10 of the Most Beautiful Trails Worth Exploring
Friday June 26, 2015
We are lucky people.
Even in the era of smartphones and electric cars, the United States is home to an abundance of wilderness riches. We have thousands of miles of gorgeous trails, through most of Earth’s major biomes, almost all within driving distance (forgive us for the island trails – some are too beautiful to skip).
Here are ten places to lace up your boots and rediscover your inner landscape, ranging from a few miles to a few weeks’ worth of walking.
1. Sierra High Route, California
Length: 195 miles
Wait a minute, you’re saying, right off the bat — it’s a good idea to travel through the John Muir Wilderness without touching the John Muir Trail?
Well, yes. For one thing, that one’s more crowded.
For another, this is a little like listening to the songs your favorite musician released that never made the radio. The popular music is always a little watered down for mass appeal. The B-sides are a little more quirky, a little harder, and a lot more personal.
Which, come to think of it, is a damn good description of a hike worth taking. The high route, as you might guess, sticks to the high country where the views are better. Segments of it are unmarked, demanding the most from your skills. And all of it is quieter.
2. Denali National Park, Alaska
Length: Freeform (you’ll need a permit, but there are more than a dozen marked trails of a few miles, and plenty of unmarked country not far from national park bus routes).
Denali park is the size of Massachusetts, and most of it is unmarked. There’s one road, and park service buses are often the only thing on it. But it’s a hiker’s paradise, like nothing you’ll find in the lower 48. The Alaska Range is almost completely unspoiled. This is the last place in America where you stand a chance of seeing peaks no one has ever recorded climbing. It’s hard to explain the way that can quiet the mind. We’ll put it this way – one GoApe tribe member spent time in the park, then flew home to the East Coast and had to stay indoors for three solid days just to get accustomed to the background noise of life again. Once you’ve stood alone on a ridge without a human settlement for hundreds of miles in any direction, the noise pollution of a modern city is present for the rest of your life.
And at night in Denali, there’s so little light pollution that you can actually see the arm of the Milky Way galaxy, a white stripe across the sky.
Go once in your life. Earth is almost out of such places.
3. Halemauu Trail, Haleakala Crater, Maui, Hawaii
Length: 10 miles
We could list nothing but Hawaiian trails and not be wrong once. Still, Haleakala is an experience unlike any other. Maui may be the world’s most beautiful island, but you can love its lower beaches without realizing that you’re essentially sitting on the side of a volcano. Haleakala, ‘house of the sun,’ is that mountain – it makes up 75 percent of the island. The Halemeauu Trail starts in the summit of the mountain’s crater, works its way down to the crater floor, crosses 1,500 feet of sheer cliff, and leads to the Koolau Gap, with views deep across the Pacific. This one isn’t for the faint of heart – there’s no potable water on Haleakala, and the park service warns that it takes an ambulance 45 minutes to get to the trailhead. But if you set out early and watch the sun rise from the mountain, you’ll never forget it. Reserve a cabin on the mountain to be sure you catch it.
4. Twin Falls, North Shore, off the Hana Highway, Maui
Length: just two miles
Two in Maui?
What, you’re going to stay for just one night?
If you’re going to Maui, you’re going to drive the Hana Highway. It’s easily the most beautiful road in the world, making its way through lush tropical rainforest, past waterfalls, lava tubes and thousand-mile ocean views, with access to a rare black sand beach at Wai’anapanapa State Park. But don’t be one of those tourists who enjoys it just from the car.
Make it take all day. Get out and hike. Twin Falls, for instance, is just a short fifteen minutes into the ride out of Paia, and even has a parking lot to make it easy. A dirt pathway back from the lot will lead you to gorgeous waterfalls and freshwater pools. The path forks. The left option takes you to the larger pool, the right to the more picturesque. Your call.
Our only note of caution is that every tourist shop will sell you a copy of the guidebook Maui Revealed. It has a comprehensive guide to the Hana highway, but some of the prettiest spots it discusses are on private land. Familiarize yourself with where you’re really welcome before you set out. You don’t have to trespass to see breathtaking sights here.
