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Extreme Hiking: America’s Best Hard Dayhikes

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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A hiker on the South Kaibab Trail in the Grand Canyon.
David Ports hiking the South Kaibab Trail in the Grand Canyon.

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!

A hiker 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.


Hi, I’m Michael Lanza, creator of The Big Outside, which has made several top outdoors blog lists. 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 to learn how I can help you plan your next trip. Please follow my adventures on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and Youtube.


 

Vernal Fall on the Mist Trail, Yosemite National Park.
Vernal Fall on the Mist Trail, Yosemite National Park.

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.

A hiker on Angels Landing in Zion National Park.
David Gordon hiking Angels Landing in Zion National Park.

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.”

The North Fork of Cascade Canyon, Grand Teton National Park.
The North Fork of Cascade Canyon, Grand Teton National Park.

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.

See all of my stories about Grand Teton National Park, including “Ask Me: 8 Great Big Dayhikes in the Tetons.”

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

Sol Duc Falls, Olympic National Park.
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.

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

Shelli Johnson hiking across the Lizard Head Plateau, Wind River Range, Wyoming.
Shelli Johnson hiking across the Lizard Head Plateau, Wind River Range.

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.

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.

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A young boy backpacking in Mount Rainier National Park.
My son, Nate, hiking below The Mountain in Mount Rainier National Park.

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.

Which puffy should you buy? See my “Review: The 10 Best Down Jackets” and
Ask Me: How Can You Tell How Warm a Down Jacket Is?

. . .

 

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About The Author

Michael Lanza

A former field editor and primary gear reviewer for Backpacker Magazine, Michael Lanza created The Big Outside to share stories and images from his many backpacking, hiking, and other outdoor adventures, as well as expert tips and gear reviews to help readers plan and pull off their own great adventures.

20 Comments

  1. Avatar

    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
  2. Avatar

    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
    • Michael Lanza

      Thanks, Jeffrey, and I’m so glad you asked that question! Yes, you saw eight hikes in this article because to see the entire article (all 14 hikes), you must be a member/subscriber to The Big Outside (and logged in), which costs as little as 5 bucks. See my Join page for details. Thanks for asking.

      Reply
      • Avatar

        OK thanx; I actually am a member/subscriber; I just wasn’t logged in.

        Reply
        • Michael Lanza

          Oh, perfect, and thank you for being a subscriber.

          Reply
          • Avatar

            Actually it looks like my login expired; I don’t recall receiving an email asking me to renew. How long does a subscription last?

  3. Avatar

    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
    • Michael Lanza

      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
  4. Avatar

    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
    • Michael Lanza

      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
  5. Avatar

    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
    • Michael Lanza

      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
  6. Avatar

    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
    • Michael Lanza

      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
  7. Avatar

    Such an awesome post! My dream is to hike the Grand Canyon! What time of the year is best to do so?

    Reply
    • Michael Lanza

      Hi Agness, best times of year are the second half of April into early May, and late September to around mid-October.

      Reply
  8. Avatar

    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
    • Michael Lanza

      Thanks, Heidi, and congrats on hiking Half Dome. The Grand Canyon is the granddaddy of ultra-hikes, but be ready for it, it’s a very tough one.

      Reply
  9. Avatar

    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
    • Michael Lanza

      Thanks, Jennifer. I appreciate any specific suggestions, and I get to them as I’m able. Keep in touch.

      Reply

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Hi, I’m Michael Lanza, creator of The Big Outside and former Northwest Editor at Backpacker magazine. Click my photo to learn more about me and my blog. Click here to sign up for my FREE email newsletter. Join The Big Outside now to get full access to all of my blog’s stories. And click here to learn how I can help you plan your next trip.

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