Extreme Hiking: America’s Best Hard Dayhikes

By Michael Lanza

Imagine this: You’re heading out on a long, beautiful hike deep in the backcountry, but instead of a full backpack, you carry a light daypack. You’ve avoided hassles with getting a backcountry permit and there’s no camp to set up and pack up. I love backpacking—and I do it a lot. But sometimes, I prefer to knock off a weekend-length—or longer—hike in one big day.

A completely different way to experience a hike, walking 15 to 20 or more miles in a day feels liberating in how lightly you travel and how much ground you can cover. The following list of 14 hikes represents the very best long—and huge—dayhikes I’ve taken over more than three decades of hiking all over the country, as a longtime field editor for Backpacker magazine and running this blog.

I’ve taken huge dayhikes many times simply because I had just one day free and wanted to see as much as possible. But there are some long stretches of trail that, to me, just cry out to be hiked in a day—for aesthetic reasons and because the length and access are just right and the scenery top shelf. The hikes on this list possess those qualities.

If you have a favorite long dayhike that you think belongs on this list, tell me in the comments section at the bottom of this story, and I’ll try to get to it. Or just tell me what you think of my list. I try to respond to all comments.


Hi, I’m Michael Lanza, creator of The Big Outside. Click here to sign up for my FREE email newsletter. Join The Big Outside to get full access to all of my blog’s stories. Click here for my e-guides to classic backpacking trips. Click here to learn how I can help you plan your next trip.


A hiker on the South Kaibab Trail in the Grand Canyon.
David Ports hiking the South Kaibab Trail in the Grand Canyon. Click on the photo to see my e-guide “The Complete Guide to Hiking the Grand Canyon Rim to Rim.”

The Grand Canyon Rim to Rim to Rim

Arguably the granddaddy of ultra-dayhikes, traversing the Grand Canyon from the South Rim to the North Rim and back again constitutes not only the most demanding stroll on this list, but a mind-blowing, top-to-bottom tour of one of Earth’s most magnificent and unfathomable natural features—twice in one day. By its shortest route (depending on which trails you use), the r2r2r, as it’s known, is 42 miles round-trip with a cumulative elevation gain and loss of over 21,000 feet.

A hiker on the Grand Canyon's North Kaibab Trail.
David Ports hiking the Grand Canyon’s North Kaibab Trail.

Backpacking the route requires obtaining one of the most hard-to-get backcountry permits in the National Park System, so if you possess the fitness and skills to knock it off in a day, that may offer your best chance of actually doing it. Of course, the shorter (and perhaps saner) alternative is to hike across the canyon in just one direction, halving the distance, using available shuttle services to travel between the rims before or after your hike (depending on your lodging arrangements).

I hope it goes without saying that this is an extremely arduous undertaking in an extreme environment and should only be attempted by very fit, experienced desert hikers: Every time I’ve done it, I’ve seen a surprising number of people attempting to hike it in just one direction (rim to rim) suffering mightily.

See my stories “Fit to be Tired: Hiking the Grand Canyon Rim to Rim in a Day,” “How to Hike the Grand Canyon Rim to Rim in a Day,” and “A Grand Ambition, Or April Fools? Dayhiking the Grand Canyon Rim to Rim to Rim,” and all of my stories about the Grand Canyon at The Big Outside.

Click here now for my expert e-guide to hiking the Grand Canyon rim to rim!

A backpacker on the Highline Trail in Glacier National Park.
Geoff Sears hiking the Highline Trail in Glacier National Park.

Logan Pass to Many Glacier, Glacier National Park

Take one of the prettiest moderate-length dayhikes in the National Park System—Glacier’s Highline Trail—and tack on waterfalls, a view from above a glacier, and a walk down a valley flanked by peaks, and you have the 16.4-mile, point-to-point traverse from 6,646-foot Logan Pass on the Going-to-the-Sun Road to Many Glacier, via Swiftcurrent Pass. This hike delivers uninterrupted views of the park’s jagged peaks and cliffs, and there’s a good chance you’ll see bighorn sheep and mountain goats. The distance includes the optional but very worthwhile side hike—1.2 miles and a steep 1,000 feet—to the Grinnell Glacier Overlook, a notch in the long cliff known as the Garden Wall.