5. Buckskin Gulch, Utah
Length: 13 miles
Utah’s canyon country is otherworldly, and this, widely considered the longest slot canyon on the planet (no one officially measures such things) is the most immersive route it offers. There are places where you’ll have to remove your pack just to slip through a gap as small as two feet between towering sandstone formations, where the light seems to change character as it makes its way down to the sand floor.
Only twenty overnight permits are sold each day, and they sell out months in advance. Proper equipment is also vital. You won’t need rappelling gear, but you’ll need to secure your gear for water – pools are sometimes ankle deep, sometimes more than waist deep, and there’s no route around them.
6. Roan Highlands, North Carolina-Tennessee Border
Length: 48 miles
The Appalachian Trail through North Carolina and Tennessee alternates between tunnels through head-high rhododendron and “balds” – ridgetop openings that give endless views. Go in late May when the rhododendrons and mountain laurels are blooming for the singular experience of hiking through a natural tunnel of flowers.
The stretch from the Nolichucky River to U.S. 19E is one of the highest portions of the southern AT, and offers the best views, staying above the tree line for most of its length.
7. Superior Hiking Trail, Minnesota
Length: 296 miles
Nearly 300 miles, and usually 18 inches wide, this path tracks the ridgeline overlooking Lake Superior. All 92 campsites are free. Bikes and horses aren’t allowed – just your own feet. If you stick to hikes in the East and the West, you can miss out on the gorgeous northcountry boreal forests that make up the primordial heart of the center of our country. Birch, aspen, fir, pine and cedar are the evergreen rulers of this skyline. The path is surprisingly well marked, and only moderately difficult.
But it rewards you with brooks and waterfalls, views from 1,800 feet, and deer, wolf and mountain lion tracks. Go in the fall for the best conditions, and whatever you do, don’t go in early June when the biting flies run the place.
8. Nags Head Woods Ecological Preserve, North Carolina
Length: Varies; Over 1,111 preserved acres
It seems hard to believe in an era of million-dollar homes and golf courses, but the western shore of North Carolina’s Outer Banks was once heavily forested. Part of it still is, offering one of the most unusual experiences in the natural world – that of standing in a grove of trees, with your boots in rich soil, and hearing the Atlantic lapping in the background.
The ground here is actually sand dunes, covered with a layer of rich soil fertile enough to support stands of hickory trees. Hike far enough, and you’ll hit Roanoke Sound, where there’s fishing and paddleboarding in the salt marshes.
The Nature Conservancy maintains several trails through the area, some of which are limited to foot traffic.
9. Presidential Traverse, New Hampshire
Length: 23 miles
There’s no way around it. This one is strenuous. For some of us, that’s key. Some of us find that our minds clear when the task in front of us strains our muscles and our limits, and that there is a clarity in those moments that makes the risk worth it.
Through New Hampshire’s White Mountains, the Traverse crosses seven peaks over 4,000 feet, all named for U.S. presidents. But it’s not the elevation that makes this hard, it’s the fact that several storm tracks intersect here. That means sudden rain or snow, whiteouts in winter and four days a year winds over 100 mph. Adding up all the peaks you’ll hike up and back down, the elevation changes total up nearly 20,000 feet.
You’ll experience three seasons of weather in one day, and there’s no shame in bailing out halfway through if it gets dangerous. But completing it is an amazing feeling, and the views are impossibly gorgeous… when the weather allows them.
10. Pacific Crest National Scenic Trail through Glacier Peak Wilderness, Washington
Length: 60 miles
We won’t list the entire Pacific Crest Trail. Just the best part of it.
The Glacier Peak Wilderness route is something of a mystery, for a segment of a well-travelled trail. It’s been closed for years by severe flood damage, sending many travelers on a less-scenic, easier and less popular detour.
But, hidden within Washington’s North Cascades, the wilderness contains almost half the glacial ice in the lower 48.
This segment of the trail passes by Douglass first and western cedars 10 to 12 feet wide, and crosses the PCT’s longest footbridge. But plan your timing carefully — some of the passes in the area aren’t open until mid-summer.