiggles, then make your way up narrow paths and climbs before eventually getting to the last half-mile—the most challenging section—which requires using built-in chains to pull yourself up the razor-thin ridge (and no, that's not an exaggeration—a full sneaker won't fit). But the incredible views of the sandstone cliffs make the trek completely worth it, and the adrenaline that hits when you reach the summit is proof that you're a serious badass. It's best to go in late winter or early spring (before the weather gets too hot), and Wood says to make sure you have sneakers with good traction. "This trail becomes more exposed the higher you get, and there's no room for misstep once you're in that last section," he says. No risk no reward, right?
Queens Garden Trail and Navajo Loop
Where it is: Bryce Canyon National Park, UT
Distance: 3 miles
"Hiking in Utah is this sort of an otherworldly, high desert amphitheater that really is a must-see," says Wood. Among peaks with fun names like Queen Victoria and Thor Hammer, you'll navigate through Sunset Point and drop down into a maze of switchbacks and canyons before making your way back, he says. "It showcases all the different faces of Bryce Canyon in just three miles, so you can do it in three or four hours." You'll cover 600 feet of altitude, and though Wood warns it can be a bit steep when you get started, it levels out to become a more moderate hike. Most people hike this trail in April, but if you're more of a snow bunny, Wood suggests checking it out in the colder months. "There's far fewer people, and the views are insanely beautiful when there's a dusting of snow added to it," he says.
Kilauea Iki Trail
Where it is: Hawaii Volcanoes National Park, HI
Distance: 4 miles
If you've dreamt of hiking through a rain forest, Hawaii is the place to do it, says Miller. This hike takes you through the lush greenery and down to a solid lava lake, where you'll pass by natural steam vents, cinder cones, and spatter cones—not to mention find lots of native birds. Miller ranks this as a moderately difficult hike, so be prepared for your glutes to get plenty of action in the two to three hours it takes to hike the full loop.
Grinnell Glacier Trail
Where it is: Glacier National Park, MT
Distance: 3.8 miles
Water lovers will be excited for this hike, as it starts by taking you on a shuttle boat (for a small fee) across Swiftcurrent Lake and Lake Josephine to give you more access to plenty of trails, says Miller. Once you're on the south end of the lake, you'll traverse wet marshy areas, enjoy the breathtaking views of Grinnell Falls, and pass through meadows filled with eye-popping wildflowers. You'll even get to test your fear of heights, he says, as there's a section of trail that hugs a cliff face, providing a narrow edge for people passing. It's worth the challenge, as that's where you're most likely to spot bighorn sheep and mountain goats. Once you hit the overlook, you'll be greeted with jaw-dropping views of the 152-acre Grinnell Glacier, Upper Grinnell Lake, Mount Gould, and the Garden Wall, the last of which is a part of the Continental Divide. It's all so gorgeous, you won't know where to look first.
Hoh River Trail
Where it is: Olympic National Park, WA
Distance: 17.4 miles
Only 20 miles southwest of Forks (the town on which the Twilight novels were based) awaits Olympic National Park and the only temperate rain forest in the United States, says Miller. "The Hoh River trail is one of the wettest places in the U.S., and it's a slightly difficult climb, which makes it really fun and adventurous," he says. Go anytime from late June through September to catch it at its best, or whenever you need to escape reality—Miller says the U.S. National Park Service called it the one location in the country with the least amount of artificial sound. "It's really surreal, walking through the dripping moss and not hearing anything but nature surrounding you," he says. "It's a really special place." Consider it at the top of the must-go-first list.
Presidential Peaks Traverse
Where it is: White Mountains, NH
Distance: 17 miles
There are multiple ways to tackle this hike, but Wood suggests summiting the presidential "faces" in this order: Washington, Monroe, Franklin, Eisenhower, Pierce, and Jackson. Go during the fall for prime leaf season, and if you're feeling really ambitious, you can tackle them all in a day. Wood suggests breaking it into three days instead, for a more relaxing experience. "You'll cover about six miles the first day, five the second, and six more on the third to take you to the summit of Mount Jackson," he says. You can stay overnight in huts maintained by the Appalachian Mountain Trail, and since it's a one-way trail, you'll want to take a shuttle from the AMC highland center (where you'll finish) back to the starting point.
Cadillac Mountain North Ridge Trail
Where it is: Acadia National Park, ME
Distance: 2.2 miles
No matter where you look on this hike, you're almost always guaranteed a good view, says Miller. Eagle Lake sits to the west, Dorr Mountain to the east, and Bar Harbor village and its surrounding islands to the north, so you really can see it all. And of course, the trail's summit is Cadillac Mountain, the highest peak in the park and the highest point along the entire East Coast. So yeah, we bet you're already picturing the photo ops. For your best shot, start your day early—it's one of the most popular trails in the park, so it gets crowded quickly.
The Lost Coast
Where it is: Northern California
Distance: 24 miles
Hiding out way up in northern California is "a remote stretch of rugged coastline ... and untouched land for natural wildlife, like elk and bears, to enjoy," says Wood. You'll want to take three to four days to tackle this hike at an enjoyable pace, he suggests, and you'll start at the Mattole Trail. (It's a one-way hike, so leave your car at the end point—Black Sands Beach.) Then walk north to south, where you'll trek through black-sand beaches, past wild creeks coming out of the mountain, through hanging gardens, and next to plenty of wildlife. And of course, since you're right next to the Pacific Ocean, you'll fall asleep to the sound of crashing waves each night you camp out. Go ahead, hashtag that experience as #TotalBliss.