See my stories “The 6 Best Long Hikes in Glacier National Park” and “Descending the Food Chain: Backpacking Glacier National Park’s Northern Loop,” and all of my stories about Glacier National Park at The Big Outside.

Do you want to backpack in Glacier? Go to my E-Guides page for a menu of all of my downloadable, expert e-guides, including to two five-star trips in Glacier.

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Backpackers hiking over Clouds Rest in Yosemite National Park.
Todd Arndt and Jeff Wilhelm hiking over Clouds Rest in Yosemite.

Tenaya Lake to Yosemite Valley, Yosemite National Park

A hiker standing on "The Visor" atop Half Dome in Yosemite National Park.
Todd Arndt on “The Visor” atop Half Dome, Yosemite National Park.

From the post-card view of the granite domes and cliffs flanking Tenaya Lake, to two of Yosemite’s finest summts and two of its most spectacular waterfalls, this 21-mile traverse hits many of the park’s best and most famous landmarks.

After admiring the view from Tenaya Lake’s southwestern shore, hike up 9,926-foot Clouds Rest, culminating with its gripping, sidewalk-width summit ridge, with a drop-off of several hundred feet on the left and a cliff on the right that falls away a dizzying 4,000 feet—a thousand feet taller than the face of El Capitan.

Then comes Half Dome’s thrilling cable route (lead photo at top of story)—for which you need a permit—followed later by a descent of the Mist Trail past 594-foot Nevada Fall and 317-foot Vernal Fall, before finishing at the Happy Isles Trailhead in Yosemite Valley.

See more photos and information in my stories “The 10 Best Dayhikes in Yosemite,” “Hiking Half Dome: How to Do It Right and Get a Permit,” “Best of Yosemite, Part 1: Backpacking South of Tuolumne Meadows,” and “The Magic of Hiking to Yosemite’s Waterfalls,” and all of my stories about Yosemite National Park at The Big Outside.

 

Gear up right for a huge hike like this. See my reviews of the best hiking shoes and the best daypacks.

 

A hiker on the West Rim Trail above Zion Canyon in Zion National Park.
David Ports hiking the West Rim Trail on a 50-mile dayhike across Zion National Park.
Along the Hop Valley Trail in Zion National Park.
Along the Hop Valley Trail in Zion.

Traversing Zion National Park

Few “dayhikes” on any list of ultra-hikes stretch as long as this—or get as scenic—but the north to south traverse across Zion National Park has earned something of a cult following among uber-fit hikers and ultra-runners.

From Lee Pass Trailhead to East Entrance Trailhead—with a short shuttle-bus ride in Zion Canyon from The Grotto to Weeping Rock—you’ll navigate a 47-mile grand tour of some of the most amazing scenery in the Southwest: deep chasms with burnt-red and white walls, soaring cliffs and beehive rock formations, and edge-of-the-rim walks high above labyrinths of slot canyons.

Throw in a few stunning, short side hikes along the way—Northgate Peaks, Angels Landing, and Hidden Canyon—and you log more than 50 miles on one of the most incredible days of hiking in the entire National Park System.

See my stories “Mid-Life Crisis—Hiking 50 Miles Across Zion In a Day” and all of my stories about Zion National Park.

If you like this list, check out “The 25 Best National Park Dayhikes.”

A backpacker on the Teton Crest Trail in Grand Teton National Park.
David Gordon hiking the Teton Crest Trail toward Paintbrush Divide in Grand Teton National Park.

Paintbrush-Cascade Canyons Loop, Grand Teton National Park

Lake Solitude in the North Fork Cascade Canyon, Grand Teton National Park.
Lake Solitude in the North Fork of Cascade Canyon, Grand Teton National Park.

