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. There’s no camp to set up and pack up, because you’re not backpacking, you’re dayhiking. Yes, I love backpacking—living in the wilderness, getting into that mindset of not knowing or caring what day it is or what’s going on in civilization. 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, 20, or even 30 or more miles in a day feels liberating in how lightly you travel and how much ground you can cover. I’ve done it 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, because the length and access are just right and the scenery top shelf.
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. 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.
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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 double, top-to-bottom tour of one of Earth’s most magnificent and unfathomable natural features. 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.
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.
See my stories “Fit to be Tired: Hiking the Grand Canyon Rim to Rim in a Day,” “Ask Me: Hiking the Grand Canyon Rim to 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!
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.
Tenaya Lake to Yosemite Valley, 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 “Ask Me: Hiking Yosemite’s Half Dome,” “Best of Yosemite, Part 1: Backpacking South of Tuolumne Meadows.” “The Magic of Hiking to Yosemite’s Waterfalls,” and “The 10 Best Dayhikes in Yosemite,” and all of my stories about Yosemite National Park at The Big Outside.
Have the right gear for a huge hike. See my reviews of the best hiking shoes and the 7 best hiking daypacks.
Traversing Zion National Park
Few “dayhikes” on any list of ultra-hikes get as long and scenic as this, 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 my story “The 25 Best National Park Dayhikes.”
Paintbrush-Cascade Canyons Loop, 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 the highest point reached via trail in the park, 10,720-foot Paintbrush Divide, where the panorama takes in a huge chunk of the Tetons; and passes cliff-ringed Lake Solitude on the descent through 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.
Dying to backpack in the Tetons? See my e-guides to the Teton Crest Trail
and backpacking the beginner-friendly loop described above.
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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Crossing 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.
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Mowich Lake to Sunrise, Mount Rainier National Park
From any angle, Mount Rainier looks impossibly big, rising 8,000 to 11,000 vertical feet above trails around its base—more relief than all but a few peaks in North America. Still, the best views of The Mountain are from its northern flanks, where you look up at the largest glacier in the Lower 48, the Emmons, and get close-up with the Carbon Glacier, the longest (5.7 miles) and thickest (700 feet) American river of ice outside Alaska. On a rugged, 22-mile hike from Mowich Lake to Sunrise, you’ll also cross sub-alpine meadows like Spray Park, renowned as one of the Pacific Northwest’s power spots for wildflowers like lupine, beargrass, phlox, goat’s beard, and pink monkeyflower.
See my story “Wildflowers, Waterfalls, and Slugs at Mount Rainier,” and all of my stories about Mount Rainier National Park at The Big Outside.
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