Probably the most popular backpacking trip in the park, the nearly 20-mile Paintbrush Canyon-Cascade Canyon loop from String Lake Trailhead, with a bit over 4,000 feet of elevation gain and loss, sees hikers and runners regularly notching it in a day.

The scenery is classic Tetons: serrated peaks and deep canyons with rock walls soaring thousands of feet overhead, and waterfalls tumbling off those walls in Cascade Canyon. Plus, the loop crosses one of the highest points reached on any trail in the park, 10,720-foot Paintbrush Divide, where the panorama takes in a huge chunk of the Tetons. It also passes cliff-ringed Lake Solitude in the North Fork of Cascade Canyon, where you’re looking straight down the glacier-carved valley at the towering north walls of the Grand Teton and Mount Owen.

See my story “Ask Me: 8 Great Big Dayhikes in the Tetons” and all of my stories about Grand Teton National Park at The Big Outside.

Dying to backpack in the Tetons? See my e-guides to the Teton Crest Trail
and backpacking the beginner-friendly loop described above.

A hiker in the Northern Presidential Range in New Hampshire's White Mountains.
Mark Fenton hiking the Northern Presidential Range in New Hampshire’s White Mountains.

Presidential Range ‘Death March’

This archetypal huge dayhike—the first known traverse dates back to 1882—the 20-mile, 8,500-foot “Death March” of New Hampshire’s Presidential Range remains above treeline for 15 miles, with vistas spanning the White Mountains. And the distance and difficulty hit a sweet spot—within reach for fit hikers, hard enough to fire aspirations, especially given the notoriously rocky and steep character of trails in the Whites.

A teenage boy dayhiking in the Presidential Range, N.H.
My son, Nate, at age 14, on a 17-mile, four-summit dayhike in the Presidential Range, N.H.

Starting at one of the trailheads below 5,367-foot Mount Madison (the Air Line and Osgood Trail are personal favorites) and hiking south to Crawford Notch (to tick off the harder, northern summits first), purists tag all nine summits along the way, including the Northeast’s highest, 6,288-foot Mt. Washington—where winds exceed hurricane force an average of 110 days a year, and the average year-round temperature is below freezing, at 27.2° F. Pack some layers.

See my stories “Step Onto Rock. Step Down. Repeat 50,000 Times: A 20-mile, Nine-Peak ‘Death March’ of New Hampshire’s Presidential Range,” “Big Hearts, Big Day: A 17-Mile Hike With Teens in the Presidential Range,” and all of my stories about the White Mountains.

I can help you plan any trip you read about at my blog. Find out more here.

Sol Duc Falls, Olympic National Park.

High Divide-Sol Duc Loop, Olympic National Park

Like the above hike, this 18-mile loop with over 3,000 feet of elevation gain is popular with backpackers, but a doable objective for many fit dayhikers—and a great day in a mountain range that’s largely beyond reach to all but backpackers and climbers on strenuous, multi-day outings.

Hiking counter-clockwise, you’ll pass lovely Sol Duc Falls, with its triple columns, and climb through old-growth rainforest to higher meadows carpeted with lupine and other wildflowers. On a clear day, the High Divide Trail’s long alpine traverse delivers views across the deep, lushly green trench of the Hoh River Valley to ice- and snow-blanketed Mount Olympus. After passing beautiful Heart Lake, set in another sprawling meadow, the loop makes a gentle descent below ancient, giant trees along the Sol Duc River. You’re likely to see elk and mountain goats at higher elevations and black bear almost anywhere.

See all of my stories about Olympic National Park at The Big Outside.

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A hiker on the Lizard Head Plateau, Wind River Range, Wyoming.
Shelley Johnson hiking across the Lizard Head Plateau, Wind River Range, Wyoming.

Crossing the Wind River Range

A backpacker overlooking the Cirque of the Towers in the Wind River Range.
Justin Glass overlooking the Cirque of the Towers in the Wind River Range.

Huge vistas for much of the way, in one of the highest ranges of the Rocky Mountains, are the payoff on this 27-mile, east-west crossing of the southern Winds, from the Bears Ears Trailhead in Dickinson Park to the Big Sandy Opening Trailhead.

With a cumulative elevation gain of about 4,500 feet, this traverse stays above 11,000 feet for many miles, with views of peaks rising above 12,000 feet on the Continental Divide. Don’t pass up the 20-minute, off-trail side trip up 12,250-foot Mount Chauvenet, overlooking a row of peaks that includes Buffalo Peak, Camel’s Hump, and Mounts Washakie and Hooker. But the hike’s highlight is the Cirque of the Towers, a mind-boggling horseshoe of sheer-walled granite peaks standing shoulder to shoulder.

See my story “A Walk in the Winds: Hiking a One-Day, 27-Mile Traverse of Wyoming’s Wind River Range,” and all of my stories about the Wind River Range.

Make all of your trail runs and fast hikes better with one of “The Best Running Hydration Vests
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35 thoughts on “Extreme Hiking: America’s Best Hard Dayhikes”

  1. Love these ideas! I’d love to see your recs for the best long dayhike in the Sawtooths. You have some great material on the Sawtooths already (thank you!), but what would be your top choice for a 15-20 mile loop with views and lakes and fewer crowds? Ideally it wouldn’t be a death march, but still a proper challenge.

    Reply
    • Hey Liz,

      That’s a great question and suggestion, thanks. The obvious long dayhike in the Sawtooths is the Alice Lake-Toxaway Lake loop from Pettit Lake, about 17-18 miles and some 2,200 feet on good trails, crossing a pass at about 9,200 feet. Beautiful hike. I’ve run-hiked that loop in a day and included the side hike-scramble up the third-class east ridge of Snowyside Peak, one of the highest in the Sawtooths at 10,651 feet, which has a relatively small summit area with a commanding panorama of the range and east to the White Clouds. It’s only really busy on nice weekends in August.

      A longer variation of that loop is the roughly 28-mile hike from Redfish Lake (taking the boat shuttle from Redfish Lake Lodge) to Pettit Lake via Cramer, Edna, Toxaway, and Alice lakes and three 9,000-foot passes.

      Enjoy.

      Reply
  2. Hi Michael, thanks for all the great info. I love many of these and also love converting backpacking loops into dayhikes, partly because my wife dislikes the camping part but is a strong hiker and can knock these off with me.

    There is a loop in the Linville Gorge that is a common backpacking loop: ITAYG (Is That All You Got). Requires some planning due to 2 river crossings, but really amazing.

    I also would like to try to knock off the 4-Pass loop in Apsen area and the Pawnee-Buchanan loop in Indian Peaks Wilderness (south of Rocky Mountain NP) in a day eventually—both done before as one-nighters.

    Thanks again.
    Lance

    Reply
    • Hi Lance,

      Thanks for the nice words and those excellent suggestions, I love all of them. I’ve backpacked Colorado’s Four Pass Loop and have long considered dayhiking it, which is undoubtedly feasible for a strong party. Beautiful hike, too, especially when the wildflowers bloom. I’ve only gotten a taste of the Linville Gorge (see this story), but I know how rugged that place is. I’m not actually familiar with the Pawnee-Buchanan loop, though I’ve hiked in Colorado’s Indian Peaks Wilderness, so now you’ve added a hike to my to-do list!

      Keep in touch.

      Reply
  3. I have been getting into longer dayhikes and trail runs over the last few years, and really appreciate this list – thank you for sharing! I’m currently training to do the Grand Canyon of the Tuolumne as a day hike/run with a friend and hoping to use this list to inspire her for future (and longer!) trips. We hiked Clouds Rest from the Valley floor a few weeks back – a lot of overlap with the Tenaya route you’ve listed, but it has the plus of being accessible before Tioga Pass opens and very few folks on the summit during that nice window.

    Reply
    • Thanks for the comment, Meagan. Did you encounter much snow going up Clouds Rest? And what date did you do it? That’s a great hike. I know the Sierra got less snow this year, just curious how early you were able to get up there.

      Reply
      • We were out there on May 1. There were a few snow patches towards the final scramble up to the summit but nothing serious. It looked like significantly more snow if you went over the saddle to the north, but didn’t continue through to see.

        Reply
  4. I live in the south and one hike that should make this list is the Black Mountain Crest Trail. Only 12 -14 miles but extreme elevation gain and very challenging. Outstanding hike in the beautiful Black Mountains.

    Reply
  5. Cactus to Clouds.
    I see in the comments Paul already mentioned “Cactus to Clouds”.
    Having done C2C November 2019 & 2020, just wanted to give it another mention.

    Reply
  6. Great story! It’s funny: immediately when I saw the title without scrolling down I thought to myself “Logan Pass to Many Glacier is the best one I’ve done” so happy to see it on the list! Highly recommend the Grinnell Glacier overlook as you mention. Another incredible vista is Swiftcurrent Lookout which adds another 1000 ft of elevation gain I believe. Steep but more spectacular views to be had.

    Dawson Pittamakan is another epic day hike.

    Another good one is combining Iceberg Lake & Ptarmigan Tunnel – not as long as the prior two but beautiful nonetheless. GNP never disappoints!

    Reply
  7. Great article as always; quick question though: your intro says “14 hikes” but there were only 8 in the body of the article. Or did I miss something?

    Reply
  8. Are these really day-hikes? I mean, 42 miles seems a bit much as does some of these other hikes. I get that uber-fit people might hack it, but the most I’ve ever hiked in one day was slightly over 20 and that was to backpack overnight.

    Reply
    • I’m sure a lot of hikers would ask themselves that question, Mickey, and obviously, there are at least some hikes on this list that many hikers could not do in a day. There are undoubtedly some hikers who couldn’t hike any of these in one day. There’s enormous variation in the abilities of hikers, right?

      But more to the point, I did not randomly choose the hikes on this list—which range in distance from 11 to 47 miles, with eight of them under 25 miles, a goal within reach of many fit hikers and trail runners. I selected them, first and foremost, because they are established, one-day hikes that many hikers attempt and accomplish every year. Dayhike or backpack the Grand Canyon’s corridor trails (South and North Kaibab and Bright Angel) in April or October and you may be shocked at how many hikers and runners are crossing rim to rim (21 to 23.5 miles) in one day, and some are going in both directions. (See my story “Fit to be Tired: Hiking the Grand Canyon Rim to Rim.”) These hikes are also all exceptionally scenic and enjoyable challenges.

      If this isn’t your cup of trail mix, that’s understandable. I wrote this story because I know many readers are interested in attempting hikes like this. Thanks for the comment, it’s a good perspective.

      Reply
  9. Great website. It’s refreshing that you’ve done everything on your list — that’s actually rare for write-ups like this.

    I also love long day hikes. I’ve done four on your list, R2R2R, Pemi, Zion and Yosemite, except we did Yosemite the other way, starting in the Valley and ending at Tenaya Lake. Our plan was to do Half Dome, but we just kept going.

    I have some favorite extreme day hikes that aren’t on your list. My all time favorite is Telescope Peak from Shorty’s Well (bottom of Death Valley). Over 11k one-way gain, half of it off trail. Best day I ever had hiking.

    I also enjoyed Cactus to the Clouds on Mt. San Jacinto. Similar to Telescope but much more civilized. We did the full round trip, which made it more of an adventure.

    Devil’s Path in the Catskills. 26 miles. Didn’t love this one, but it’s a tough day hike for sure. First half is great — scrambling up and down very steep, small mountains. Second half is kind of a slog. We did it in a November downpour, which made it especially dark, cold and wet.

    Reply
    • Thanks, Paul, and you’re correct, I only write about hikes and trips I’ve done personally. And you’re correct that many articles like this at other sites and magazines are written by people who didn’t do the hikes.

      By anyway, congrats on having knocked off some excellent, long dayhikes. I’ve hiked Telescope Peak, but from the usual trailhead, not the bottom of Death Valley (which would be tough!). Nice piece of work there! I actually consider it one of “The 25 Best National Park Dayhikes.”

      I’ve been aware of both San Jacinto and the Devil’s Path for some years, but haven’t gotten to either, yet. Maybe I’ll eventually get to them. So much to do, so little time!

      Reply
  10. Great post! I’m happy to see some hikes in the east included. Have you hiked the Great Range Traverse in the Adirondack High Peaks? I have only done sections of it, not the entire traverse, but it seems like a good fit with this spectacular list.

    Reply
    • Thanks, Sara, and yea, the Great Range Traverse in the High Peaks of the Adirondacks is certainly a good fit for this list. I’ve only done some peaks there, not the entire traverse, although one of my good buddies and regular ultra-hiking partners has done it and urged me to do it for years. He’s living in New Hampshire, so maybe I’ll finally get to it with him one of these days.

      Keep in touch.

      Reply
  11. I scrolled through, disillusioned as usual — west, west, west, west. Finally at the end I found *one location* in the southeast. Yes, we actually exist! Yes, an outdoor blog finally sees us! (Yes, sarcasm.)

    Reply
    • Hi Nikita, sorry to leave you disillusioned. I’m only one person and I admittedly do most of my hiking in the West. But there are three hikes in the East on this list, and I’ll add more as I’m able to get to them. Suggestions welcome!

      Reply
  12. Great list! I enjoyed packing light and completing a longer hike without having to set up camp. I did the Yosemite hike and Half Dome Cables to celebrate last fall. I’m looking forward to doing some of the hikes you listed, especially the Grand Canyon.

    Reply
      • Hi Mike. Nice list you’ve put together. As we enter another summer hiking season up here in the White Mountains I’m starting to think about tackling two of the hikes on your list. The Pemi loop and the Presidential death march. I was hoping you could share some tips on how you prep in the days leading up to these monster day hike, and maybe a few tips on recovering after 32 miles, 10,000 feet of elevation change and 16 hours on the trail. Maybe even a short article to help other readers to get ready for any other the ultra dayhikes on the list. Thanks Mike!
        Eric

        Reply
        • Hi Eric,

          Good to hear from you and thanks for that question. Huge days like the to Pemi Loop and Presidential Range Death March definitely require building up strength not only in the large muscles of the legs but in your core and back. I’ve found that when your core is getting tired, the effects ripple through your entire body, affecting your posture, stride, and efficiency moving on the trail, and eventually accelerate fatigue and soreness in your legs. The connective tissue in joints like knees and ankles takes even longer to strengthen for the abuse of long dayhikes, particularly in the White Mountains, where trails, as you know, are notoriously steep and rocky.

          Recovering from a day like that—besides requiring at least a couple of rest days—is greatly helped by replenishing your body with what it’s craving, which is fluids, electrolytes, fat, protein, and salt. I like to have a big bottle of Gatorade or similar electrolyte drink and salty/fatty snacks waiting in the car when I’m done, to immediately start the process of giving my body nourishment. Follow that with a good meal of real food. The worst mistake I’ve seen people make after a huge day is deciding they’re too tired to eat, which almost guarantees that you’ll wake up feeling worse than when you went to sleep. I personally always give my body a good session of stretching and/or yoga post-hike and the next morning, to speed recovery and just feel better.

          Check out my story to “Training for a Big Hike or Mountain Climb,” I think you’ll find it helpful.

          Thanks again. I hope we connect for one of those big days in the Whites soon.

          Reply
  13. Thanks for your blog. I love the pictures and learning about places to explore the outdoors. Please offer more ideas for the East Coast — particularly the Southeast.

    Reply
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